With age comes wisdom, a full life, and discounts on movie tickets and rental cars. But as your body moves through—and beyond—the shifts ofmenopause, biology does throw a few whammies your way in the weight gain department: About 10 pounds, on average, according to San Francisco-based functional medicine specialist Marsha Nunley, MD.
And then there’s your musculoskeletal system. Your bone density begins to decline steeply about a year after your last period, placing you at risk of fractures, says Barbara Sternfeld, PhD, a women’s health researcher in Oakland, CA. What’s more, if you’ve put your fitness on the back burner, you may be starting to feel aches in your joints and soft tissues.
That’s why walking is the perfect workout to combat post-menopause pounds. It’s a low-impact way to support weight loss, boost mood and body image, and forge connections to a supportive community or even to your partner, says Gina Guddat, a Seattle-based fitness expert, counselor, and host of the DVD series Couples Workouts for Health and Happiness. Here’s the advice she—and other pros—gives new walkers on blazing new trails at this stage of life. (Burn calories and build muscle—all while boosting your mood—with our 21-Day Walk a Little, Lose a Lot Challenge!)
Not every woman needs to seek medical clearance to start exercising, Nunley says. But if you haven’t moved for years or have pre-existing health conditions, you might consider a visit with your doctor. Once you get the green light, it will be tempting to jump straight into an ambitious, demanding program—say, hopping on the treadmill for an hour a day—to start getting results ASAP. But bold moves backfire. Doing too much, too soon can hurt joints, muscles, and ligaments. “You need to give your body time to build up to that,” says Lee Scott, a walking coach at WoW Power Walking in Toronto.
How long you need depends on your starting point. If you regularly have aches in your hips, feet, or knees, consider doing your first workouts on anexercise bike or in the pool before transitioning to the treadmill or path. “Walking is easy, it’s low-tech, and it doesn’t cost anything,” says Andrew Wolf, exercise physiologist at Miraval Resort & Spa in Arizona. “But if you’ve got plantar fasciitis—pain on the bottom of your foot—or a real knee problem, walking could be a bit problematic.” (Here are solutions to your 10 biggest walking pains.)
If you’re free of orthopedic issues, start with two short walks per week at a moderate intensity—you should be able to speak a few words, but not sing. “No matter how good you feel at 15 minutes, stop,” Wolf says. Add five minutes to each walk the second week, then add a third 20-minute walk the third week. Keep slowly progressing this way for eight to 12 weeks.
This is called base-building, and it serves an important purpose, Wolf says. As your muscles adjust to the workload, they produce a chemical called interleukin 8, which stimulates the growth of blood vessels. This expanded network of capillaries means your legs receive more oxygen-rich blood as you stride, making every workout—not to mention hoisting your grandkids in the air or climbing a flight of stairs—feel like less of a struggle.
But pick up the pace quickly.
Once you’ve established the walking habit, you’ll need to step it up a bit to see results. The standard recommendation is 150 minutes per week of moderate activity to achieve health benefits, but after menopause, you probably need at least an hour a day to maintain or lose weight, Sternfeld says. And walkers need to boost the intensity to preserve bone density, Scott notes.
To get there, include hills or faster-paced intervals in your walking workouts, she recommends. If you’re outside, pick a landmark up ahead and speed up until you reach it (make sure you’re sweating and a bit short of breath). Slow back down again until the next tree or fire hydrant, and do it all over again.
Or, try hill repeats, either outside or using the incline setting on the treadmill. After a 10- to 20-minute warm-up, spend two to four minutes heading uphill at a comfortably challenging pace, Wolf says. Stroll back down, loiter at the bottom until you feel recovered, then repeat three to six times.
Not only will you accrue more physical benefits, intervals keep your mind engaged, too. “When people push themselves to go fast, they usually get their endorphins up and feel better. Plus, it reduces the boredom factor in walking,” Scott says.
Reduce injury risk.
Any repetitive activity can trigger overuse injuries like tendinitis or knee pain. Protect yourself with a gradual ramp-up, the right footwear, and good form. If your shoes give you pain, irritation, or blisters, invest in a new pair; head to a specialty running or walking store for an expert fitting, Scott recommends.
As for form, stand tall, keep your toes high, and take short, fast steps so your foot stays out in front of your center of gravity. Bend your arms to a 90-degree angle and swing them just as you would when running. (Avoid these 5 worst walking mistakes.)
Minor soreness when you first start walking is normal—treat it at home with OTC anti-inflammatories, ice, and heat, Guddat says. But if you feel a sharp pain or deep, nagging ache in a joint, take a few rest days, and seek medical help if it doesn’t improve. Consult a doctor right away if you have numbness or pain that radiates up your back or down your legs—those are signs of a more serious back condition, says spine specialist Praveen Kadimcherla, MD.
Don’t sweat hot flashes.
Despite some initially promising research, there’s no good evidence exercise reduces hot flashes and other menopause-related symptoms, Sternfeld says. However, they might not bother you as much since you’ll be more accustomed to sweating when you’re in the habit of working out.
Walking through hot flashes poses no danger, but a little preparation increases comfort, Scott says. Choose sweat-wicking fabrics and dress in layers you can shed when things heat up, Guddat recommends. Drink plenty of cool water before and during your workout—just make sure you plan your route with access to restrooms.
Give it your all.
Walking goes a long way in whittling your waist, but it works best as part of a healthy lifestyle, Nunley notes. That includes a diet that’s low in sugarand other simple carbs; rich in leafy greens, fruits, fiber, and iron; and limited in alcohol. And strength training reduces your risk of injury and helps you maintain more of the muscle mass you otherwise risk losing during the aging process, Sternfeld says.
If you’re just starting out, though, don’t aim to change everything at once. Wolf suggests you prioritize by asking yourself this: If someone offered you $20 million to lose 20 pounds in three months, would you prefer to do it by eating less or moving more? Use your answer to pick the first habit to change; spend three months working solely on diet or exercise before moving on to the other realm, he advises.
Keep it fun—and about you.
Maintain your motivation by:
- Signing up for races. Many 5Ks allow walkers—at about three miles, it’s a distance most striders can complete within an hour and 15 minutes, Scott says. (She should know—she’s walked more than 100 distance events, including half and full marathons). Training with a goal in mind proves motivating, and the fun, festive atmosphere on the day itself serves up inspiration to last long afterward.
- Celebrating performance gains. You might see the number on the scale creep up before it goes down, Wolf says. Your body adapts to the challenge of new workouts by increasing blood volume and storing more energy in your muscles—good things, but potentially panic-inducing if you’re not prepared. Track and consider other benefits, such as how you feel. “Get excited about the fact that hey, the first time I got on this treadmill I thought 2.8 miles an hour at 2% grade was great, and now all of a sudden I think 3.4 miles an hour at a 4% grade is great,” he says. “If you’re noticing your heart rate at a certain speed or grade is going down over time, you’re physically getting more fit and healthy than you used to be.”
- Using cool tools. Free apps like Every Body Walk let you view maps of your workouts and chart your progress. And trackers—like the newvivomove from Garmin—keep tabs on your steps and also let you post results to social media for an added motivational boost.