It’s no surprise that hot flashes and night sweats rank among the most important factors when it comes to poor sleep. However. less clear are the factors that may provide a buffer against the flashes. And aside from the usual suspects e.g., crankiness and moodiness or the inability to focus, poor sleep has been linked to heart disease and obesity, among other less desirable health conditions.
So, what can you do?
I’ve written about the benefits of physical activity and amelioration of menopausal symptoms many times on Flashfree. And, I imagine I will continue to do so. But what about sleep? There is evidence that physical activity can help bolster both sleep quality and sleep quantity. Yet, few people have examined the domino effect, i.e. fewer hot flashes ← physical activity → better sleep. Moreover, even fewer have considered the benefits of non-leisure physical activity, like housework.
Now, before you accuse me of setting women back 60 or 70 years, let’s consider exactly what I am suggesting.
According to research, women participate in less leisure time physical activity but greater levels of household physical activity than their male peers. This is apparently truer among ethnicities other than Caucasian (especially African American), who also tend to have greater levels of obesity and poorer sleep characteristics. So, it would follow that by increasing both, women might fare better in the sleep department, right?
In fact, when researchers took a small group of women participating in the larger SWAN study and evaluated their self-reported and scientifically measured sleep patterns for four nights, that is exactly what they found. The group, which was comprised of both White and African-American women, reported having flashes or sweats, were between the ages of 54 and 63, had an intact uterus and were not on medications that could affect hormone levels or symptoms. And while the number of women was quite small (only 52), they fit into the full spectrum of BMI targets (from normal to obese to overweight). In addition to sleep patterns, they also shared details of their most common daily physical activity (how often, how long and how intense) and household/caregiving responsibilities (time spent caregiving, preparing/cleaning up after meals, and routine chores as well the intensity of these activities).
Not surprisingly, women who had greater levels of leisure physical activity were 8 times more likely to report that their sleep quality was better than their less active peers. And, women who reported greater household, non-leisure physical activity awakened fewer times during the night, but only if their BMI levels were lower. Yet, the benefits were mostly seen more among White women. Even more troubling is that the researchers say that they could not determine the ‘why’ of these findings, even though they conducted several different types of analyses and comparisons.
The good news is that for some women, engaging in greater levels of household physical activity and leisure physical may reduce sleep disturbances, especially if they are not overweight. For others, especially my African-American sisters, the mystery remains. African-American women often report more severe hot flashes than their White peers. And while experts have pointed fingers towards rates of obesity or distinctions in estrogen levels or smoking history, the reasons remain unclear.
Meanwhile, while I am not necessarily suggesting that you increase your household responsibilities, I do believe that even with the limitations of this study, more physical activity may beget better sleep and possibly fewer or less severe hot flashes. Finally? Can we please find some effective and viable strategies for women of colour? Although the menopause experience may vary by ethnicity, as women, we need to find solutions that work for most of us, not some of us.Read More
Did you ever watch Flashdance, the 1983 film that tanked in reviews but went on to be one of the highest grossing films that year? Guess it says a lot about our culture. Still, I am not going to say that I didn’t find it entertaining, or that Michael Nouri wasn’t hot in his day. But I digress…
For some reason, the film’s title came to mind when I stumbled across study that examined whether or not aerobic activity could ameliorate hot flashes and night sweats, perhaps because a lot of us dance around the issue rather than address it until it gets intolerable. Or perhaps because it makes a catchy header. Or maybe because Jennifer Beals works up such a sweat during her stand-in’s routine.
Regardless, on the heels of last week’s three-parter on ‘Forties fitness’ and motivating women, I thought I’d share some interesting information regarding physical activity, namely aerobic exercise.
Exercise. I’ve been pushing it for years because for me, it’s my drug of choice. What else offers benefits that include endorphins, wellbeing, bone health, metabolic booster and weight maintenance? And who would have thought that just 5o minutes, four times weekly could have a significant effect on the main cause of menopause flooding, including irritability, clothing changes, sheet replacement and crummy sleep?
