March is National Women’s History Month. It is a time when we recognize and celebrate women around the world. Therefore, this month I am going to focus on how we as women can take better care of ourselves and really begin to enjoy the life, we have been blessed with at every stage. I love nutrition and helping women make better food choices, but the other thing I love is physical activity. There is something about springtime in Georgia, it just makes me want to go for a walk or grab a friend and bike the Silver Comet Trail. The cold, wet winter is a distant memory, and the spring sunshine warms my face. It is time to get outside and move! I feel better when I exercise, it brightens my mood and gives me energy. I am not alone. Research now shows how exercise can have enormous health benefits for women, no matter what age.
Exercise helps regulate hormonally driven mood swings.
Women constantly fight the highs and lows of hormones throughout their lives. Progesterone and estrogen levels can impact fertility patterns, brain chemistry, and moods. It starts in the teen years and follows us through menopause. When estrogen levels drop during our menstrual cycle and menopause, it makes an important brain chemical like serotonin decrease as well. Serotonin is our “feel good” brain chemical, when it is at lower levels we are at a higher risk for depression, moodiness, and anxiety. Exercise can help! It counteracts the lower estrogen by releasing endorphins, naturally occurring chemicals our bodies make to help us feel better.
Exercise prevents bone loss and osteoporosis.
Women, by design, have thinner bone structure and lose bone strength more rapidly than men as they age due to decreased levels of estrogen. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 8 out of 10 Americans with osteoporosis are women, and half of the women over the age of 50 who have osteoporosis will break a bone. Pretty scary, but we can build stronger bones through exercise. Weight-bearing and muscle strengthening exercises are particularly beneficial, but research shows using exercise bands, or just standing and rising on your toes helps to build strength, balance, and flexibility which will help prevent falls. Women build most of their bone mass during the teenage and young adult years, so during that time it is especially important to exercise, but exercise is beneficial no matter what your age.
Exercise helps maintain a healthy weight at every life stage.
We all gain weight as we age. It is a fact of life, but women have special challenges. Post-pregnancy weight may stay with us long after the babies start kindergarten and then before we know it menopause begins in middle-age and estrogen levels drop dramatically, which causes our bodies to “redistribute” fat cells to the belly. As we age, we lose muscle mass much faster than men. Muscle burns calories faster than fat, so it makes it that much harder to maintain or lose weight as we get older because we have less muscle to burn calories. It is just not fair! But exercise can help maintain and build lean muscle mass instead of those extra calories turning into fat. In a 20-year Northwestern University study of 3,500 men and women, all participants gained weight as they got older, but those who exercised gained much less weight than those who did not. Women who exercised gained a whopping 13 pounds less than the women who were inactive.
Exercise improves sleep.
National polls suggest women have more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep compared to men. I definitely do not need a poll to tell me that fact! Sleep deprivation is a fact of life throughout a woman’s life, between motherhood and monthly hormone changes to the onset of menopause and night sweats I sometimes cannot remember when the last time I got a good night’s sleep. Exercise can help improve your quality and quantity of sleep. In a recent study published in the Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity, of the 2,600 participants, 65 percent reported improved sleep quality when they incorporated 150 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity during their week.
Ok, all you women out there, this month celebrate National Women’s History Month by giving yourself the gift of exercise. Find a buddy, hold each other accountable and get moving! The benefits will last you a lifetime!
Ginny Spain, RDN, LD, CLC Ginny is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Cobb and Douglas Public Health in their WIC program and teaches Life Skills classes at The Extension. She is a Master Gardener with the UGA Master Gardeners, Volunteers with Cobb County, and loves to garden, cook and hike in her free time.