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Mini Pause #8: Make the Change to Zone 2 Cardio Training

Zone 2 Training for Energy Heart Health & Metabolic Flexibility

TL,DR (too long, didn’t read)

Much ado has been made about the ideal zones for training. But, as usual, there’s often a gap in evidence to demonstrably show that these sweeping recommendations are also appropriate for women in perimenopause and menopause.

Estrogen, our metabolic superheroine, keeps us insulin-sensitive when we are younger, but as this dwindles in perimenopause and menopause, we should be thinking about Zone 2 as a protective activity for heart health and a way to keep us metabolically flexible.

WHY

The big question I want to answer here is “Why should perimenopausal and menopausal women care about Zone 2 in the first place?”

Simply, as a woman over 40, you want to double down on cardiorespiratory fitness, and Zone 2 trains up mitochondrial function, health, and density. This is going to maximize your capacity to produce energy.

You know the days where you are absolutely bagged and your teenager comes home with drama, the laundry room has clothes piling up on top of the washer, there are seven glasses of water on the counter despite only having two children, the dishwasher needs to be emptied and you still need to find time for your skincare routine, a social life, save money for retirement, and deep condition your hair?

Zone 2 won’t solve these problems, but it will certainly increase your capacity for energy production to help you navigate your to-do list.

Zone 2 also helps to sensitize our muscles to both insulin-dependent and insulin-independent glucose uptake. Said another way, it makes you more carbohydrate sensitive which is something we tend to lose as we age.

It helps to combat inflammation and reactive oxygen species (ROS) and generally slows the aging process.

WHAT

Most exercises are defined into zones based on muscle fiber recruitment and whether the energetic demand is aerobic or anaerobic.

As the energetic demand for activity increases, we will move from burning fat to burning some fat and some carbs to exclusively burning carbohydrates. As the demand increases, your body will turn to glucose for its fuel.

When we think about fiber type distribution, there are differences between men and women. Women typically have a greater distribution and area percentage of Type 1 fibers (“slow twitch”). Men typically have bigger cross-sectional diameters of all fiber types and have more Type 2 fiber types (“fast twitch”).

This is not to say men have MORE Type 2 fibers than women, but that the diameter of our Type 2 fibers is smaller so that the whole body percentage tips towards Type 1. This can certainly be one (of many) reasons why men can exhibit greater muscle strength and power compared to women, and women typically demonstrate greater muscular endurance.

Some have looked at this data and suggested that this means women need less Zone 2 training than our male counterparts. While I think this is true for women in their fertile cycling years, I do think perimenopausal and menopausal women are a cohort unto themselves. Women in their cycling years may need less Zone 2, but as you creep into perimenopause and menopause, your needs change.

As we navigate perimenopause and menopause, we absolutely need to be training up our capacity for Zone 2 AND because our Type 2 fibers are smaller in diameter, we need to also prioritize resistance training and sprinting (in Zones 5 or 6), both of which are anabolic to Type 2 fibers. Sprinting and resistance training will most certainly be topics for future Mini Pause newsletters!

The primary argument that women are better at fat oxidation than men is largely due to estrogen levels. Estrogen has major implications on our metabolism because it helps to sensitize the whole body to insulin. This fundamentally changes in menopause where we see estrogen levels fall off a cliff to one percent of their previous levels. This means that metabolic derangements like insulin insensitivity, Type 2 Diabetes, visceral fat accumulation, dyslipidemia, and weight gain around the abdomen are rampant in menopausal women, despite no changes in their lifestyle habits.

If you want a deeper dive into body composition changes during menopause, read issue 6 of the Mini Pause.

In essence, we lose our metabolic superpowers and now, in menopause, have to work to stay metabolically flexible.

Zone 2 training can serve as a foundational tool to help improve insulin sensitivity. As you get stronger, your power and work output will also continue to increase. You’ll be able to do more work and sustain a higher heart rate in zone 2 as you get better at it.

HOW

Ideally, you can do a Functional Threshold Power test on a bike and multiply this by 80% to get your Zone 2 number. You can read more about FTP here if you’re a nerd or have a champion attention span for details.

I have used my Carol Bike’s 20-minute FTP test to determine my Zone 2 levels and now retest this once a quarter. I like the bike because it is AI-based and calculates my resistance and watts for me–I don’t have to think about it!

If you don’t have an FTP test available to you, you can also crudely measure heart rate by using Phil Maffetone’s MAF equation: 180 minus your age. Then, multiply that number by 80% and that is your baseline HR to aim for.

In full transparency, I do find this equation slightly underestimates my heart rate. Remember, as you get fitter through Zone 2 training, you can work at a higher heart rate and workload. Nonetheless, it’s a good metric to start with.

You can do Zone 2 on any cardio machine as long as you have your target heart rate and stay there. Rucking (walking with a weighted vest or backpack), salsa dancing, or twerking all can get you in that Zone 2 sweet spot. And who doesn’t want to be twerking on the regular?

For my Type A Bettys who don’t think they’ve worked out unless they go max all out, take note: that isn’t Zone 2! I often joke that my toxic trait is being unable to stay in Zone 2 because it barely feels like a workout.

I’m sweating…sort of.
I’m breathing heavier….sort of.

If you can still have a conversation or nasal breath through the workout–but you’re working hard enough that you would prefer not to do either–you’re doing it correctly.

