Why Strength Training Is Essential Through Menopause & Beyond
Perimenopause can begin as early as age 35, but for most women, it starts between 40 and 44. It is the several-years-long phase leading up to your menopause (which is technically the day exactly 12 months after your last period; after that, you are in post-menopause). Your ovaries don't just stop production from one day to the next. Instead, you transition slowly from one phase of your life to the other.
You can experience many different side effects during this menopausal period. Most of us know about the mood swings and sleep disturbances, but you may also face1 digestive issues, joint pain, dry and itchy skin, random weight gain, loss of insulin sensitivity, very low energy, hot flashes, night sweats…and more. We are also all at a greater risk for metabolic health challenges2, cardiovascular disease3, as well as bone health issues4 after menopause. This all sounds quite daunting, doesn't it?
The good news is there is a lot you can do to support yourself through this transition and beyond. As a sports scientist focused on the (peri-)menopause period, I believe that it is the perfect opportunity to revisit your habits and take charge of your health.
Exercise—particularly strength training—is one "super habit" that I've seen have profound benefits during this phase of life, and there is plenty of research to back me up.
Why strength training is essential for women 40-plus.
Muscle is a powerful longevity organ, especially once you reach menopause. I often hear from women that they are wary of strength training because they don't want to "bulk up." I tell them there is no need to worry, as we do not have the testosterone levels5 for this to happen so easily. Instead, strength training will help you get lean and strong, and it has countless other benefits too, including:
It keeps your metabolism humming.
Women 40+ need fewer calories, as their base metabolic rate6 slows down.
This is a natural shift as lean body mass decreases (we start gradually losing muscle around age 357). The loss of estrogen during menopause only intensifies this effect, as estrogen is a main driver for muscle mass and strength for women.
If we don't do anything to maintain or increase our strength, we start to lose muscle quickly8. But strength training and building lean muscle can keep our base metabolic rate up9 and positively influence our hormone regulation10. Of course, it is easier to keep muscle if you have already built it in your younger years, but it's never too late to get started!
It improves insulin sensitivity.
Insulin sensitivity decreases with (peri-)menopause, which can lead to serious metabolic disorders including diabetes11. Muscle can help your body work against this. Among other positive effects, active muscle has been shown to pull glucose right out of your bloodstream12 and metabolize it.
It boosts your energy.
Once they hit perimenopause, many women begin to struggle with low energy levels.
Regular strength training triggers your body to produce more mitochondria13 and helps them work more efficiently. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of your cells. They help your body efficiently utilize the food you eat and the air you breathe. Having more of them increases your body's energy supply. Strength training can also increase the levels of certain hormones that make you feel more energized.
It supports mood and brain health.
Believe it or not, lifting heavy weights could improve your mood and even make you smarter14. Strength training increases cognitive function15 by stimulating the growth of new neural pathways in the brain and enhancing communication between existing pathways.
Since mood swings, brain fog, and lack of focus are among the many side effects of perimenopause (and we all know we need to keep our brain healthy as we age!), this one is a much-welcomed benefit.
It keeps your bones healthy and strong.
Muscle is like a "power suit" that keeps your spine and joints upright and supported. As we get older and muscle declines, bone loss and occasional aches and pains become much more common.
However, our bones get stronger when we put stress on them. When we strength train, the resulting tugging and pushing can improve bone density16. One study found that doing 20 minutes of moderate-intensity low or high-impact exercise three times a week is enough to maintain healthy bones in early postmenopausal women.
Building our muscles through strength training is a very effective way to combat the side effects of (peri-)menopause. Beyond the benefits listed here, strength training can also boost confidence, keep you mobile and active, support immunity, and reduce inflammation10 during this phase of life. To get started, check out my ideal strength routine and review this guide to effective resistance training.
Barbara Birke is a Sports Scientist, board-certified Holistic Nutritionist and Mindfulness Coach, and owner of Optimum You. Her coaching and courses are focused on building and sustaining targeted movement, nutrition, and self-care habits that support women to feel powerful and balanced through perimenopause, menopause and beyond. She works in both German and English and hosts a german podcast, “Hallo Wechseljahre!” (English version coming soon!).
Download her top tips to start your strength routine here, including a simple routine to get you started.