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By Diane Spicer
Welcome, menopausal hikers!
First, a bit of celebration.
I don't know about you, but I always found the cramps, the frequent stops to change pads or tampons, and the personal hygiene issues related to menstruation to be impediments to a satisfying hiking trip.
Don't get me wrong.
I appreciate being a female.
I deeply appreciate the fact that my monthly menstrual cycles resulted in my two wonderful offspring.
But I do not miss having periods.
There, I've said it.
Now let's move on to explore this normal transition from a menopausal hiker's perspective.
If you're in your forties (perimenopausal), these issues might be of interest because you can prepare yourself in advance to stay strong on hiking trails.
If you're in your fabulous fifties, you're aware already that things are changing in your body.
The trade-off for no monthly bleeding is less estrogen in the body.
And that affects more than just the reproductive system.
Specifically for menopausal hikers, we're focusing on changes in bones, heart, urinary bladder, cognition, and balance.
Let's take a look at each of them in turn to see how those changes affect us on the trail.
Estrogen levels are decreasing as women head into their fifties, putting them at an increased risk for fracture compared with younger women, and also compared with men of all ages.
Any of them, but for menopausal hikers, we're concerned with hips and vertebrae (backbone) because they bear our weight and give us maneuverability on the trail.
How to protect those precious bones?
For starters, be smart about how you put on your pack (good ergonomics).
Better yet, use a handy rock or log as a prop and sit down
while you get your pack on.
Even better, ask your hiking partner to lift
it for you!
I avoid this whole thing most of the time by keeping my pack on at all rest breaks shorter than 15 minutes, taking it off only at lunch time and at the end of the day.
Another thing to consider: is your backpack packed properly? Weight distribution matters!
Another bone protector: regular moderate weight bearing exercise.
Getting a bone density screening (DEXA) to keep an eye out for osteoporosis may be a good idea, especially for women over the age of 65 years.
Your "T score" is the number your health care provider wants to know.
It's tough to build lots of bone density after menopause, so be sure to keep what you have.
Diet plays into this in a big way.
Adequate vitamin D (many respected authorities recommend 400 to 800 IU each day) and calcium (1000 to 1500 mg each day has been recommended) levels give your bones the necessary building blocks.
So be sure you're getting enough each
day to safeguard your bone mass via dairy products, leafy greens, and canned fish with bones.
Before menopause, women enjoy protection from heart disease compared with men.
As menopause approacheth, things start to even out.
content of your diet becomes even more important, as does stress
management, smoking, and activity level. These all play into cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels) health.
Since you're a menopausal hiker, I'm guessing that you already have good baseline levels of cardiovascular fitness.
Let's keep it that way, shall we?
If you are a "week-end warrior" type of hiker, maybe you should give your heart muscle daily exercise to keep it ticking along without problems.
Suggestions for you to incorporate into your day:
Do you know your blood pressure?
The "bottom" (diastolic) number is what really counts: you want to be somewhere around 80 - 90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
If it's creeping higher, talk things over with your health care provider.
The "top" (systolic) number shouldn't wander too far over 140, either.
While we're at it, a word about cholesterol is in order.
Every 5 years you might want to consider a complete lipoprotein panel.
This allows you to monitor how much cholesterol and fat carrying proteins you have in your bloodstream.
There are "good" lipoproteins and "bad" ones.
Your health care provider can get you sorted out on which are which, and what your values should be for your age range.
Menopausal hikers need to watch out for elevated LDLs and decreased HDLs, along with increased triglyceride levels - all because of that darn disappearing estrogen.
Here's a distressing subject for menopausal hikers: urine leakage.
It can be very distressing to sneeze and feel a spurt of urine.
On a hiking trail, this causes chafing, and the odor can be problematic.
Why does it happen?
Estrogen, one of our lovely female hormones, is starting to become scarcer (same story as above).
The muscles controlling urination are not getting as much hormonal attention, and will shrink in size (atrophy).
This gives you less control over your bladder function.
So when the intra-abdominal pressure increases during a cough or sneeze, you lose urine to the exterior (incontinence).
Ditto for an unexpected big step off a rock or an uneven trail.
And you might resonate with this T-shirt slogan I saw recently:
"Sometimes I laugh so hard, tears run down my leg."
A few ways to be prepared:
Wear a light pad, one that is specificallydesigned to absorb urine, not menstrual flow.
Cross your legs when you
feel a sneeze or cough coming on.
Include pelvic floor strengthening exercises in your daily exercise routine.
My personal favorite (not!) as an older female hiker: brain fog.
Another little "gift" to look forward to, as you head into menopause! as a hiker
Medical journals also refer to this as "cognitive decline".
Really, isn't it bad enough that our bones are crumbling, our hearts are weakening, and our bladders leak?
(thank you, Suzy Sunshine)
Now we can't remember where we put the bag of dog food we bought yesterday.
Alas, the brain is also going into estrogen withdrawal.
And sometimes we're moody and irritable, on top of being forgetful.
So I have a little plan to keep myself sane.
Other menopausal hikers might enjoy puzzles or games.
Just promise me that you'll do something to keep your brain active and engaged in new learning activities.
Because I want to see you out on the trails.
There's not much in the scientific literature about the loss of balance during menopause.
Instead, it's correlated with aging.
So I won't blame my increasing clumsiness on lack of estrogen, but instead I'll point to my wealth in years: I'm accumulating trips around the sun, AND losing my balance.
Such a deal! (I think not)
I noticed an increase in clumsiness about two years ago.
This was a
completely new experience for me. Can you relate?
At the time, I wrote it off as a momentary balance glitch.
Until it happened again on the trail a few weeks later, when I tripped on a tree root and face planted.
That's when I became a staunch advocate of using hiking poles.
Now when I stumble or waver, I have a pair of allies to keep me upright.
The poles give us menopausal hikers an extra layer of confidence as we negotiate rocky narrow sections of trail, or tap dance over slippery roots.
I no longer dread stream crossings, because I use my poles to:
Of course, poles take a load off your knees when you're going downhill, too, but that's just an added bonus.
I just have to say a few words regarding "vasomotor instability" and "thermoregulation dysfunction".
Statistics predict that 75% of menopausal hikers will experience these, especially within the first 2 years after menstrual cycles stop.
For myself, I've found these bursts of heat extremely useful during cold weather excursions.
In fact, here's a photo of me enjoying a hot flash! I like to think of it as "being my own star": emitting heat as a natural part of my life cycle.
My very first hot flash occurred in a tent on the flank of Mt. Adams (Cascade Range, Washington State USA).
Eventually it dawned on me how great the extra warmth in my sleeping bag felt.
So don't fight it....embrace it.
To help you, here are some strategies for hiking with hot flashes.
I've heard other women refer to these as "power surges".
I kind of like that idea!
Night sweats, not so much.
So there we have it: menopausal hikers must acknowledge and work with the changes in our bodies as we lose an abundant estrogen supply in our bodies.
Have you noticed that menopause is a touchy subject in American society?
The whole aging thing is a touchy subject!
This truly puzzles me.
When did getting older become equated with becoming "less than"?
As an older woman and hiker, I feel just as strong and confident as I ever did out on the trail, and WAY smarter.
I look at all of the years I've spent hiking as training for the next phase of my outdoor career: campaigning for elder hiker of the year!
I hope you do, too.
Want to join a truly private (not Facebook) group of women who know what it's like to experience all of the age related events mentioned on this page?
We're smart, savvy and waiting to welcome you!
Let's show the younger hikers what it means to be an experienced, smart, fabulously menopausal (or post-menopausal) hiker!
It's been said before, but bears repeating:
We're not getting older, we're getting better!