The next question is how often should you be doing Zone 2 work? This is going to depend on how conditioned you are. A beginner to Zone 2 might start at 30 minutes, three times a week, and each week, aim to ramp up the time by a few minutes per session.

Ideally, I would love to get everyone up to a baseline of about 45 minutes, three times weekly. The 45-minute mark is where the mitochondrial magic happens.

There are a few ways I get my Zone 2 training:

  • Most of it is on my Carol Bike, and I aim to get in two longer sessions of about 75 minutes during the week. (If you check out the bike, use code DRSTEPHANIE for a discount.)
  • I recently started yoga and have been doing a few Vinyasa classes per week. I wore my heart rate monitor a few times and, as I suspected, my heart rate was in that sweet spot for Zone 2.

NOW

  • Look at your calendar and see where you might be able to fit in three, 30-minute Zone 2 workouts this week:

-Could you tack it onto a time you are already at the gym?

-Do you like to watch TV at the end of the day? Could you do that with a treadmill and a weighted vest or a stationary bike?

  • Start this week with one 30-minute session. Put it on your calendar right now.
  • Next week, add in two minutes until you are comfortable and able to do 45 minutes at your Zone 2 heart rate.
  • As you monitor your heart rate, you should see, over an eight- to 12-week period, where the intensity of your workout becomes “easier.” You may even notice your heart rate doesn’t get up as high. This is a great sign! It means going ahead and making the workload a little harder. Up your speed, watts (if on a bike), or incline on a treadmill to challenge yourself.
  • Now high-five yourself and your heart for adaptation!

Question of the Week

Q: How do you cope with feeling like you’re losing your youthfulness?

To Kristen in the Bettyverse, thank you for asking what many of us have felt at one time or another.

MORTALITY

I think aging and the feeling of losing your youthfulness force you to contend with your mortality. I think about death probably more than the average person, and I try to contrast it with the life I currently have.

Most of us never thought about the totality of our lives when we were in our 20s and 30s. And yet, in our 40s this thought that we might not be here forever begins to stir and frequent our thoughts more often.

A part of life is death.

And despite the speed at which science is progressing, I think most of us are going to have somewhere around 80 or 90 great years in us. Maybe slightly more, maybe less, but this is a reasonable estimate.

EXPLORE YOUR THOUGHTS

So if you’re 40-something and starting to feel like your better years are behind you, what does that mean?

First, consider why you so heavily place weight on youth:

  • Is it your youthful beauty you are mourning?
  • Your lack of responsibilities like mortgage payments?
  • Your ability to travel without kids?
  • Or does the brain select only the positive aspects of your youth and forget the rest in the name of nostalgia?

Maybe your skin was plumper 20 years ago, but with age, a different kind of beauty emerges.

The beauty of being comfortable in your skin, the unhitching of who you THOUGHT you should be with just being who you ACTUALLY are.

The wisdom and experience of your life can now work harmoniously with the intuition you likely ignored when you were younger. Decision-making gets easier. You fight for yourself rather than sacrifice yourself at the altar of others’ desires. You spend time with people you truly enjoy being around.

As for the aesthetics… sure, our melanocytes are not producing pigment in our hair anymore, and the elasticity of our eyelids is not what it once was. But that is the privilege and gift of aging.

I’ll repeat it for emphasis: That is the privilege and gift of aging.

It is a privilege to watch your children grow up.
It is a privilege to become a grandmother.
And it is even a great privilege to die with people around you who love and revere you.

A life well lived is one where your time is spent without the shackles of what you think you should do and how you think you should act. Forget what society tells you should be. Age brings the ultimate gift of “you do you, boo.”

SHINE YOUR LIGHT

For me, the prospect of aging is more about the time and impact I want to make.

  • I have a gift and I want to share it with as many of you as I can.
  • I’m not going to spend any more time hiding because I fear judgment or criticism from others. I have no time for that!
  • In my 40s, I know what I am capable of, who I am, who I am not, and how to remember who I am when I have temporarily forgotten.

And if we’re just talking about loss of youthfulness: grays can be covered, and skin creams and cosmetic procedures can be applied to make you look younger.

If you don’t become MORE of who you already are, the loss of youthfulness doesn’t matter as much because you’re still warring with yourself internally.

Maybe a soliloquy on mortality wasn’t what you were expecting with this question, but I hope this helped redirect what it means to age, and how lucky you are to do it.

YOUR TURN!

I’ll be answering your questions every week right here in the Mini Pause! Let me know what’s on your mind. I’ll be checking for both questions and feedback at support@drstephanieestima.com.

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P.S. FREE! Hormone Super Conference

Menopause and the years leading up to it could actually be some of the best, most stable, enjoyable, and healthful years of life. I believe this so much I’m going to be a speaker at the online 2024 Hormone Super Conference, March 18-24.

At this event, you’ll learn how to manage hormones (and so much more!) during these periods of your life. 40+ of the world’s foremost experts on hormone health will present breaking science, unmatched wisdom, and proven remedies for stabilizing hormones before, during, and after menopause as a means of experiencing optimal health and joy on every level.

This seven-day online event is 100% FREE of charge. Save your seat right here. And when you sign up now you’ll be given instant access to six BONUS GIFTS!

Hey There!

I’m Dr. Stephanie

I’m part geek, part magic and it’s my mission to be a voice for women who just aren’t getting the answers they need about their health - whether that’s from their friends, their family or their primary health providers.

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