Menopause Peer-Support Groups, Strength Training Enhance Health for Older Women

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 29, 1999 (New York) -- Many women go through menopause with trepidation, seeing it as a time of loss, unwelcome physiologic changes, and general feelings of anxiety. Peer-support groups and strength training can help women make a positive transition through menopause and later life, according to new research presented at the 10th Annual Meeting of the North American Menopause Society. Not only do women reap benefits in terms of improved coping with symptoms around menopause, but they also see long-term benefits in their self-esteem and physical health, the studies suggest.

The Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston has pioneered menopause peer-support groups. These groups help women with bothersome symptoms, such as insomnia, mood swings, hot flashes, generalized anxiety, and fears about what menopause is doing to their bodies. Leslee Kagan, nurse practitioner and co-director of the perimenopause/menopause group at the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health, tells WebMD that the program is designed to teach women "self-nurturance."

In a 10-week session, a small group of women meet to discuss what they are going through. Women are taught a range of techniques that aim to change their perspective on menopause and help them appreciate that they are "transitioning into a different phase of their life," says Kagan. A key part of the program involves teaching women to practice the relaxation response. Women take tapes home to learn how to do it, and "we recommend that they practice it for 15 minutes twice a day," says Kagan. The relaxation response was pioneered by Mind/Body Medical Institute founder Herbert Benson, MD.

Yet Kagan emphasized that the program uses many other modalities, such as group support, behavioral techniques, exercise, time management, and stress management. "Using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, women think more positively and get past worries such as, 'I am getting old, I am getting fat, my reproductive years are over,'" said Kagan.

Kathy Castagna participated in the program when she was faced with "terrible insomnia and a generalized feeling of anxiety" as she approached menopause. "I was in such bad shape that I was desperate," she tells WebMD. "Someone told me about the program and my insurer covered it. ... The relaxation response really helped me to get control and the group dynamics were a big help," says Castagna. She credits the program with making a major change in her mood and general well-being.

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In two other papers, researchers from Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and Oregon State University in Corvallis reported gains in muscle and balance with progressive strength training. Tufts University's Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, author of the book Strong Women Stay Young, described a strength training program that can be done at home by both healthy and frail women to strengthen their muscle and prevent falls.

Nelson reported a moderate improvement in balance as well as an approximately 3-pound loss of body fat among healthy women participating in the program. For the women at an increased risk of falling, the risk of sustaining an injury due to a fall decreased by 40%.

Christine Snow, PhD, director of the Bone Research Laboratory at Oregon State University in Corvallis, reported similarly encouraging results with an innovative weighted vest program. Snow believes side to side stability is key in avoiding falls. Women wear the vests and do chair raises, squats, and forward and side lunges with their arms free. As they gain strength, more weights are added to the vest. They also do toe raises without the weighted vests.

Among 48 women who participated in a nine-month exercise program, she found that lean leg muscle mass improved by 4% and leg fat declined by 8%. "Older women [made less use of] assisted devices to walk, ... and others used the stairs more" as a result of the program, said Snow.

Both Nelson and Snow agree that these programs give women better mastery of their environment, enhance self-esteem, and help keep women active. While aerobic activity is certainly beneficial in improving cardiovascular health, when it comes to maintaining bone health and avoiding falls, both investigators say strength training is imperative.

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