A few years back I wrote this article about moving into the age of perimenopause. And a few years on and I am still living this in-between stage. Still menstruating, but now, definitely ready to embrace the next era of my life. Menopause is a lot like puberty. It is the dance that our physical, hormonal and emotional body does as we transition from one life phase to the next. For some the transition is swift. And definitely for others, myself included, it feels like I have been given this transition time to fully welcome in this change.
However, never in a million years would I have thought that I would be going through this massive life change, while also living through a pandemic. At the moment of writing this, Melbourne has gone into its second strict lock-down. And much like my menopause, this lock-down dance feels like it is going to be a long one.
For those not sharing my Melbourne experience, it is unique compared to the US experience (totally nuts) and New Zealand (totally sorted) and also to the rest of Victoria and greater Australia. Mark (my husband) and I took the first lock-down seriously and were still cautious when the restrictions started to lift. However, in that brief time we enjoyed going back to our Personal Training Studio and my cardio tennis, going to live jazz and enjoying live classical music, cafes and restaurants – all just walking distance from our front door.
The second lock-down (for six weeks) is necessary, but stark. We know what it is like. It is not novel, it is known. All while I see my friends and family enjoying the life I would rather be having. My view out to a normally bustling and busy city is quiet and still.
Inevitably there have been a lot of positive posts come up in my social media feed about “What you are going to achieve during this second lock-down?” My fingers ache to type “Fucking Survive!” However, I do know from the first lock-down that rituals and routines, no matter how small and insignificant make a huge difference to coping. And as I see my family and friends live a very different life to my own (No! We are not all in this together) I need to use everything at my fingertips to get through this tough time.
Here are my top 5 tips to navigating menopause during a pandemic.
Of course, this is going to be my number one!
Kindness is one of my guiding principles. But here are some practical ways to be kind to yourself, if like me, you are going through both menopause and a pandemic (or even just one of them!).
1. Hit the snooze button on people. Did you know that there is a snooze button for people on your Facebook feed? (Click the 3 dots on the right hand page of someone’s post. The drop down menu has the option to Snooze them for 30 days). If anyone posting pics of anything that you notice makes you feel less than, then just snooze them. It is not forever (but don’t rule that out!). It could be too many photos of them doing ordinary things or sharing conspiracy theories… whatever, you don’t need to justify or feel bad. Just snooze them.
2. If you are fortunate to have a job – then you are not working from home.
You are at home.
Trying to work.
During a pandemic.
There is a difference. Exceptions can be made to your work output, mental health days can be taken and make an effort to turn off your computer at the end of the day or on your days off. Personally, I find it difficult to STOP working. However, implementing other small routines definitely helps.
3. Got kids at home too? Well that just sucks. As a teacher and a mother, I used to look forward to seeing the back of my own kids going to school and my kids at school going home to their own families. Try not to get too stuck on them being left behind. I have had many parents, who took kids out of school for months at a time to do a life experience (usually travel) and they would fret about kids being left behind. Life experience is a teaching tool. And you can’t fully know how this time will inspire your children and their life choices in the future.
And if you think that is a simplistic approach, what are your choices? Even as a teacher I would not be able to fill their day with education from 9 – 3. Do what you can and don’t sweat it. Kids are way more resilient than we imagine.
One of the real sucky things of going through menopause is the disrupted sleep. I go to sleep early (by 10.30) and easily. But then just have wakefulness in the night. I can go a week, or maybe two with sleeping through the night and then I can do five nights straight of shitty sleep. I have experimented with drinking less, drinking more, taking melatonin, breathing exercises and sleep apps. These are all great strategies (apart from the drinking more!). But when I am sleeping well, I don’t need them and when I am not sleeping, I need all of everything. And should have implemented these strategies yesterday.
The biggest thing that stresses me out is everything I know about what lack of sleep does. Lack of sleep raises cortisol (a stress hormone which if elevated for long periods of time encourages weight gain). Your body does a lot of healing during sleep. High cortisol and tiredness makes you crave carbohydrates and fatty foods. I am not as mentally clear and I can feel more emotional (crying or wanting to murder someone with a blunt pick axe). The list goes on and on.
So I personally deal with my non-sleep times by not letting it stress me out. My sleeplessness is personal and it passes. Instead of focusing on all the things I should have done (Not had that extra glass of wine; Why can’t I stick to better routines of less screens and more meditation? etc etc) I just remind myself that this too will pass. I am not driving or having to catch public transport to work. If I wake up at 8.29, I can still get to my desk on time to log on and start my day. I no longer use an alarm and I wake up when I do.
I am going through menopause during a pandemic. This is my reality check.
P.S: There is definitely lots of information out there on sleep hygiene and by all means, do whatever works for you. But try to do less of the stress talk about what you should be doing. (See point one).
