Esther Shaw on strength training

Exercise, as we all know, can be one of the best things you can do for your health.

For me, it has been vital for both my physical – and mental – health, as I navigate being pushed into early menopause at 43, having had chemotherapy for just under four months over the summer of 2020.

This came after getting diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer that April. At the time, I was just 41. My eldest had just turned five, and my youngest was not yet one.

I’ve always been pretty sporty and active – I’ve run the London marathon twice, I play netball every week, I’m a yoga bunny and I love the outdoors. I’ve also been somewhere between vegetarian and vegan since I was nine, and I’ve never smoked. But as I’ve learnt all too-well, cancer does not discriminate; and I was one of the unlucky ones.

Following surgery in September 2020 and two weeks of intensive radiotherapy a few weeks later, I was given the ‘all-clear’ by October 31 that same year – or at least the closest thing you get to an ‘all-clear’ as far as cancer is concerned.

At the start of 2021, I was determined to go at life at full pelt once again. I’d lost my hair, was out of shape, and wanted more than anything to get back to ‘me.’

I found an amazing local personal trainer in Battersea, south-west London, who was willing to train me for 45 minutes a day, five days a week. Jordan Holtom (jordanholtom.com), who offers both in-person PT sessions, as well as online coaching via his app, is a humble, caring and super-knowledgeable 30-year-old New Zealander. He somehow combines an ultra-calming manner with the skill of motivating you to push yourself hard. Really hard.

We spent the first few months of 2021 doing a lot of cardio – come rain, shine (or even snow) – in a quiet corner of Battersea Park, with a little strength training built in. But increasingly, as the weeks went by, strength training became my ‘go-to’ – and my passion.

Once the gyms re-opened in spring 2021, just after I’d turned 42, I moved my training indoors. I transitioned to doing three 60-minute – primarily strength-focused – workouts a week. Jordan wrote tailor-made programmes for each of my sessions with him, and tracked my progress in detail.

Even though I’ve only taken up this type of training later in my 40s, I’m now a very regular fixture at The Gym Group, Battersea, and I’m lifting heavy. I’m hoping to reach a 100kg deadlift by the end of the year – a massive milestone for me. I’m also comfortably squatting around 60kg, and can now bench press a decent 27kg.

While I knew it was one of the risks of having chemotherapy, recent blood tests measuring for the FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) confirmed what I already suspected: that I have been pushed into early menopause.

I’m taking all sorts of steps to deal with the tiredness, the mood swings and the brain fog, including eating more carefully (with a big focus on protein, good healthy fats and complex carbs), dramatically reducing the amount I drink, ensuring I get good sleep and having therapy with a brilliant psychotherapist.

But right now, thanks to my strength training, I’m also living life with renewed energy; I’m back to being fit, and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.

Dr Aishah Iqbal who is also herself a PT, weight loss coach and mum, says: “as we go through perimenopause and menopause, bone mass decreases, putting women at risk of osteoporosis, a health condition which weakens bones, making them fragile and more likely to break. This happens due to the decline in oestrogen. Muscle mass is also on the decline for all of us as we age. But strength training plays a role in helping maintain – as well as build – muscle. This will help reduce the risk of falls and fractures often seen in older women.” The key is focusing on exercises which put some strain on your muscles – in a good way.

Dr Iqbal says: “squats, lunges, deadlifts and chest presses are all brilliant examples of moves which not only help strengthen muscles, but which also help to develop strength in movements you might find yourself doing at various parts of the day.”

While a common concern from many women is that strength training will make them bulky, the experts are quick to allay these fears. Dr Iqbal says: “We do not have as much muscle mass as men, and in order to create that ‘bodybuilder’ appearance, we would have to be strength training at the level of an athlete to get even close to that.”

Jordan Holtom, my PT, adds: “women are often scared that lifting weights will make them bulky, but this is an old-school mentality. For women, regular strength training has a wide range of benefits for healthy aging, including building muscle mass and getting lean.”

If you’re in your 40s or 50s and feeling nervous about picking up weights for the first time, keep it light and easy at the outset. Try a drop-in class at your local gym, and if you can, get a PT or instructor to help guide you through the exercises, equipment and right number of reps. This can help it feel less overwhelming.

Equally, it can be helpful to remember that strength training is not only about lifting weights.

Physiotherapist, Becky Sessions who specialises in women’s health, says: “there’s plenty to be gained by doing an online class or workout from home, using just your body weight. In fact, simple activities, such as going up and down stairs, carrying shopping, or heavy gardening, can all help build strength.

A combination of muscle strengthening and weight-bearing exercises, together with other lifestyle changes, such as good nutrition and sleep, can have a massive impact on your overall health.”

Dr Folusha Oluwajana a portfolio GP in north London – and also a personal trainer – adds: “regular strength training has been widely shown to reduce the risk of developing conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes. It has a positive impact on factors which can affect the development of disease by, among other things, improving insulin sensitivity, reducing blood pressure, and helping individuals maintain a healthy weight. Strength training also has a positive effect on our brain and mental health. It is proven to improve stress levels and is an effective tool for the management of anxiety and low mood.”

For me, getting into a routine of regular strength training sessions has, without doubt, been about looking after my mental health, too.

Weight-lifting has truly been life-changing in the way it’s helped me cope with the trauma and fallout from a breast cancer diagnosis. It’s also really helping as I navigate my midlife, including being pushed into early menopause and, at times, symptoms of both anxiety and depression. And it continues to be a big part of my journey as I work on moving slowly forwards with my life.

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We understand there’s a lot of information out there on the menopause. You can read through the NICE guidance on menopause management, as well as the NHS overview on the menopause.