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Get up to speed, girls

Adrenalin-pumping exercise can have a few pitfalls for women. Here’s how you can tackle these bumps and get back on the track to fitness.

health and fitness Updated: Jan 23, 2010 11:56 IST
Manisha Malhotra

Of course exercise is an elixir for body, mind and soul. But for those of us women who are either rigorously training athletes or have punishing everyday workouts, a few problems crop up along the way, which require us to pay a wee bit more attention to the way we exercise than the average Joe.

Because women have a certain kind of genetic make up and body structure, they need to take factors like body structure, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause into consideration if they train intensively and more so if they practice a sport.

How much is too much

Too much of a good thing can be harmful and the same holds true for exercise as well. Intensive exercise has been known to cause various dysfunctions in women like amenorrhea (when menstruation stops), oligomenorrhea (irregular menstruation) and eating disorders. While we don’t actually know why rigorous exercise causes menstrual problems in some women, several studies have shown that the menstrual cycle returns to normal when the activity levels reduce. So if you face a similar problem just pace down your programme a bit; and then try taking it up again very gradually.

For world-class athletes struggling with severe menstrual pains, using contraceptive pills usually controls the cycle and ensures that they don’t have their period during major competitions. However, most athletes seem to have no problem competing even during their period. Sprinters and other athletes have even been known to get pregnant 2-3 months before a major competition like the Olympics because the hormones produced by the body in this phase allow the body higher pain tolerance, which lets the athletes train harder.

Body structure

A woman’s body structure too can pose a problem, especially if she practices high-impact sports or is used to vigorous exercise. Such exercise often causes the Cooper’s ligaments (muscles that support the breasts) to stretch and can cause the breasts to sag.

To avoid this, women should choose a well-fitting sports bra, as it prevents stretching of the ligaments, gives good breast support, and prevents them from sagging. A good sports bra also prevents tension and strain in the upper back and neck, which can lead to an array of different injuries.

When workouts take a toll

Exercise isn’t always a fun, stress busting activity for all women. Social pressures to have really slender bodies can take their toll on some women and force them to take dire short cuts to weight loss. Popping weight loss pills to lose weight can have side effects and can be detrimental to health in the long run.

In fact, studies have now shown that protein supplements help you lose weight far better than weight loss pills. Protein supplements also help metabolise fat and promote lean muscle growth, while giving your body a healthy boost.

Women also inherently have higher fat content than men, but there is no scientific proof that it is tougher for women to develop lean muscle.

Eating disorders

For women who are constantly battling the bulge or are in professions where a slender appearance is a pre-requisite, eating disorders are rampant as well.

Disorders like anorexia and bulimia are also prevalent in the world of professional sports, especially where there are weight restrictions. Although research shows that the root cause of eating disorders is more psychological (low self esteem, insecurity, etc), it is tackled by entering a controlled environment where diet and exercise are prescribed in a harmonious balance.

Eating disorders are probably the most deadly of the things discussed here because they can have tremendous side effects and can lead to diseases like osteoporosis.

Bone trouble

Women are four times more likely than men to be affected by osteoporosis, a disorder that causes bones to become fragile and break due to premature bone loss and lack of calcification. The disease is caused in women by a decrease in estrogen, which, besides menopause, can happen with thin athletes or anybody who has an eating disorder like anorexia.

Doing the right sort of exercise is the best way to prevent it. So while most women tend to avoid strength training from an unreasonable fear of putting on bulk, it is in fact rather important. Strength training exercises force the muscles to resist gravity and cause the bones to gain strength and absorb more calcium.

Exercises like light weight lifting, stair climbing, hiking, using resistance bands, dancing, aerobics, and jumping stimulate the cells to grow new bone and prevent osteoporosis. Packing on lean muscle to the frame helps women offset the chances of osteoporosis later on in life.

Tricky phase

Menopause is another tricky phase in every woman’s life, and exercise is without doubt a woman’s best friend during this time. Menopause wreaks havoc in women due to hormonal imbalances. However, with the help of exercise, a woman can deal with her physical and emotional changes in a far better way.

Exercise causes the adrenal glands to produce more estrogen and balance out the mood swings. Exercise also helps women control the weight they gain during menopause, which in turn helps protect the spine and other load bearing joints.

Activities like walking, swimming and biking, coupled with a few sessions of weight training have proven to work wonders for women’s health and have helped them ease into menopause without the usual side effects like hot flashes, depression and anxiety.

The bottom line is that exercise has to be part of every woman’s regimen. While it can pose problems to some women when practiced intensively, totally giving it up doesn’t do anything for good health.

Manisha is a former tennis professional who won a silver medal at the Busan Asian Games. She is now administrator for the Mittal Champions Trust