Want to grow old healthy? Start exercising before menopause

  • Exercise at any age is great, but for blood vessel health, exercising before hitting menopause may be better
  • Oestrogen loss can affect the way small blood vessels in muscles respond to exercise
  • These small blood vessels are important for heart health

It’s never too late to start exercising. But for better health in your later years, you need to start incorporating exercise into your routine before hitting menopause, a new study suggests.

According to the research, published in the Journal of Physiology, the small blood vessels in the muscles of women after menopause don't grow as they do in younger women.

So, if you really want to optimise exercise for healthy muscle building and strength, your best bet is to start exercising before menopause to optimise your older years, the authors suggest.

Blood vessels and oestrogen

But what exactly is the factor that makes older blood vessels in muscles perform differently to those of younger blood vessels? According to recent studies, there are substantial differences between men and women in the way blood vessels are affected by ageing and physical activity. These differences can largely be attributed to oestrogen, the female sex hormone.

Oestrogen usually protects the heart and blood vessels, but as menopause occurs, the amount of oestrogen in the body drops drastically, which can impact the health of blood vessels.

The study is the first that compared muscle cells of older and younger women.

Capillaries in our muscles matter

In the latest research, the authors from the University of Copenhagen examined the capillaries, which are the smallest blood vessels in our muscle tissue. Skeletal muscle tissue is the muscle tissue connected to the skeleton that we voluntarily develop and stimulate with movement, unlike heart muscle tissue.

The researchers found that the number of capillaries in the skeletal muscle set changes a lot and is especially affected by how much of the muscle is used during exercise.

The results show that when older women completed a period of aerobic training such as cycling, the number of capillaries in muscles was not increased. In younger women, the capillaries were increased by exercise.

These capillaries are important for the way our skeletal muscles function, as well as the way oxygen and nutrients are distributed through the body. When the capillaries decrease in number, we can become less sensitive to insulin, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

As we age, the number of capillaries in muscles automatically decreases. But in women, the loss of oestrogen further decreases the number of capillaries – while men can counteract this with exercise, even when they're older.

Exercise at any age

The authors want to state that this doesn’t mean exercise is useless for women after menopause – there are still great benefits. The aim of the study was simply to underline that capillary health is optimised when women embark on an exercise journey before menopause.

Need more inspiration to start exercising today? These tips may help:

  • Choose something you enjoy. If home workouts in your lounge seem complicated or boring, go for a walk.
  • Incorporate any form of movement into your workday if you are pressed for time and have a sedentary job. Do quick movements such as running on the spot during your day to get the blood flowing.
  • House chores and gardening are great double whammies to get your heart rate going.
  • Change your attitude about exercise. Don't see it as a weight-loss tool, but rather as something additional to help you optimise your health.
  • Join a running/walking club in your area to meet people and enjoy the safety of a group. 

READ | Follow exercise guidelines and you'll live longer, study says

READ | Why every minute of exercise counts towards living a longer a life

WATCH | Is walking the best exercise?

Image credit: iStock

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