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15.01.2010


Strength training keeps women in better shape than HRT

As women reach the menopause, and their bodies produce less of hormones like estradiol and progesterone, they often lose muscle mass and start to build up fat reserves around their waist. If you want to do something about this, there's two ways you can go: put the women on a hormone replacement therapy of course, or let them do weight training. Physiologists at the University of Arizona discovered a few years ago that menopausal women benefit most from resistance training.

Menopause & muscle
Strength training keeps women in better shape than HRT
We don't really know why women's body composition starts to decline at a faster rate when they reach their mid-fifties. An old theory pointed to the body's decline in production of female hormones as the cause. But many of the studies on the relationship between the menopause and decline in muscle mass turned out to have cooked their results.

The great scientific expert on the link between female hormones, menopause and health was the American endocrinologist Eric Poehlman. Poehlman was given a prison sentence in 2006 for scientific fraud. Financed by pharmaceutical companies such as Lilly, Poehlman produced scores of classic studies that showed that menopausal women became healthier, more muscled and slimmer if they were given synthetic hormones. One of his colleagues, however, managed to show that Poehlman had fabricated the data in his studies. [nytimes.com October 22, 2006]

Other studies have shown that hormone replacement therapy increases the risk of cancer. [Lancet. 2005 Apr 30-May 6;365(9470):1543-51.]

Study
And so it came to pass that hormone replacement therapy became a controversial matter. And that's what makes the University of Arizona study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2003, so interesting. It compares what women aged between 40 and 66 can expect from doing weight training for a year and taking hormone replacements for the same amount of time.

The researchers did an experiment with 2 groups of just over 110 women. One group did no training; the other group went to the gym 3 times a week. The women did 2 training sessions at 70 percent of their 1RM, and 1 at 80 percent of their 1RM. They did basic exercises: leg press, hack squats, smith squats, lat pull downs, lateral rows, back extensions en dumbbell presses. On top of that they did stair-climbing or aerobics.

Half of the women in each group were given hormone replacement therapy. Most of them got a pill containing estradiol and progesterone analogues.

Results
The figures below show the effect of training or HRT on the women's soft tissue mass – the body mass that is not bone. The lower figure shows what happened to the women's fat mass.


Strength training keeps women in better shape than HRT


The figures tell us that strength training has a stronger effect on muscle mass than hormone therapy does. Hormone therapy does reduce fat mass, and as a result strengthens the effect of weight training a little, but the weight training has a bigger effect.

The figures above are encouraging, but not enough. They don't show how effective weight training can be. Not all the women were faithful in their training. Many of them skipped training sessions. When the researchers split their data up according to how much training the women had done, they discovered that the more faithfully the women had trained, the stronger the beneficial effect was.


Strength training keeps women in better shape than HRT


Conclusion
“These are very encouraging results", the researchers conclude, "particularly in light of recent reports that have cast a shadow of doubt on the health effects of the most popular form of HRT in healthy postmenopausal women".

Source:
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Apr;35(4):555-62.

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