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Talking about the menopause: symptoms, support and the role of exercise
Talking about the menopause: symptoms, support and the role of exercise

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4 Exercise vs physical activity

There is a tendency to lump together exercise and physical activity into one thing, a thing that involves getting sweaty and uncomfortable by going running or to the gym. The good news is that exercise and physical activity can be seen as different things, and neither has to be unpleasant. Both are important and beneficial to your health, albeit in different ways. Exercise doesn’t have to be particularly structured, and it shouldn’t be painful, uncomfortable, embarrassing or involve wearing clothes that make you squirm. And increased physical activity is easy to incorporate into your day and has a big pay-off that goes far beyond the investment of a little time and effort.

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You will look at what kind of physical activity and exercise you could incorporate into your life later in this session.

A NEAT trick

NEAT is the secret formula to using your daily routine to increase your metabolic rate (Dolson, 2020), thus contributing to fat burning and making it easier to control unwanted menopausal weight gain.

So, what does NEAT mean?

NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Basically, this is the energy we expend when we simply go about our everyday business, not including eating, sleeping, breathing and focused exercise. So, it can start with getting out of bed in the morning and accumulate throughout the day with walking for the bus to work, activity during your working day, using the stairs, going shopping, cleaning, housework, cooking, gardening etc. Even fidgeting contributes.

NEAT can burn up to 2000 calories per day, depending on the size of the individual (von Loeffelholz et al., 2022). However, NEAT can contribute significantly to our daily energy expenditure, and if we can expend more calories, this makes it easier to control our weight. The benefits go far beyond weight, though. The higher your NEAT, the less likely you are to suffer from metabolic syndrome (characterised by obesity and insulin resistance that can lead to type 2 diabetes), and the less your risk of cardiovascular events and death from all causes (Villablanca et al., 2015)

But what does this mean in menopause? As you have seen, in menopause you are more at risk of weight gain, increased body fat percentage (particularly around the mid-section) and declining cardiovascular health. But with the impact of NEAT, what you routinely do – or can add – during your days without even thinking too much about it has far more significance than you might suppose.

Increasing our NEAT is relatively easy, particularly once it becomes part of our everyday life. Here are a few things you could do if you are able:

  • Challenge the sitting down culture (see below).
  • When you are out and about, take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator.
  • When you drive or use public transport to get somewhere, either park your car at the end of the car park away from where you are going or get off the bus a stop earlier and walk the last 10 minutes of your journey.

Standing up to sitting down

In the past 50 years, as car ownership has increased, occupations have become more office-based, and our homes are equipped with labour-saving devices, we have become much more sedentary. Instead of spending much of our day on our feet or doing manual work, as previous generations did, many of us now spend much of our day sitting down, either working at a desk or on a sofa in our leisure time (of which we have much more than did our parents and grandparents).

Sitting for long periods has been called ‘the new smoking’, as the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle can be as serious as a 20-a-day smoking habit, increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer (Levine in Chandler, 2021). What’s more, chronic sitting has become far more common than smoking in many cultures!

When we spend much of our day sitting, our NEAT falls (standing can use up double the number of calories per hour as sitting), so we burn less energy (NASM, 2023). We lose muscle mass and tone, especially in our legs and core, as we lose what we don’t use. This in turn can lead to muscle weakness and back, shoulder and neck pain associated with poor posture, as well as joint stiffness and circulatory problems. And the consequences aren’t just physical. Not moving around can affect our mood and our ability to focus.

There are some easy ways that we can ‘stand up to a sitting down world’:

  • If you sit a lot at work, use a stability ball instead of a chair or install a standing desk
  • At work, go and talk to a co-worker rather than e-mailing them.
  • Take an active lunch break. If you can, go for a 30-minute walk. Most of all, don’t just take your lunch out of your bag and eat at your desk. Instead, walk to the shop or canteen or, if you heat your lunch in the kitchen at your workplace, go for a walk while it’s heating up.
  • If you have to sit, get up once an hour and do something else such as walk up and down a flight of stairs, go and get a cup of tea or coffee, fill up your water bottle at the water cooler, do 10 minutes of housework. This applies whether at work or relaxing at home in the evening.