When women enter the menopause, their levels of physical activity drop, putting them at risk of developing health problems. Until now, the link between these two events was largely unexplained, but new research from University of Missouri has offered some insight.
The team found a connection between a reduced number of ovarian hormones and changes in an area of the brain that processes positive messages relating to reward, pleasure and motivation during physical exercise.
According to their findings, published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, receptors in this area of the brain could be key in developing future treatment to improve motivation and encourage more women in this age group to get active.
Dr Victoria Vieira-Potter, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri, said after the menopause women become more susceptible to weight gain and health issues.
She explained that this can be frustrating for women, especially as they are having to deal with other changes to their body during this time. However, identifying this link could help develop better ways to support women in this situation, reducing the risk of their mental and physical health being affected by a sudden weight gain.
Along with her research team, Dr Vieira-Potter observed changes in the physical activity of rats. They found that even those who were highly active previously exhibited a sudden drop in their physical activity levels when they had their ovaries removed.
The researchers found this reduction in activity correlated to a drop in dopamine signalling levels, which meant that how the rats felt after exercise had been affected.
Dr Vieira-Potter said: "The findings confirm previous evidence in humans and rodents that weight gain that occurs after menopause is likely due to decreased overall physical activity rather than increased energy intake from diet. Understanding what is causing the decrease in activity and subsequent weight gain may allow us to intervene, possibly by activating dopamine receptors, to preserve the motivation to be physically active."
The study highlights the importance of getting involved in physical activities as you age. This, along with a balanced diet, reduces the risk of a wide range of health problems from diabetes to cancer and even mental health problems.
If you are looking into care homes for yourself or a loved one, activities and nutrition are likely to be key concerns as they can have such a significant impact on health and wellbeing at any age.