That’s what researchers are reporting in Menopause. They discovered that when they assigned menopausal women to 6 months of aerobic training, the women experienced dramatic changes in mood swing, night sweats and irritability. Briefly, the women were divided into two groups:
- 50 minutes unsupervised aerobic training that with walking or Nordic walking (walking with ski poles) at least twice a week added to walking, Nordic walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, skiing, instructed aerobics or step class twice a week, plus two health lectures or,
- Health lectures twice weekly
They researchers were able to track target heart rates (64% to 80% of maximal) because the women in the aerobic training group were monitored and then given feedback All the women also reported the frequency/severity of menopausal symptoms (frequency of night sweats, mood swings, irritability, depressive mood, headache, vaginal dryness and urinary symptoms).
Although declines in symptoms (except vaginal dryness) were seen in both groups (which accounts for what they call a placebo effect, common to all studies), reductions in the prevalence of night sweats, mood swings and irritability were significant only in women engaging in regular aerobic activity. What’s more, because the women recorded their symptoms via a mobile phone, the likelihood that recall issues might come into play were reduced.
So, what about other studies that haven’t shown any benefit from exercise? The researchers point out that in their study, all the women had fairly substantial rates of symptoms (e.g. up to 60% had night sweats, 25% depression/irritability and 30% headache) while in other studies, the numbers at the start of the trials haven’t been quite as robust.
The upshot is that f you don’t care to jump on the hormone train, it can’t hurt to give aerobic activity a whirl. Just be sure to speak to a certified trainer and your health practitioner before diving in.
If you haven’t caught this week’s posts, I’ve been talking to three powerhouse women: Shonali Burke, Kami Watson Huyse and Julie Pippert about the changes that they are making in their lives to improve their health. From the reaction these posts have garnered, I am convinced that my instincts were correct: their stories are nothing but motivating, not only to other women but also amongst themselves.
The sum of our parts
One overriding theme that arisen as this series has unfolded is that as women, we are often as strong as the sum of our parts. Research has shown repeatedly that women thrive when they are supported by others. As I wrote several years ago ‘tending and befriending,’ nurturing our personal relationships, communicating to one another when we need help, finding a shoulder to cry on or simply offering a hug not only reaffirms who we are but can also provide an essential foundation to see us through. The same goes for starting and maintaining a healthier routine: if you have a strong foundation, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
To a certain extent, aging has given these women strength to take on new challenges and has acted a personal motivator to take back their health. “I am actually really enjoying my 40s,” says Shonali. “I feel much more ‘together’ than I did in my 30s and definitely in than in my 20s. I suppose as you age, you realize that life isn’t really worth anything unless you are satisfied that you gave it your all each day.” And as Julie notes, it’s not as easy as it once was to “coast in good health.” Rather, she expresses that, like many of her peers, the challenges have piled on and “it’s harder and harder to keep up good health and good feeling, as well as a trim and fit body.” Moreover? The old adage ‘there’s no time like the present’ has certainly put its tendrils in these women’s psyches; Kami says that she knows that if she doesn’t “start now, I only get older from here.” This perspective is quite interesting because it does speak to the inside out; if you feel good about yourself, your outward glow certainly radiates a younger, healthier you.
A game plan
Your strategy for achieving personal wellness goals is just that: yours’. As noted, having a fitness ‘buddy’ or a personal trainer to lend support and push you to go the extra mile is optimal. So is journaling, says Julie. “I think it’s crucial to journal, at least during your initial phase of getting healthy, especially when it comes to eating right and being active. It’s a pain and not something I can maintain long-term, but each time I hit a plateau or start gaining [weight], I go back to journaling and see, oh yes, I am eating too much or too much of the wrong things and I’m not exercising enough. Or I’ve hit an exercise rut and it’s time to shake it up. Some people need a lot of shifting and I am one. You have to listen to your body. If you aren’t achieving your goal, it’s probably time to start journaling again and figuring out what you need to change.”
Give to yourself and they shall receive
As women, we don’t always adapt well to being on the receiving end. Mindful living, as I wrote about a year ago, is essential to our ability to care for others:
How do we acknowledge that be cared for does not equate to losing power or control but actually improves outlook, wellbeing, and ability to deal with any challenges that we might be facing, that allowing others to “do” empowers and does not ‘de-power?’ Is it fear of refusal? Or fear of letting go?
