Women in their first few years of menopause (search) can reap lots of benefits from exercise, say German researchers.

“This study confirms the importance of exercise in maintaining health,” writes Wolfgang Kemmler, PhD, a researcher for the study.

They say newly menopausal women who exercise get perks, including:

—Better bone density

—Lower cholesterol and blood fats

—Stronger muscles

—Slimmer waists Improved endurance

—Fewer mood swings

—Fewer migraines

—Reduced insomnia

Exercise didn’t trump hot flashes or depression in the study. However, other research has shown that aerobic exercise can have an antidepressant effect.

It’s probably no surprise to hear experts tout the perks of working out. Exercise is widely recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle for everyone from kids to senior citizens.

The German study goes a little further. It focused on women who had been menopausal for only one to eight years. Exercise has rarely been studied in such women, say the researchers.

Long-Term Exercise Commitment

This was no brief boot camp. The study lasted three years.

The women's bone density wasn’t up to par in their spine and hip. The problem wasn’t severe enough to qualify as osteoporosis. Instead, it was diagnosed as osteopenia, a first sign of thinner, weaker bones which increases the risk of osteoporosis.

Could exercise help the women save their bones? Would it also have other positive results?

To find out, 86 women were assigned to an exercise program. Another 51 women formed the control group, which didn’t follow the fitness routine.

The women were free to eat whatever they wanted. Based on their food diaries, they were given calcium and vitamin D supplements, if needed, to meet their daily nutritional requirements.

By the end of the study, 48 women remained in the exercise group; 30 women stuck with the control group. More women quit who didn’t exercise (29% of the control group versus 21% of the exercise group).

Exercise Routine

The exercisers worked out four times per week for 65-70 minutes at a time. Each week, two sessions were done in a supervised group setting; the other two were done at home.

After warming up for 10 minutes, the women did aerobic types of exercise. Participants jumped rope, hoisted weights, did calisthenics, and stretched. They also used weight machines, dumbbells, and elastic belts for strength and resistance training.

They weren’t allowed to get too comfortable. The routine was tweaked as the women got stronger to keep it challenging.

The women in the control group were requested to continue their usual lifestyle.

Stronger Bones, More Endurance

After three years, the exercise group hadn’t lost any bone mineral density in their hip and spine. Bone mineral density stabilized in the exercise group. But the control group had significant decreases in bone density in those areas.

A progressive decrease in bone mineral density is expected, especially during the first years of menopause.

Endurance and muscle strength improved in the exercise group, but not in the control group. The women could lift heavier weights and boosted their aerobic capacity.

Slimmer Waists, Better Cholesterol

The exercising women lost about 2 percent of their body fat, while the control group’s body fat was stable.

The women’s hips size didn’t change much in either group, but the exercisers whittled their waist size by an inch (2.5 cm) on average.

Studies have shown that extra pounds around the belly carry more health risks than those in other areas, such as the hips. So while the women's hip size hadn't changed, the overall waist-to- hip ratio in the exercise group decreased. The control group’s waist-to-hip ratio didn’t change.

Total cholesterol and blood fats called triglycerides also dropped significantly for the exercise group. Chalk that up to exercise, say the researchers, who included the University of Erlangen’s William Kemmler, PhD.

“Because nutritional intake remained unchanged during the three years, we attribute the improvement to our training program,” they write.

Improvement in Some Menopause Symptoms

The exercise group reported fewer menopausal symptoms. They reported less insomnia, as well as fewer migraines and mood changes, compared with the women who did not exercise.

However, there was no improvement in hot flashes or depression in either group.

The study appeared recently in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Kemmler, W. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, February 2005; vol 37: pp 194-203. News release, American College of Sports Medicine.