"Women going through menopause need to be active. I only learnt front crawl at 45…..and now I’m addicted to open water swimming" - Women In Sport

“Women going through menopause need to be active. I only learnt front crawl at 45…..and now I’m addicted to open water swimming”

December 2020

Thanks to funding generated by players of People’s Postcode Lottery through the Postcode Sport Trust, we’re continuing our work supporting women going through menopause. Through research and campaigning, we will help women feel empowered to take up exercise at this stage of life. We know everyone’s experience of menopause is different, so we’re shining a light on how women navigate this time of life across our website, social media and through a photography project with Getty Images. 

We’re delighted to welcome author and journalist Lorraine Candy on board to support this work as our mid-life ambassador. In her first blog for Women in Sport, Lorraine has shared her experience of menopause and how the discovery of open water swimming changed her life.

When I turned 45, I hit what can only be described as a low patch. Out of nowhere I would suddenly feel anxious and experienced my first ever panic attack. At the time I was editor in chief the monthly fashion magazine ELLE. I was a married, working, mum of four children and up until then I had been managing my life in a reasonably organised way. Then out of the blue, I was knocked for six with insomnia (something I had never suffered from before), low mood, intense headaches (again new to me), dizziness, palpitations, night sweats and at times extreme exhaustion.

My coping mechanism for any changes in life is usually to get active. I know that my energy comes from keeping moving and I had just begun to run half marathons and box to mitigate the mental health symptoms I was experiencing. I felt ok, as I was keeping active, and I was glad to be a healthy role model to my three daughters and my son, but I still knew something was off.

After a trip to the GP where I was offered anti-depressants by a confused male doctor, I started to research what my symptoms may indicate. The last thing I expected to unearth was the perimenopause. I had wrongly assumed I was too young to be going through the menopause and I knew nothing about the long list of symptoms that occur as your hormone levels decrease with age. I had not even heard the term perimenopause before, which starts before your final period. It was shocking that as a journalist specialising in subjects close to women’s hearts and minds, I had not come across this medical term.

Arming myself with facts, I went back to the GP again, who said he couldn’t help and referred me to “a more knowledgeable lady GP.”

The new GP recommended Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) but unfortunately, she prescribed the wrong dose. It took 18 months of further research and going privately to see menopause guru Dr Louise Newson who adjusted the levels of HRT for me to feel normal again. Newson’s Menopause All You Need to Know in One Concise Manual is a must read.

“I had wrongly assumed I was too young to be going through the menopause and I knew nothing about the long list of symptoms that occur as your hormone levels decrease with age.”

It’s shocking that despite perimenopause and menopause affecting more than 50% of the UK population, medical professionals aren’t receiving the proper training or being provided information to help women who are in desperate need of support.

This journey should not have been so difficult. If I found it hard as a white British woman with the privilege of being able to access healthcare privately, how hard must it be for those in a much less fortunate position? Many women in midlife are suffering for no reason because ultimately HRT is inexpensive to prescribe, just as safe for most women as many other medications, and once you have regulated your hormone levels life can be magnificent. Not everyone can take HRT but there are other effective lifestyle changes and other treatments to be explored.

Women in midlife lack a voice around the menopause and perimenopause; it isn’t discussed out loud and it should be. My family were relieved when I was less angry, less forgetful (all symptoms of perimenopause caused by the loss of oestrogen, which aids brain function). I made an effort to talk about what I was going through with those around me, especially my husband. I came across campaigners like Diane Danzebrink, of the Make Menopause Matter campaign, who was on the verge of taking her own life because of her symptoms.  Women are clearly suffering from going through the menopause and the perimenopause and need access to information in easily digestible forms.

I launched a podcast called Postcards from Midlife with fellow magazine editor Trish Halpin and we set about interviewing experts. One of the themes we noticed through our interviews with experts was that physical activity was crucial in alleviating many of the symptoms or helping women cope with what they were going through. It didn’t need to be extreme or competitive sport, but the advice we repeatedly heard was to get moving, get outside if possible, find your community and plan your activity.

I have now taken up, and become addicted to, open water swimming. It gives me the most amazing feeling and a stronger immune system. Much research is now being done on how cold-water swimming, or wild swimming as it is sometimes called, promotes good mental health and could help prevent dementia. It is particularly good for women going through menopause, according to studies being carried out.

“I always get in the water even if only for a few minutes because it is my meditation.”

Open water swimming also brings together a phenomenal community of likeminded and supportive people. I have met some of the best humans on earth on the side of lakes, lidos and at the sea’s edge. This was a revelation for me, and I cannot think of any other sport which has such camaraderie. I approach open water swimming as I do any sport: slowly. I only learnt front crawl at 45, I have never been a good technical swimmer and I am still often the slowest on the lake or in the sea, struggling to keep up. But I always get in the water even if only for a few minutes because it is my meditation. The community – even complete strangers I have met on open water swim Facebook groups – will always talk to you face to face or virtually. You don’t have to “crush it” every time you get out there. The first step is just to put your costume on, which is one step further away from not doing it all and one stop closer to getting into the water.

I am not competitive about sport and keen to view it more as a fun activity as opposed to exercise. Keeping your bones and muscles strong as you age is vital so if all you are ready to do is walk then that is a start, but you must get up and move in midlife to protect your future physical health. Women going through perimenopause and menopause need to be active, so find a friend who’ll do it with you and join a group, or simply start by being outside. Every step counts. And you won’t regret a minute of it.

Lorraine Candy, 52, is a journalist and author. Her first book; “What’s Wrong With You: 101 Things Only The Mothers Of Teenage Girls Know” will be published by 4th Estate in June 2021. She co-hosts the podcast Postcards From Midlife and writes for various national newspapers. She is the former editor of Cosmopolitan, Elle and The Sunday Times Style.