Importantly, being cared for also refers to being cared for by ourselves. That means incorporating healthier habits that will add that extra armor we need as we age. As Kami says, “it is so easy for us to put everything and everyone else first and forget that by taking care of ourselves we actually are doing everyone a favor,” adding that “as a mother and a spouse, when I am less stressed out and taking care of my health and wellbeing it is a much better environment in my home.”
When was the last time you stepped back and really stopped to take stock? “Women spend so much time looking after/worrying about others that they don’t take enough care of themselves,” says Shonali. “We need to nurture ourselves first; only then will we be strong and capable enough to do this for others.” She adds an interesting point of view about taking time, that it’s not selfish. “We need to take a second look at the word ‘selfish’” explains Shonali. “It’s not selfish to be well. It’s not selfish to give yourself personal time and space. It’s not selfish to make your own health a priority. In fact, it’s the best kind of selflessness, because only then can we truly and wholly care for others.”
If you are still on fence about diving into a new routine, just try. Be present, engage in the moment. Start slowly and build up. You don’t need to run a marathon the first time you step out in your new sneakers. And you don’t have anything to prove. However, also? Don’t lose sight of the joy and fun as you move through your goals: the humorist Josh Billings said it best:
“There’s lots of people who spend so much time watching their health, they haven’t got time to enjoy it.”
Motivating women. There are three in my immediate horizon and thousands more around me. And you? Take some time and look around. I bet you’ll be glad that you did!
We’re taking a break from our regular Wednesday Bubble and talking with three amazing women, Shonali Burke, Kami Watson Huyse and Julie Pippert. These women are graciously sharing their stories about the turn that their lives have taken with regard to health and fitness. Change is never easy, but neither is aging. That’s why I have been so intrigued by the upsurge I’m witnessing in the number of women in their 40s who seem to be committed to changing bad habits before those bad habits change them.
Last Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report outlining a trend among the medical community to increase its efforts to recommend that adults participate in exercise and other forms of physical activity. Since 2000, there has been a 40% increase in the number of adults who have been advised to incorporate exercise into their routines. Importantly, however, at each time point measured in the National Health Interview Survey, women were much more likely than men to have been advised to exercise. While this aspect of the Survey doesn’t elaborate on these data, studies have shown that gender does influence obesity rates and that worldwide, more women than men are obese. Not only are women challenged to run household and care for children, but many also work outside the home. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for meal planning and even less, for exercise. Nevertheless, both are essential for good health and wellbeing.
A few years ago, my friend, cookbook author Mollie Katzen suggested to me during our interview that even if women do nothing differently, as they age their bodies become less efficient metabolic machines, adding that one of the most consistent things she’s observed amongst her friends is the “oh my god, what happened to my body” moment. The ‘I’m minding my business, doing the same things I’ve always done and all of a sudden, I’ve got this spare tire, I’ve got the fat” epiphany. The answer?
Trial and Error
Health is trial and error. What works for one woman might not be exactly what works for another. We all need to forge our dietary paths and strategies that work for both our individual metabolism and our bodies. And if it isn’t working? Change it up and aim higher. Or differently.
Shonali explains that her trainer introduced her to two dietary strategies: The Primal Blueprint (aka, the Paleo diet, which focuses on balancing insulin levels in your body) and Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat‘ (again, focusing on insulin regulation). She says that while “there have been lapses,” I typically eat no grains, legumes or processed foods/foods high in sugar.” What strikes me as the most important thing in Shonali’s incorporation of a new way of eating into her life is that she tries to cook a meal every day consisting of a healthy salad and an entree that is protein-rich but also, she is “careful not to let myself feel hungry; if I am hungry, I eat…I just eat the foods I know are good for me.”
