Guest Post · menopause

Doctor’s orders: Menopause and fitness

Not everyone shares this sentiment, I realize, but for me, menopause is great news. My menstruation was as rough at 44 as it was at 13. But for over half a year I’ve had no excruciating cramps, no backache that feels like it’s splitting me in two, no radiating pain down my thighs. It’s fantastic. Some late-night hot flashes and a little weight-gain seem a light price to pay for freedom from monthly decommissioning.

Today was my doctor’s appointment to confirm that menopause is, in fact, happening, and not something more mysterious. When my mother was my age, she developed large, benign fibroid tumors in her uterus, and I wanted official word that the same was not happening to me. The doctor agreed that an ultra-sound could be done but assured me that usually, the sorts of tumors my mother had were accompanied by more bleeding, not less.

Instead, he said, it is a greater concern that I’m a bit young for menopause, and at higher risk for osteoporosis. “Okay,” I said cheerfully, “tell me something I can do to prevent osteo.”

“Exercise,” he said promptly.

Pause. “Tell me something else I can do.”

The thing is, I have been lucky in the body lottery, getting by on regular walking and not much more, despite a sedentary job. So exercise has always seemed optional to me. I know I lack fitness, but until now fitness seemed like it would be an improvement on my current privileged situation, and not like it was required.

This doctor’s visit was taking all the joy out of menopause.

He sent me to another room for blood-work, where I had time to stare at the long list of tests the lab was to conduct. My options seem to be dwindling. I know, I know, the future should not be presumed to resemble the past. None of ours should. But it wasn’t just that my body was changing. It’s that my concept of fitness was changing. Was fitness an optional state of well-being, or had I always been wrong about what was up to me? Had it always been required from above, an edict that I’d ignored? If I didn’t have the higher risk of osteoporosis, would I reconceive fitness, do what I’m told, obey?

I teach my students about autonomy often. I tell them that autonomy is complex, that it isn’t just equivalent to getting to do whatever you want to do. I have very high-minded lectures in which I emphasize that freedom of choice requires preconditions, and so autonomy also refers to the conditions that make choosing possible. When we refer to children as developing autonomy, we’re not referring to the numbers of new choices they can imagine, but to the physical, mental, and moral powers they are gaining, the capacities to choose. So I know I could see fitness as a capacity, a source of further choices. If I want it, if I choose fitness, maybe exercise won’t seem like a punishment, like I am being told what to do.

I was drawn to feminism because it spoke to my desire for autonomy, freedom, choice. Most of the bloggers here see fitness the same way. Only today did I realize that I don’t. At least, not yet. Before I start an exercise regimen, I’m going to need a little more of a mental workout.

13 thoughts on “Doctor’s orders: Menopause and fitness

  1. Great post, Kate! I feel like I reached exactly that point two years ago. I know this sounds trite but work hard to find something you LOVE even if it’s obscure and not obvious – don’t just grind yourself through exercises that are meaningless to you. 🙂 And I am super jealous of the menopause!

  2. Thanks for this, Kate. I’m with Rebecca. It may sound like a platitude, but there must be something that you’ll find and enjoy for its own sake. This is just a little nudge in the direction of finding it (I thought you felt good about your bicycle?).

    I’ve also been mostly happy about menopause. For me it was a long time coming — over 5-6 years of irregular periods, unpredictable in their symptoms and nothing like what I was used to after a lifetime of regular, easy, brief, and light periods. But it’s not only about the end of menstruating. I’ve not slept right through the night in more than a few years and I still get spontaneous hot flashes (more when I’m lying down or just shortly after a hot shower) even though I’ve been officially on the other side of things for two years.

  3. If I might ask – after only 6 months, how would the doc confirm you are in meno? At least here the rule seems to be no period for a year, then that’s it. (My situation more complicated because I’m still on continuous oral contraceptives – so no “withdrawal periods” for a number of reasons – and they’d skew hormone blood tests.) I think I’m in perimeno (or early meno maybe?) as have occasional significant breakthrough/PMS symptoms like mood swings but also have trouble sleeping, in the past had some night sweats. But some of that could be my running training.

    For osteo risk reduction, they usually rec strength training, weights, etc. though you can get some benefits (I do!) from weight-bearing cardio like running or high-impact interval training like jump rope, plyometrics, etc. “Both” is usually the best approach. (your walking should help some) They’ll also want you to take calcium & vitamin D, perhaps checking magnesium also. (those might help with sleep) Calcium/D levels in the blood are informative. A DEXA/bone density scan as a baseline might be a good idea. Then you can take another in 5 years to make sure whatever you’re doing is holding back the slide as much as possible.

    Exercise will help mood and sleep too, or so I’ve found. But finding/making the time for it isn’t easy 🙂

    1. Thanks, M. For clarification: It hasn’t been only six months, and indeed I fudged the time since last period to say “over six months” because it’s been almost a year, but frankly, I didn’t notice when I had my last period. (If I’d known it was my last, I’d have marked the date!) Your advice is so appreciated, and YES, the making of time to do it is my challenge! I’ve been all about the job for the past year. Changing my expectations about my time-use will be a job.

  4. Kate, you make me smile and laugh even when it’s a tough subject. I wish I was on the other side of menopause. Prior to this whole thing I had this romantic notion that my period would just gradually fade away. Ha ha ha! Now it just randomly appears, philosophical meetings, bike trips…If there’s an inconvenient time, there it is again. I hope you find something fun but if you don’t, here’s my advice on what to do if you just want the health benefits without actually enjoying it,

  5. I am all for finding an exercise you enjoy. But honestly, the vast majority of people I know do nothing. Even those who are sort of active fall short of guidelines. And none have osteoporosis.

    So, if you absolutely hate exercise I think you can go on with your preferred life and rest assured you are not the only one not spending her evenings in the gym.

    You should consider trying a few different things, though. Yoga is a beautiful way to exercise you body, mind and spirit. It’s worth a try.

    1. ainsobriety, I have always meant to try yoga! Soon I stop chairing my department, and that will provide a turning point at which to seriously consider taking up a new ‘job’. I am considering yoga for my new job!

  6. My menopause was uneventful –only a very short hot flash for 3-5 min., usually in morning while in bed. Only 3-4 times per wk.

    My periods just faded away over 2 yrs. It is liberating.

    Exercise is a reality and one I didn’t have to worry about at all: I was already cycling for transportation nearly daily since I was 32. I am now 56. Periods stopped @54

    I accept that my metabolism has slowed down: it’s reflected over the past few decades.

    When we find exercise that we love to do often, then it’s not a chore.

    It’s not a chore for me to walk when I can bike…I’ve been doing that since I was a university student in my 20’s.

    Feminism….is also embracing the natural biological changes and modifying lifestyle along the way so that you can live a quality life for many years thereafter.

  7. Thanks for the post, Kate– we 40-something/50-something women need to keep writing about menopause and women’s lives in all venues, especially ones like this. The issue of exercise and autonomy is important conceptually and also practically. I find that as a 50-something perimenopausal woman, exercise just isn’t an option anymore if I want to feel good during the day. My body feels creaky– knee and hip hurt– and I feel lethargic and less focused if I don’t get some vigorous physical activity each day. And frankly I’m a bit resentful (even though I’m super-keen on a bunch of sports!). It does feel like an infringement of autonomy. But maybe more than that it reinforces a change in my identity– I’m an older person now, and still grappling with what that means. This blog (and posts like yours) help with that grappling.

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