Estrogen patches, supplements boost effects of strength training for menopausal women

AARHUS, Denmark — Many menopausal women try hormonal therapy to help curb symptoms like hot flashes or night sweats. Now, new research has uncovered another significant benefit to using estrogen supplements during menopause. Scientists at Aarhus University report estrogen patches appear to help support muscle maintenance and growth during strength training exercises.

The study found early menopausal women who work out while wearing an estrogen patch show greater muscle growth than other early menopausal women wearing a placebo patch. More specifically, a total of 31 healthy, early menopausal women who had never engaged in strength training took part in a 12-week trial. Over that period, the participants wore either a placebo patch or an estrogen patch (transdermal estrogen therapy) on their abdomen and engaged in supervised strength training sessions three times weekly.

Mette Hansen, an associate professor from the Department of Public Health and the study’s leader, notes that the team observed significant differences between the two groups. The estrogen group displayed much more muscle growth; the increase in muscle cross-sectional area was 7.9 percent among the estrogen therapy group, while the placebo group only reached 3.9 percent.

“The results add to the plus list when it comes to considering estrogen therapy in the early stages of menopause. Furthermore, when looking at the analysis for muscle stem cells, the potential for muscle growth over a longer training period seems to be greater when estrogen levels are elevated,” says Hansen in a media release.

What does menopause do to muscle and fat?

Likely due to the decline in bodily estrogen that occurs during menopause, older women tend to lose muscle mass and strength at an accelerated rate. The research team’s hypothesis going into this study was that estrogen supplementation would strengthen the response of skeletal muscle to strength training in women entering menopause.

“The study shows that estrogen is an important hormone for women who wish to increase their muscle mass through strength training. After 12 weeks, we saw that the increase in whole-body fat-free mass was 5.5% in the group receiving estrogen, compared to 2.9% in the placebo group. We assume that the larger increase is explained by an increase in muscle mass,” Hansen explains.

Researchers add this documented increase in whole-body fat-free mass did not occur because the estrogen group lost more weight. In actuality, this research indicates estrogen therapy can counteract fat loss during periods of exercise or training.

The placebo group, meanwhile, reduced their overall fat mass levels, including fat on the thigh and between the organs – a development not seen in the estrogen group. Still, women in the estrogen group showed greater positive changes across key health measures such as cholesterol levels. Only women within the estrogen group had an improved cholesterol profile. While both groups improved the marker for long-term blood glucose regulation, the estrogen group improved this marker in relation to regulation of blood glucose the most.

Staying active helps no matter which estrogen supplements you take

In conclusion, study authors say it is a good idea to work out during menopause regardless of whether you’re currently on hormonal therapy or not.

“Although the increase in muscle mass was less in the women who did not receive extra estrogen, there was still a positive trend in the placebo group. The research results thus also underline the fact that all women can optimize their risk profile through regular physical activity and should aim for following the recommendations for physical activity,” says Hansen.

“Whether you take estrogen supplements or not, physical training has a positive effect on the majority of lifestyle-related diseases, and gives you more energy to stay physically active well into old age. Regular physical activity has great impact on the health status of an individual even without changes in body composition. Staying physical active though life creates a self-reinforcing process that is of great importance for the individual’s freedom and quality of life, especially when passing the 50-60 years.”

The study is published in the journal Menopause.

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John Anderer

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