Changes in the body and keeping healthy

For many women, the menopause and ageing go together. Changes in the body including weight gain, wrinkles, grey hair and aching joints do not merely coincide with the menopause; they remind women that they’re ageing. Staying healthy by keeping fit and eating well becomes increasingly important. Here, women talk about how they adapt to physical changes and what they do to keep healthy.

Weight gain
Many women complain about putting on weight and losing their figure around the menopause. Changing hormone levels and a slowing of the body’s metabolism partly explain expanding waistlines. Many women acknowledged that lack of exercise, eating and drinking too much, a more sedentary lifestyle, and giving up smoking had all contributed to weight gain. Some women noticed they put on weight while on HRT. Weight gain is common in the menopause because after the age of 40 the Basal Metabolic Rate (the rate at which calories are burnt off) slows down. HRT can only partly help to stop this so women can still gain weight on HRT (see ‘Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)’).

Women said their weight ‘crept up’ over time and their body changed shape. They found it difficult to shed excess pounds even when they ate sensibly. Some felt they were in a constant frustrating battle with their body to lose weight. While diets, slimming classes and exercise helped some women, others said they lacked the willpower to keep their weight in check despite good intentions. They could not find the time or motivation, especially when trying to cope with menopause symptoms.
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Not all women put on weight during the menopause. Keeping fit with regular exercise and eating a balanced diet helped some to maintain a healthy weight. However, many found it difficult to accept a changing body shape. One woman, recently divorced, was terrified of dating again and having to reveal ‘all these lumps and bumps and bits that spill over’. Another despaired that she no longer felt ‘girly, pretty or feminine’ no matter what she wore. Some women complained that their clothes no longer suited them and had difficulty finding fashionable clothes for their age group (see ‘Getting older’).
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Changes in skin and hair
Having good skin can help women feel younger than they really are. One woman said she’d ‘escaped lightly so far’ thanks to inheriting her mother’s good skin; another was relieved that Caribbean people ‘don’t look old at fifty’. For other women, however, wrinkles and dry skin became more noticeable around the menopause as skin starts to lose its tone and elasticity. Lines, wrinkles, bags under the eyes, and sagginess can make women look older and more haggard. Some women accepted these changes as part of ageing, and used simple, inexpensive moisturisers on the skin. Others turned to more expensive products targeted at older women, which claimed to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and make them look younger.
Hair also changes as women age, becoming thinner, wirier, and more brittle as well as going grey. As a visible reminder of ageing, grey hair is not always welcome. One woman’s grey hair has catapulted her into late middle age, turning her into a ‘version of my mother’. Another bemoaned the loss of her ‘beautiful red hair’, highlighting the link between hair colour, appearance and age. Many women are reluctant to go grey naturally. There is a tension between ‘growing old gracefully’ and retaining the colour and vibrancy of youth.
Bones, muscles and joints
Some women noticed changes in their muscles and joints around the menopause as muscle tone and strength waned. Joint stiffness and pain made them feel old.
As well as generalised aches and pains, serious conditions like arthritis and rheumatism can also start during the menopause and can need medical treatment (see ‘Family, health and life events’). As oestrogen levels fall and bones become thinner, the risk of osteoporosis increases. In the past this encouraged some women we talked with to use HRT.
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The risks associated with long-term HRT use, however, mean that it is no longer prescribed long term to prevent osteoporosis, except for women with an early menopause (see ’Early (premature) menopause’). Other women can much improve bone density by eating a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, not smoking and taking regular weight-bearing exercise (see our Healthtalk website on ‘Osteoporosis’)

Keeping healthy
Some women see the menopause as an opportunity to reassess their lives and become more in tune with their needs. They said they had become more aware of their health, and the importance of a good diet and exercise. As well as eating lots of fruit and vegetables, women found walking, swimming, cycling, exercising at the gym, playing sport, and doing yoga helped them keep fit (see ‘Non-HRT and lifestyle options’). Some women took supplements such as iron tablets to correct anaemia due to heavy periods and calcium to protect their bones.

Women stressed the importance of having regular checks with their GP or practice nurse for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. They also urged women to attend routine breast and cervical screening (see our sites on ‘Breast cancer’, ‘Breast screening’, ‘Cervical cancer’ and ‘Cervical screening’).
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Changes in the body can have a detrimental effect on how women think about themselves during the menopause as well as reminding them they are getting older. Adapting to these changes and staying healthy through diet, exercise and health checks can help lay a good foundation for later life. The topic ‘Getting older’ looks in more detail at how women feel about the transition from youth to later life.

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Last reviewed July 2018.
Last updated July 2018.


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