Tight, flat stomachs. Perfectly toned buttocks. And not a bingo wing in sight. This is what the modern menopausal woman looks like, judging by the famous life stage poster girls.
Last month, Nicole Kidman, 55, was featured on the cover of Perfect magazine, flexing her sculpted biceps. It followed wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow’s nude photoshoot for Vogue USA, celebrating her 50th birthday, in which she showed off her abs. And then there’s 55-year-old British menopause champion Davina McCall, who regularly shares photos of her impressive six-pack with her 1.5 million social media followers.
They tell us you CAN be super fit during – and after – menopause. Read the articles that give women a five-point plan for tackling it.
No one will deny that these women look sensational.
But as a professor of women’s reproductive science who spends her days debunking myths about menopause — and is postmenopausal herself — I don’t think the image these celebrities are promoting is that helpful.
The truth is, it’s unlikely that the average woman will be able to look like this in her 50s and beyond, especially if that’s not what she looked like in her thirties. Unless, of course, you have a personal trainer and nutritionist on call – and plenty of free time.
Last month, Nicole Kidman (pictured), 55, was on the cover of Perfect magazine, flexing her sculpted biceps
Most middle-aged women I know are grateful to have an hour off on the weekend so they can hit the gym or go for a walk with a friend. There are children to sail over, elderly parents to visit and really paid work.
Also, being super slim and muscular isn’t necessarily good for health, especially as we get older.
If you were never a gym goer, HRT won’t put you in it
I worry that women who think that a healthy menopause means having a six pack and spending their free time in the gym will become disappointed, injured or so burned out that they stop exercising when it is more than ever needed.
When women reach perimenopause, in their mid-40s to 50s, levels of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone drop.
But other things also happen. Our cells slow down and are less resistant to damage. This goes for both men and women, by the way — it’s not all the big, bad menopause’s fault. Our metabolism slows down, which means our body clings to calories. Our bones shrink and we lose the collagen that keeps tissues supple, leading to painful joints and sprains.
All this means that it is much more difficult to move extra pounds and be fit.
Building muscle is also an uphill battle. Proteins from our diet are not converted into muscle tissue as efficiently as they used to be, causing us to lose strength.
Not that achieving a six pack was ever easy or healthy for women.
Being super-tight generally indicates very low body fat. But many of the body’s most important hormones — including the reproductive hormones that decline after menopause — are stored in fat, which means they need a certain level to work efficiently. Studies show that older people with very low levels of body fat are more likely to die than those with an average amount. However, an average amount of fat protects the body from becoming vulnerable, a condition that leaves it vulnerable to potentially fatal infections and falls.
It followed wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow’s nude photoshoot (above) for Vogue USA, celebrating her 50th birthday, in which she showed off her abs.
It is highly recommended to be physically active during menopause and after. At least three hours of exercise per week, including cardio for heart health, weight-bearing exercise for our bones and yoga to improve balance and flexibility, is recommended by all UK health authorities.
But nobody says you have to follow an intensive regimen.
Davina McCall recently told Women’s Health magazine that she starts every morning with a 90-minute run or walk, and fits in a workout at least four days a week. And she’s said before that her favorite exercise is burpees — where you jump, squat, and do a pushup in quick succession. Most women would feel exhausted reading this.
There is no good evidence to suggest that HRT gives you more energy
Studies show that exercising in many short bursts — such as a five-minute run around the block — can help your cardiovascular health.
A recent analysis of the health outcomes of more than 77,000 women found that swimming, leisurely cycling and even slow dancing reduced the risk of age-related bone fractures. There is also growing evidence that high-intensity exercise increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood, which has a knock-on effect on cholesterol and blood pressure, possibly causing heart problems.
The kinds of exercises that help us live longer are activities that we enjoy and are more likely to stick to. Exercising for aesthetics is a bad motivating factor, especially since most people don’t see their bodies change the way they want them to, so they give up.
There is another thread on this problem. Some high-profile women identified with the menopause revolution assigning hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to the energy levels that get them through intense exercise routines.
And then there’s 55-year-old Davina McCall (pictured), the British menopause champion who regularly shares photos of her impressive six-pack with her 1.5 million social media followers
Davina recently said HRT saved her from feeling like she had “nothing in the tank,” and that she was a “couch potato.”
Figures published a few weeks ago showed that the number of HRT prescriptions has increased by a third in the past year. Many health experts have attributed this to celebrity support.
There is no good evidence to believe that HRT gives you more energy. It is most helpful for reducing symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Some European guidelines state that about two-thirds of women do not need HRT.
And if you weren’t much of a gym goer before menopause, HRT can’t conjure you into it.
I recently asked some of my Twitter followers (mostly menopausal women) how images of glamorous, super-fit women of the same age made them feel.
The main reaction was: not good. Don’t get me wrong, Davina and her ilk have done a lot to eradicate the stereotype of menopausal women who are grumpy and cranky. But maybe now we can find a happy medium, a diverse range of women, of all shapes and sizes, who fit the movement they love into normal, busy life.
For me it’s outdoor swimming and online aerobics. At 59, I’m happy to be free of the bloating, pain, and mood swings that came with my menstrual cycle. When I look in the mirror, I see my healthiest self.
And it won’t surprise you that I don’t have a six pack.