By Kerry Grens
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - In a small study of Finnish women who had recently entered menopause, those who stuck to an aerobic exercise program for six months were less likely to report night sweats, mood swings and irritability than women who didn't exercise.
The study's authors say their results suggest exercise could serve as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy for quelling bothersome menopause symptoms.
"I would definitely recommend physical activity. I think that among all the options out there that it's probably the best thing for health and also symptoms of aging," said Steriani Elavsky, a professor at Penn State University, who was not involved in the new research.
In the years just after a woman reaches menopause, up to 80 percent may experience some or all of the most typical symptoms, including hot flashes and night sweats, sleep disturbances, headache, depression, irritability, urinary problems and vaginal dryness.
Estrogen-based therapy can ease those symptoms, but concerns about health risks associated with the hormones have led many women and their physicians to shy away from that treatment.
Though not all studies have agreed, some earlier work has shown that exercise can help as well.
Dr. Riitta Luoto at the UKK Institute for Health Promotion Research in Tampere, Finland, and her colleagues found in a previous study that exercise helped to reduce the number of hot flashes women experienced.
In the latest study, published in the journal Menopause, the same team looked at other symptoms of menopause.
The researchers randomly assigned 74 recently menopausal women aged 45 to 63, all of whom were experiencing symptoms, to exercise 50 minutes a day, four days a week for 24 weeks. A comparison group of 77 women attended health lectures instead.
For the exercise group, at least two of the sessions each week had to involve walking, while the other two could include walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, aerobics or other activities.
Women reported their menopause symptoms to the researchers twice a day via mobile phone questionnaire.
Exercising four times a week requires motivation, said Luoto, the study's senior author. "However, women in our study did have symptoms and thus were motivated enough to stick in this regimen," she told Reuters Health by email.
For some, the work-outs appeared to pay off.
After six months, the number of exercising women who reported experiencing mood swings and irritability dropped from about 20 percent to 10 percent.
Night sweats also declined, from about 60 percent of women having them at the beginning of the study to 50 percent afterwards.
These declines were greater than those reported by the comparison group.
Luoto said she had expected exercise to help menopause symptoms, "but of course I was surprised to see that there were differences in many symptoms, not only in one symptom."
The symptoms that did not improve more than in the comparison group were depression, headaches, urinary problems and vaginal dryness.
Elavsky said mood likely has a role in the seeming benefits of exercise.
"The effects of exercise on mood are very robust and almost immediate and that would probably be the most likely explanation that might underpin the improved self-report of symptoms," she told Reuters Health.
"That being said, I don't want to discount the possibility that exercise has a physiological impact," Elavsky added.
Exercise could possibly help women regulate their temperature better, for instance, relieving some of their night sweats or hot flashes, she explained.
Elavsky cautioned that for women just starting an exercise program, the activity could spark hot flashes, but over time they might start to see some relief.
It's not clear what minimum amount of exercise women could get away with and still see some impact on their menopause symptoms.
Other studies looking for alternative treatments to hormone replacement therapy have found that soy supplements, mindfulness classes and walking might also help women with menopause symptoms (see Reuters Health reports of March 17, 2011 and January 30, 2012).
SOURCE: Menopause, online February 13, 2012.