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Menopause: Walking, yoga help women cope

By GENARO C. ARMAS

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A little exercise, even just a long walk, may go a long way toward helping women feel better while going through menopause.

Women involved in a regular exercise program reported better quality of life during menopause compared with those who did not exercise, according to a Penn State University study.

The 164 volunteers were primarily sedentary before the four-month study led by Steriani Elavsky, a Penn State kinesiology professor.

They were divided into three groups.

One group met three times a week to walk for an hour, another group gathered for 90-minute yoga sessions twice a week, and a third group didn't exercise.

Results were published in a recent issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

"It's a nice reaffirmation that exercise is beneficial for lots of different things," said Dr. Charles Castle, a Lancaster-based gynecologist and a member of the board of trustees for the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

"From the standpoint of patients, part of the difficulty is finding something you like to do," said Castle, who is also vice chairman of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Menopause, which typically occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, is when a woman stops menstruating. Roughly 1.5 million women reach menopause each year in the United States, and 80 to 85 percent typically experience symptoms such as irritability, mood swings, hot flashes and night sweats.

While mood and outlook improved for the exercisers, the study found mixed results when it came to the latter two symptoms. Half of all the women in the study reported improvement in hot flashes and night sweats, Elavsky said, and most of those were in the exercise groups.

However, the study didn't account for what stage of menopause the women may have been experiencing, which suggests some women's symptoms may have lessened on their own.

It was also unclear whether their actual physical symptoms decreased, or whether women were coping with them better because they were in a better mood following exercise, Elavsky said.

She noted, though, that her results differed from previous studies that concluded exercise doesn't help hot flashes.

Women who finished the four-month walking program in Elavsky's study reported the most improvement in mood and quality of life, while those performing yoga reported similar but smaller improvements, the study said. Walking and yoga were chosen because one is aerobic and the other is non-aerobic.

Dr. Lila Nachtigall, director of the Women's Wellness Program at New York University Medical Center, said the bottom is "exercise is always good." She talks to women at all ages about healthier lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise

"It does help mood and outlook," she said. "There's very little downside in some good exercise."

Donna Teper, a nurse and menopause practitioner at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, Ill., just started a new support group for women with menopause. She said she tries to stress that women take a broad approach to cope with menopause, including changes in lifestyle and nutrition.

Teper said exercise can improve sleep, which in turn gives women more rest, helping them better cope with menopause.