The dreaded belly fat of menopause. It sucks and depending on how I feel, I love the thought of “letting myself go.” The liberation of not wearing heels, stockings, tailored trousers or skirts. Sure I’ll be wearing lipstick and an ironed shirt for Zoom, but I can guarantee that it will be teamed with sweat pants and bare feet.
And then I feel disgusted with myself and hate that I can’t move the same way in yoga poses that I once did (when I had less belly fat). I have always tried to not self criticise; but walk tall and confident in myself. I committed to this habit when I gave birth to my daughter. And sometimes with great difficulty of execution, I practice positive self talk because I work in the fitness industry and the body beautiful rubbish shits me to tears.
But I also am committed to my health. And I know that those extra menopausal kilos are not great for my health, my pelvic floor, nor my sleep.
I have never liked the idea of a diet. Not only do I know that they don’t work, but also… I am living through a God damn pandemic and I am in lock-down! Food is not only sustenance; it is also a reason to leave the house! It is the source of many (great) conversations with the one person that I live with. It punctuates my day and gives me a reason to leave my desk and visit another room in my apartment!
We eat well, but often. It is the timing of food that has the greatest impact on insulin, which is the culprit of weight gain. The other hormone related to weight gain is cortisol, which is related to elevated levels of stress. This is one of my reasons for integrating Intermittent Fasting. There are many excellent books about Intermittent Fasting. A really good one to start with is The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung.
The only way to reduce your cortisol is to reduce your stress.
The only way to reduce your insulin is to give your body a break from food.
I am my own experiment. Mark and I both now have our first meal of the day at 12pm and do not eat after 8pm. This is called 16:8. Which means 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of eating. We have continued the ritual of morning coffee in bed together (no milk or sugar) and find that the second cup helps us through to midday. We then have more of a lunch type meal to break our fast, rather than a breakfast type meal. Then an afternoon snack and our normal dinner routine, but only herb tea after 8pm.
We are still drinking wine. Because we are in the middle of a lock-down in a pandemic!
This is our first step in managing our weight gain and modifying our eating during a lock-down. And so far it is manageable with our current situation (lock-down in a pandemic for both of us + menopause for me).
Watch this space, but I am excited by the science.
Recently, I completed a full rewrite of the education for Strength for Life (currently I am the Victorian Program Coordinator for this strength and balance training for older adults). I spent weeks digging into all the latest research for the most common chronic conditions that affect older adults. Usually education has a gender bias, so I took great lengths to look for the data around women and our Indigenous and First Nations people to get a full and complete picture.
My biggest take home was that the single biggest factor to improve ALL of the conditions was not diet, hormones, genetics or lifestyle. It was exercise. Yes diet, hormones, your genetics and lifestyle make an impact to a greater or lesser extent. But it was exercise that had the most impact of either avoiding or improving any chronic health condition.
Exercise is one of the four reasons I am legitimately allowed to leave my home. And I know from personal experience, exercise makes a huge difference in my mental health.
But what kind of exercise? And what sort of wankery is “nutritious exercise”?
Let me explain the wank. We need to move. Every day. For a minimum of 30 minutes. Include strength training (super important for menopausal women and osteoporosis) and we need to get sweaty for heart health.
Unfortunately the knee jerk reaction to menopausal weight gain is to hit the gym and hit it hard. Because we associate high intensity with weight loss. And this is simply the wrong equation for women going through menopause. And for women going through menopause in the middle of a pandemic.
The hormones directly related to weight gain are insulin (although exercise has some impact on insulin levels – the adage of you can’t train a bad diet is very true) and cortisol. Working out really hard will raise your cortisol levels. You can’t achieve stronger muscles and cardiovascular fitness without raising your cortisol levels.
So the question is how much? There is no one size fits all. But here are some general rules of thumb. The go-hard sessions should be at the beginning of the day, when natural cortisol levels are high and you work with your hormones. Cortisol naturally drops off towards the end of the day, so going hard out later in the day will elevate your cortisol a second (and possibly an unnecessary extra) time.
However, if you have had a shit sleep. It might not be the best idea to go hard. Your risk of injury goes up and it will just feel like a hard slog. Be prepared to change your plans. And don’t beat yourself up about it.
Since the pandemic, my world has become incredibly small. I spend most of my hours in front of a computer and in a small inner city Melbourne apartment. Even my social / leisure time is done this way. My exercise needs to balance both my minimised incidental movement, menopausal symptoms and my elevated stress levels from working from home during a pandemic.
Nutritious movement means to me:
- Moving in all planes of movement. Working in front of a computer and walking around an apartment lends itself to movement mostly in the sagittal plane (back and forth). I need exercise that moves in the lateral (side to side) and the transverse plane (rotational).
- Vestibular training. My head needs to move on all planes and hang upside down to help the small hairs inside the ears not to stay down due to lack of movement and gravity. This impacts my balance and avoid vertigo.
