Fitness Rx for Peri-Menopause and Menopause Symptoms

Can exercise alleviate perimenopause and menopausal symptoms? The short answer is YES, sometimes.

What kind of symptoms are we talking about?

While exercise has a positive effect on just about every peri and menopausal symptom, I’m going to focus on weight gain and belly fat in this blog.  

Meet the Bad Guy 

What is responsible for much of the problems in middle age?  Cortisol.

Cortisol is the stress hormone responsible for the fight or flight reactions. It occurs naturally and has an ebb and flow throughout the day. Peaking in the morning to wake us up and slowly decreasing from there until its all time low in the evening.  

Cortisol will

  • Increase hunger cues
  • Increase cravings for sweet, fatty, and salty foods
  • Increase insomnia
  • Increase insulin resistance
  • Increase hot flashes
  • Contribute to brain fog
  • Lower bone density
  • Increase anxiety
  • Contribute to depression

As we age, our cortisol levels slowly increase. Estrogen naturally lowers cortisol so as our estrogen levels drop, so does our body’s ability to deal with the peaks in cortisol. So our baseline may be closer to the yellow zone.  Any additional stressor edges us closer to the red.  

Exercise can both lower or raise cortisol depending on how we do it.  

Exercise Habits that Lower CortisolExercise Habits that Raise cortisol
Short bouts of intense exercise
Intense workouts early in the day
Light exercise at night
Time spent in nature
Consistent schedule
Long intense workouts
Intense workouts late in the day
Punishing yourself with exercise
Erratic schedule

Weight Gain and Belly Fat

We know that cortisol increases cravings and insulin resistance, but what can we do if we want to minimize belly fat? 

In the past, we worked on the Calories in less than calories out model: make sure you are burning more calories than you are consuming and you will lose weight.  Work out a little longer and eat a little less and bam 💣, you are down a few pounds.

 This may no longer be effective for us because of, you guessed it, cortisol.  The extra physical work paired with a decrease in calories may trigger a cortisol response. In turn, our bodies will increase cravings, hunger cues, and work extra hard to store fat around our mid-section.  So essentially, what used to work may now have the opposite reaction. 

Photo by Pixabay on
What Worked Before 
Calories in less than calories out
Long cardio sessions spurred results
Focus on fat loss
Photo by Victor Freitas on
What Works Now
Balanced diet
45 min sessions
Focus on building lean muscle mass and increasing EPOC*
*EPOC: is the “after burn” from intense workouts like HIIT.  It can last for hours after your workout and it basically increases your metabolism as it runs its course.

We need to revisit our relationship with exercise and refocus our energy on gaining muscle by lifting heavy weights and HIIT training. However, neither one of these approaches are for beginner-friendly. HIIT training is often tough on joints if you haven’t built up a base and lifting heavy weights can wreak havoc on your back if you don’t have a strong foundation. Starting easy and building up to the two goals is safer than jumping straight into an expert fitness program.

The beauty of the Fresh Air Fit classes is in the options. The program meets you where you are and based on how you feel, you choose the options that best work for your body on that day. For every move, a progression (harder) and a regression is offered so you can tailor the program to an Olympian or a Couch Potato. Both people can improve or maintain their fitness.

What can we do?

Our job is to work at helping your body deal with stress.

Ideas for this: 

  • Exercise right
  • Spend time with friends
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Don’t smoke
  • Easy on the booze
  • Meditate
  • Ask for help when you need it


Woods NF, Mitchell ES, Smith-Dijulio K. Cortisol levels during the menopausal transition and early postmenopause: observations from the Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study. Menopause. 2009 Jul-Aug;16(4):708-18. doi: 10.1097/gme.0b013e318198d6b2. PMID: 19322116; PMCID: PMC2749064.

Canfitpro Fitness Conference 2022: Menopause Fitness Interventions with Debra Atkinson

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