Tuesday, January 6, 2015

bicycling and menopause: a conversation

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being interviewed by independent publisher, blogger and author Elly Blue. She writes on the intersection between bicycling and feminism a great deal, and had wanted to write about bicycling and menopause for a blog of hers that Bicycling Magazine hosts at their web site -- but could find no women to talk with about it.
She is in her thirties and one would assume that most of her circle are near her age; so this didn't totally surprise me. I offered to talk with her if she wanted, since I am currently in the throes of peri-menopause. She enthusiastically accepted my offer.

Over coffee, I shared with her some key points about menopause:

1. Menopause is the proper term for when you've gone without menstrual periods for a year. Everything leading up to that -- the symptomatic part -- is more properly called peri-menopause.

2. Peri-menopause can include any combination of these symptoms:
    -- Hot flashes: uncomfortable periods of extreme sweatiness that leave the body drenched with sweat.
    -- Migraines, often preceded by sparking lights around one's peripheral vision. (Sometimes the "lights" are not followed by a migraine.)
    -- A lessening of libido.
    -- loss of elasticity/moisture in the skin (related to reduction of estrogen production).
    -- Loss of lubrication in the vaginal area (see reduction of estrogen production, above).
    -- Increased fatigue, a need for more sleep at night.
    -- Irregular periods.
    -- Mood swings.
    -- Insomnia; wakeful periods in the middle of the night, or difficulty in falling asleep, or both.
    -- Loss of bone density; while this happens in both men and women, it usually happens sooner in women and studies point to a link with peri-menopause as part of the reason.

These symptoms can appear all at once, or they can show up one or two at a time with overlap (which is more common). Not all women have all the symptoms to the same degree. I'm still regular, but my mood swings wildly and is exacerbated by stress. I have had exactly one hot flash to date. I've been getting "sparkling lights" and blinding glare around my peripheral vision several times a year, on the average of about once a month, for the last year and a half or so.

3. Fatigue also comes with getting older, anyway; so it's important to get enough sleep regardless. Most older adults (over 50) do well with 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night. It's also a good idea to take these steps as part of a good sleep regimen:
    -- Discontinue use of all electronics one hour before retiring. Electronics -- TV's, computers, smartphones -- give off light waves that promote wakefulness and make it hard to fall asleep.
    -- Stop eating and drinking at least one hour before retiring. It's easier to fall asleep if your body isn't working on digesting.
    -- If you engage in a mindfulness practice -- meditation, prayer, or similar -- find a short mindfulness step that you can use right before you lie down to go the sleep. Studies show that people who engage in a mindfulness practice of some kind enjoy better physical and emotional health. Mindfulness can also help to alleviate some of the extremes of mood swings related to peri-menopause.

4. Physical activity can help to alleviate certain symptoms, especially mood swings. Physical activity is shown to slow some aspects of aging and helps to lift one's emotional outlook due to the release of endorphins. Daily moderate physical activity can also make it easer to get a good night's sleep (though physical activity should be done several hours before going to bed, since endorphins help promote a wakeful state).

5. Acupuncture, massage and Chinese medicine can also alleviate some symptoms of peri-menopause. Talk to your doctor if any peri-menopausal symptoms are making your life especially difficult! Some (though not all) women are good candidates for estrogen replacement therapy during this time. Your doctor can help you determine if this is an appropriate treatment for you.

As far as the intersection between bicycling and peri-menopause, well, there isn't actually anything specific to riding a bicycle. In fact, some kinds of bicycling grow less appropriate as we age. For example, there's a reason you don't see many downhill racers in their fifties and sixties; if you remember that loss of bone density is a byproduct of aging, then you realize that maybe gravity sports aren't a good idea anymore. While such concerns were not my primary reason for giving up competitive racing,    I recognize that continuing to race, especially off-road where I'm more likely to crash, isn't really necessary for me anymore. Still, I try to ride my bicycle every day. Since joining the ranks of what has come to be called the Slow Bicycling Movement (similar to the Slow Food Movement in philosophy), I've come to a point in my life where distance matters far less than frequency. It matters far more that I ride every day, rather than how far I ride.
Note that bicycling is not a weight-bearing exercise (though, as I cheerfully pointed out to Elly during our chat, lifting one's bike into the rack on the front of the bus certainly IS). Weight-bearing exercise helps to slow the effects of bone density loss. Walking, jogging and mowing the lawn with a push-mower all qualify as weight-bearing activities.

This talk came about partly because a thirty-something woman wanted to ask an older woman what to expect when she approaches peri-menopause. I'm part of what I hope will be the last generation whose mothers and grandmothers didn't openly discuss "the change" with their daughters. I would like to think that my generation will be the one that decides it's high time to share our stories and share information with each other and with our daughters. Sharing information is how we help each other get through the various stages of life with grace, humor and goodwill. Riding a bike won't change that.

Riding a bicycle just makes it more fun.

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