- Breath work. I need my movement to match my breath. Not only will this be good for my heart and lungs. But it is essential for lessening intra-abdominal pressure and making sure that I care for my pelvic floor. Good diaphragmatic breathing will also calm my parasympathetic nervous system.
- Mindfulness of movement. Am I able to be completely present to the task at hand? If I am outside going for a walk or bike ride, am I noticing the changing leaves on the trees or the breeze on my skin? If I am weight training, am I able to recognise and focus on the muscles that need to be working? Am I pushing myself to have a nice measure of muscular soreness in the morrow? These details matter.
- Where am I in my cycle? I am still menstruating and I also have hypermobility. So before my bleed, my hypermobility is much more noticeable, due to the release of relaxin. I need to be careful with everything from yoga (stretching beyond my range) and weight training (over taxing my ligaments with weights too heavy or extending range of movement). Understanding the effects of your menstrual cycle on your training is essential.
- Enjoyment and connection. What do I enjoy doing to be active? Then choose one of those options. However, doing it online is not that simple. The connection needs to be there. Delivering exercise via zoom requires a whole different skill set than face to face.
Here are ways in which I move each day:
Walking: Time has taken on a different currency during the pandemic. I walk to the supermarket with my trolly (plus mask and hand sanitiser). I rarely use the car and see each outing as an opportunity to move.
Cycling: Again, I make a choice to not use the car, take extra time and go by bike. I also have a route that takes me by the Merri Creek and I love to look at the trees and hear the water gurgling by. It takes exactly 50 minutes and has a couple of hills that gets me sweaty and breathing hard.
Tennis: My cardio tennis class has stopped. So I now do one on one lessons once per week. This ensures that my tennis coach stays afloat during these difficult times. Her business, like many in the fitness industry is doing it tough. My tennis is improving and I don’t miss out on the joy of running around outside. (Note: I hate running, but love tennis).
Lisa Westlake: Every morning at 9am, my beautiful friend Lisa does live Facebook exercise sessions in her Health & Harmony at Home group – which can incorporate weights, swiss ball, pilates, yoga, breathing and meditation.
Marietta Mehanni: Has a Facebook group – Virtual with Marietta and runs a free 30 – 40 min session with gymstick, Mswing, swiss ball and good ole fashioned aerobics. Just like Lisa, their point of difference is connection. It is only one way (delivered via live facebook), but you will find me in my lounge talking back to both of them.
Mobility Matters: When I can, I join Andrea Gaze who runs sessions all about mobility. I can’t see my favourite massage therapist… but this is just as good. This is not fitness, this is mobility and it does indeed matter!
Yoga Flame: I have been attending the Yoga Flame studio for years – and this week will start their 21 day challenge. For just $29 the amazing yoga teachers support you through 21 days of practice (including a meditation practice). This will be the first time I have completed the challenge online – but I believe I can navigate it into my daily movement program.
My goal is to move every day for a minimum of 30 mins. Some of these will be sweaty, some will not. Some will make my muscles sore for a couple of days, some will not. Some will be incorporated into my daily living and some will be very focused. The variety will ensure that I move in different ways and use different movement patterns. I usually have a plan for what I will do the next day ahead, but depending on my sleep and how I am feeling, I may change my mind.
But moving is non-negotiable.
I need this exercise habit, not for weight loss or aesthetics – but to help me navigate menopause while surviving a pandemic.
So yeah, don’t believe the hype that you need to cane yourself to get results.
Just move every day. You’ve got this.
This blog has been written completely from my perspective as a white, middle aged, woman who has a job and lives in a safe and loving relationship.
I acknowledge my privilege.
So if anything I have raised in this blog strikes a note that does not feel right, I recommend you go to a professional to seek further help. You do not need to suffer in silence. And you do not need to suffer alone.
Some further references that have really helped me recently are a couple of books:
Phosphorescence by Julia Baird. A beautiful book that talks about how to find awe and why it is important to not just survive. But to thrive.
Travelling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and co written with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor. A beautiful coming of age story that weaves many stories of Sue navigating menopause and the wisdom of women who have come before us.
All of these books have the links to Audible, as that is how I read. I listen to books, so that I can move. I sit too much now and I love the freedom that listening to books gives me. I listen when I walk, ride, cook and shop.
I also love the work of Dr. Wendy Sweet and am part of her private Facebook group – My menopause transformation. I love that Wendy has such a wealth of knowledge and loves research as much as me.
Recently I interviewed Lyn Miller from Menofitness – she gave an entertaining account of info. on hormones, menopause and training menopausal women. I thought you might enjoy it also!
Lastly, if you are a fitness professional. You need to know HOW to train older women. Please don’t train them as you would other people in your business. They have different needs and not understanding these WILL increase their cortisol, their belly fat and increase their potential for injury.
I have a few courses to support you. Not all are live right now – but sign up to find out when they are!