Kami says that while she may eventually go on a specific plan, like Body for Life , she prefers easing “into any dietary restrictions slowly. So far, I am just trying to back off on portions,” she explains, adding that “I have always eaten lots of vegetables and fruits but I am upping that.” Julie is also relying on portion control and is “eating very little meat, mostly fish,” and “as much fresh food as I can instead of processed food.” As a working mom of two and with a husband who has a long commute, Julie says that it can be hard to do regular family dinners but that she worked with a nutritionist who helped her “identify ‘eat this/not that’ convenience type [healthy] foods, such as flash frozen veggies and fruit but not packaged meals.” She adds that she ‘also attends free cooking classes at Williams-Sonoma to get easy and quick recipe ideas.
In Part 1 of this series, we discussed accountability and how answering to another person, e.g. a trainer, can help you get into a groove. However, it’s important that that groove is yours’ and your’s alone. Moreover, setting goals is part of that accountability but rigidity is not the aim; instead, goals need to be fluid and evolutionary.
Julie says that her “initial goal was to lose weight and get out of the overweight category. I wanted to eat right and get active. Once I achieved that, I wanted to work out a long-term health maintenance plan.” She adds that that entails tweaking portions and working on body toning. Kami’s goal is more specific: she wants to lose 10 to 15 pounds (minimum) to improve the pressure on her bad knee. After that, however, she says that “it would be great to reduce my waistline by 2 to 3 inches to get off some of the belly fat, which is, by far, worst for your health.” Shonali also says that her goals had to do with “losing a certain amount of weight and fitting into a particular dress size,” but now, she’s considering aiming even higher and is considering running and possibly training for a 5K.
To thine own self, be true
Guess what? It’s all about you. I’m serious. Don’t believe me?
All three of these women say that the primary outcome of the changes that they’ve made in their lives is that not only do they feel better, but they also feel better about themselves. Wow! Since Shonali has started last August, she has lost almost 20 pounds and 15″, reduced her BMI from 25.3 to 22.4 and lowered her body fat percentage from 31.6% to 24.3%. She’s also come down one dress size. However, here’s the rub: she says that “the numbers are great but what I really love is that I have more energy and stamina. I am much stronger than I used to be; I sleep better, I’m more focused with my work and my confidence has increased greatly.”
Kami’s journey has just begun (or as she describes it “just restarted”) and yet, her primary outcome echoes Shonali’s. “I feel better about myself and that is priceless.”
Julie, too, expresses a similar experience. “I lost 50 lbs initally,” she says, although this is at the low end of the weight range for her size and she’s not been able [rightly so] to maintain that. Still, She is at a healthy weight and at an average BMI. And most importantly, she explains “I have a lot more energy, huge improvements on stress and mood and I look better. That’s led me to dress better, feel better and achieve more.”
The lessons inherent in these outcomes are essential: aging can be bumpy and sometimes, our bodies don’t behave quite as we expect them to. Dress size, body fat, weight loss are simply keys that help to unlock the door to the most important outcome we can achieve: self-love. And when you feel good, that radiates out in unbelievably beautiful, gorgeous ways. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true. Honestly? Be kind to yourself and to thine own self, be true. Like Kami says, the gift is priceless.
I hope that you’ll stay the course and tune in again on Friday for Part 3.Read More
It’s no secret that an important trend on Flashfree has been physical activity and healthy habits. Some of that is personal: I am an exercise junkie and I believe (and studies continue to demonstrate) that it physical activity is an important key to emotional and overall wellbeing. It has also been shown to improve your sex life and help preserve bone density as you grow older, especially if you are a woman. Moreover, it takes two — diet AND exercise – to insure that your metabolism keeps pace with the rest of your life. Sure, you’ve heard it all before. And I can hear you telling yourself that you really try to get to the gym or out for a walk but somehow [fill in the blank] keeps getting in the way.
Psssst. Hey you! I want to share a gift with you:
All three of these women are in their 40s, which I love because it helps me practice what I preach — that the future, your future – is now. It’s going to creep up on you before you know it and suddenly, those 40s turn into 50s and the bones are getting brittler and the metabolism is slowing, fat is redistributing into areas that you never knew existed and somehow, maintaining what you have is a lot more difficult. Throw in hormonal havoc and wow! Trust me on this one; I’m living it. And if you are in your 30s and happen upon this post (and this series), please read it. Yes, you – 30 something year-old – because if you need some motivation, if you waiting for that push, I’ve got it for you.
