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Prof. Sarah Witkowski: Alleviating Symptoms of Menopause

Research & Inquiry

Sarah Witkowski headshot

Published October 29, 2021

Common symptoms of menopause—hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia—may be well-known. But little research has been conducted on their causes and remedies.

Sarah Witkowski, associate professor of exercise and sports studies, is studying cardiovascular disease risk during midlife. “For women,” Witkowski explains, “that includes the time leading up to and beyond menopause.” This time period presents the most dramatic increase in cardiovascular risk in a woman’s life.

Epidemiological evidence suggests that an increase in hot flashes during perimenopause seems to be related to overall cardiovascular disease risk. 

This knowledge, coupled with the understanding that physical activity mitigates the risk for heart disease, led Witkowski and her lab at Smith to delve more deeply into how physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle relate to hot flashes during menopause.

Their findings were at once telling—and perhaps a bit unexpected: While light to moderate intensity physical activity did not influence hot flashes, intense activity may actually make them worse. Additionally, the longer a woman was sedentary, the more hot flashes she experienced at night.

Witkowski and her collaborators presented their findings at the North American Menopause Society annual meeting in September.

Witkowski says that studies like this are important for helping physicians to make accurate and useful recommendations to their patients. 

This particular study, which included pre-, peri- and postmenopausal women, took into account both objective and subjective symptoms of menopause. While the women in the study self-reported their physical activity and their hot flashes, they were also hooked up to monitors—something that many previous studies did not use.

“It’s not that self-reported data isn’t useful,” says Witkowski. “But having that objective piece helps us see the full picture.”

More research is needed to see whether physical activity provides women relief from other common menopause symptoms, including night sweats. “We know that exercise training allows us to be better at dissipating our body heat,” says Witkowski. “It would make sense that it could help women to not be as bothered by night sweats because they have trained their bodies to handle it.”

Relatedly, Witkowski believes that this increase in physical activity may alleviate menopause-related insomnia and depression in some women. 

“All of these things tend to be interrelated in both the general population and in menopausal women, and all may be assisted by having more regular physical activity,” Witkowski says.

Some of the methods employed by Witkowski’s lab are particularly helpful for students. “I have many students who come to my lab to get experience with human research,” Witkowski says. “Many of them want to go to medical school or become health care professionals, and it’s very valuable for them to learn the skills involved with gathering data from actual people.”

“It’s something I believe very strongly in,” Witkowski adds. “This research helps students get to their next steps, and helps us understand how to support this population.”

Applying this research to one’s own life is not as daunting as it may sound. “Interrupting sedentary behavior is as easy as just getting up and moving around a bit,” advises Witkowski. “You don’t have to go out and go for a run.”