I've been flying the flag for years that - in general - women are doing too much cardio. With the popularity of bootcamps and HIIT-workout franchises like F45 and Barry's still on the rise, it's no surprise that more than ever I am seeing women of a certain age come into my studio saying:
"I've been doing HIIT* for years, but all of a sudden - it's not working."
*I just want to clarify that I am using the catchall term "HIIT" to refer to high-intensity, often-plyometric-heavy and heart-rate-spiking styles of exercise. If you want to know what the scientific version of HIIT actually is, here's a quick primer.
Most fit women (myself included!) respond to the siren call of super high-intensity workouts from time to time; whether it's a killer CrossFit metcon, a deep-redlining Orangetheory class, a calorie-torching Peloton series or just a good old-fashioned Fitness Blender workout we grabbed off YouTube.
The problem lies not with doing these workouts from time to time (though, based on what I say a bit further down, you may disagree!) but in making them the bread & butter of your fitness lifestyle - at the cost of workouts that might actually do more toward your goals.
An example, from my early thirties: I was living in Washington D.C. for six months on a research project, eager to make connections and stay fit. I joined two groups - a CrossFit gym and a run club - and did every single session I could with both. The result?
Early on, I experienced amazing gains in composition and fitness - I got stronger and more muscular with a combination of 4X/weekly CrossFit and the Paleo diet, and I got leaner and faster by pushing my running pace three times a week with the club. But those seven (!) high-intensity workouts per week, I now realise, had the downside of slowly breaking me down.
Low-level injuries aside (I had wrist issues from all the front-rack barbell work early on and even managed to sprain my rectus abdominus during a particularly high-volume abs session), I started to notice little things.
I was exhausted as hell by mid-week, literally dragging myself to workouts just to stay "on routine." I wasn't gaining any more muscle after about two months of those "newbie" gains, and I was almost always sore to the touch; super-inflammatory. Worst of all, the fat loss had come to a complete stop, and I found the scale tipping the other way, despite maintaining a very high level of activity (and Paleo eating).
Research suggests that consistent HIIT-style exercise can spike cortisol levels, and while with short-term exposure, cortisol levels will return to baseline, with extended and repetitive exposure, stockpiled cortisol can contribute to what's known as 'overtraining syndrome' - symptoms that include fatigue, lowered immunity, and lack of motivation.
What's more is that added stress from high-intensity workouts, loaded on top of the already-stressful demands of being a career professional, parent, caretaker, or the host of other roles that modern women over 40 are consistently occupying, will keep your sympathetic nervous system in a constant state of low-level stress ("fight or flight" mode), which can make you feel constantly exhausted, hungry, and sore.
So what's the solution?
In three words: PROGRESSIVE. STRENGTH. TRAINING. And no, sorry, the jumping-around-with-weights type of training doesn't fit the bill. Progressive strength training refers to slow, tempo-controlled resistance movements done with proper form and alignment, targeting all the major muscle groups of the body with increased volume over time.
In the beginning, this may look like 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps per exercise, done twice per week. Schedule in some level of rest between sets, and space your strength workouts at least a day apart (focus on getting your steps count up between strength days - another often-overlooked element of wellness for women over 40!). Incorporate mobility and core work such as yoga and Pilates, and make sure the movements you're doing address balance and alignment issues as well.
If this sounds like a tall order - you just might need a coach to help show you the way. My LIFTING WOMEN peri/menopause community gives you the structured strength training guidance you need alongside expert advice from me, a certified coach - and the invaluable support of women going through similar journeys, too.
Leave a comment or reach out at @coachamandalim on Instagram to learn more about hormonal healthy issues, stay on top of the latest science, and FEEL better in your bod!