I’ve known Shonali Burke for several years now. She’s a powerhouse in business and a gorgeous woman inside and out. I started seeing posts on Facebook that she was bootcamping (my word, not hers’) and I took note because this beautiful woman was shining in ways that I had not observed previously. An anomaly? Apparently not, because several other gorgeous, talented powerhouse women were likewise, taking on the world (and their bodies) one day at a time, including my friends Kami Watson Huyse and Julie Pippert.
So I approached them, wondering why this trend appeared to be taking hold, especially among women of a certain age group. And I believe that what they shared with me may help you to step back and try. Or try again.
Kami says that while she used to be in great shape, having three kids and starting a business meant putting her own needs aside, “after a particularly hectic and stressful 2011,” She explains, “I decided it was time to make the time. Plus, I was starting to notice other signs of decline, a knee that hurts most of the time, a back that went out twice last year, and general levels of stress that topped my normal manic pace.” Never one to go down without a fight, Shonali shares that “as I grew older, the pounds crept on and I fell into the mindset of ‘well, this is just part of growing older,’ and accepted it, though I didn’t really like the way I looked or felt inside.” She adds that she noticed a friend’s Facebook post about starting a new regimen and figured “why not me too?” “Why not,” she says, adding that she’s “spent the last several years focusing on the health and wellbeing of various family members and not [her] own; it’s time to make my health a priority.”
Stress and babies and weight are fantastic motivators. So is life. Julie also explains that she “lost her health in a big way” as the result of a complicated pregnancy and an illness, started having thyroid issues, lost her home base and her ability to work and her health. Coupled with the loss of a friend to cancer, she says that “my mortality hit me like a ton of bricks” and that “I wanted my health, my energy, my figure and my self-respect back. I wanted to live and have a good quality of life.”
Giving that body the boot
Can accountability help? It appears that it can. And so can convenience. Shonali works out twice a week with Maryland-based trainer Grant Hill who practices “bootcamp inspired personal training” and says that her husband recently joined her.” She explains “what I particularly love about Grant’s approach is that he comes to my neighborhood and we work out at a local nearby park. I just LOVE this,” she exclaims, “it’s great to exercise outdoors, even in the cold, rain and snow.” Each session lasts 45 to 50 minutes and entails total body conditioning circuits. And when she doesn’t work out with Grant, she says that she either goes for an hour-long walk in her neighborhood, incorporating lunges into her walks, or uses an elliptical at home for at least 25 to 30 minutes. Kami says that she’s also enrolled in a Boot Camp program, and will be participating it in everyday. “I knew [that] I needed accountability, and since I have been in the habit of exercise before (she ran marathons in her 20s and 30s), I know it takes getting into that groove.”
However, if boot camp isn’t your thing, perhaps an individualized program (with a little help from an at-home trainer) resonates better. Julie says that she started with walking, especially when she moved from New England (where she says she just naturally moved more) to Texas (where, for landscape and weather changes) meant that she had to be more deliberate in her efforts. Eventually, she added jogging, hand weights and other ‘switch ups,’ and when she felt she had hit the wall, got busier and found herself bored with her routine, she “started doing Denise Austin Wake Up and Go workouts.” Compared to walking and jogging, she’s “noticing much better results, adding that “overall, my energy is up so I’m likely to jump up to do something than feel too tired to move.”
Get into the groove
For each of these women, self realization and routines are rote and part and parcel of their lives. But they are also the motivators that have helped them push themselves to make a commitment towards healthier lifestyles. It’s strange how life sometimes delivers a message over and over again. But nothing changes until we are willing to listen and get into our grooves to create new patterns that work for us.
Change is never ‘one size fits all.’ The overriding theme in these changes however, is that it’s never too late to get back on the horse.
On Wednesday, I’ll share how physical activity coupled with dietary changes has led to some incredible personal outcomes.
Meanwhile, tell me what pushes you? Have you recently made similar changes in your life?