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From puberty to menopause: The benefits of exercise for women at different life stages

A woman’s body goes through several significant changes over the course of their lifespan — exercise can help make those changes easier.

We know that exercise is a habit that promotes overall health — helping with weight loss and maintenance, reducing the risk of chronic illness and improving mental health for everyone, regardless of age or gender.

But exercise plays a unique role in a woman’s life — helping to ease transitions between significant life events like puberty, pregnancy and menopause.

A woman’s body goes through several significant changes over the course of their lifespan. Dr. Kameelah Phillips, OB-GYN and founder of Calla Women’s Health, sat down with Sheinelle Jones on Wellness TODAY, to share how exercise can help make those changes easier.

Benefits of exercise during puberty

  • Helps improve body image and increase confidence.
  • Helps reduce pain from period cramps.

During the early teenage years, a girl’s body goes through significant changes that can make them self-conscious. This often results in girls not wanting to move their bodies or draw attention to themselves. But staying active can ease this time of transition, helping young women to respect their bodies.

“Puberty is such an awkward time for so many young people. I remember myself, feeling strange in your own body. So being active is really important in helping them reconnect,” said Dr. Phillips. “I like to think outside the box with activity; it doesn’t have to be running, it can be soccer, basketball, contact sports, to help them engage in different parts of their body. It helps them maintain a sense of pride and enthusiasm of what wellness and strength can be, and that they embody that.”

This is also a time when women start menstruating, and exercise can help ease some of the uncomfortable symptoms that come with a monthly period.

“When we workout, your body releases an amazing assortment of endorphins, which are natural painkillers, said Phillips. “So before we go to reach for some pill, sometimes moving your body, jogging around the block, doing a dance party in your living room, can help release those endorphins and relieve menstrual pain.”

Benefits of exercise during pregnancy

  • Lowers the chance of a C-section.
  • Lowers the chance of gestational diabetes.
  • Gets you in shape for the marathon that is childbirth.

Pregnancy is another time in a woman’s life when her body undergoes drastic changes. And while curling up on the couch sounds especially appealing during this time, keeping your body moving is vital for reducing aches and pains and preparing your body for labor.

“We’ve really had a paradigm shift as it relates to being active in pregnancy. The days of lying on the couch are no more,” said Phillips. “We encourage women who are having normal, safe pregnancies to get out there and move your body. It helps to reduce the risk of C-section, gestational diabetes and hypertension, and really can help with the marathon of labor.”

When it comes to the type of exercise you do, use your best judgment, says Phillips. “Anything that involves contact is probably not the best idea. You can do a stationary bike because your risk of falling is minimal; swimming; low-impact exercises are best.”

Of course, every body and pregnancy is different so you should consult with your doctor before starting or continuing any exercise routine during this time.

Benefits of exercise postpartum

  • Helps with mental health.
  • Strengthens core muscles.

It’s not just during pregnancy, but after, that keeping up with a fitness routine is essential.

“Exercise is key post-pregnancy,” said Phillips. “When you’re active when you’re pregnant, it helps your recovery postpartum. Women who have gained the extra weight tend to lose it faster, it helps with your mental health and warding off postpartum depression. It also can help with toning your core and getting back into your regular clothes.”

Benefits of exercise during menopause

  • Improves muscle tone/strength.
  • Maintains bone health.

Many women find that’s it’s harder to lose extra weight and stay fit as they enter menopause. Phillips said that this is a crucial time to incorporate strength training into your fitness routine.

“A lot of women are often very afraid of picking up weights. But it’s the best thing. Even a 5-, 10-, 15-pound weight is going to help you maintain your muscle and really tone,” said Phillips. “A lot of women complain of extra unintentional weight gain, and that’s what weights are going to help (with). Also, picking up weights is going to help you maintain your bone health, which is super critical when you’re menopausal. Osteopenia and osteoporosis, where the bones weaken and can actually fracture, is a big deal. So weight-bearing exercises are going to be great.”