Women and Musculoskeletal Health: How Your Body Benefits from Exercise Therapy

Learn about what exercise therapy is and how it can benefit women’s musculoskeletal health.

Published Date: Feb 14, 2024
Woman doing squats in her living room.
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Consider this a PSA from your joints, muscles, and bones: They want you to take good care of them now — before chronic pain, osteoporosis, or other health issues crop up. This is true for all sexes and gender identities, of course. But this article focuses on raising awareness for women’s musculoskeletal (MSK) health issues that may get overlooked or deprioritized in the grand scheme of All. The. Things. women are encouraged to focus on when it comes to their health. 

“There are so many reasons women should care about their MSK health,” says Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. When you’re able to move and exercise without pain or limitations, it helps reduce the risk of so many other health issues — heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, dementia, and different types of cancer, to name a few. “Doing things that benefit your MSK health can quickly turn to benefits for your entire body,” Dr. Stewart adds. 

Hinge Health physical therapists have one main goal: to help members alleviate or prevent pain and other MSK issues so they can keep doing what they love or need to do. 

If you have some aches and pains (like, say, the 32% of women who report chronic back pain or the 25% of non-pregnant women who report pelvic floor problems), this is a plug to take action. There’s a lot you can do to relieve your symptoms and get back to running on all cylinders. If you don’t struggle with pain, consider this a friendly reminder that there’s a lot you can do to prevent it. 

Time is a precious commodity, but prioritizing your MSK health doesn’t need to be a chore or another item on your long list of to dos. “You can squeeze this into a busy schedule and it will have huge effects,” says Dr. Stewart. It’s as simple as finding 10-15 minutes in your day for some targeted stretching and strengthening exercises — aka exercise therapy

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Stewart is a Hinge Health physical therapist with over 8 years of experience. She is certified in myofascial trigger point therapy.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.

A Look at Women’s Unique MSK Issues 

The musculoskeletal system is made up of bones, muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons. It provides the framework of your body, influencing posture, your ability to move, and everything in between. 

Men and women can experience the same MSK issues but some conditions are more common in women, or are unique to them. Hormonal fluctuations, pregnancy-related changes, and menopause all influence musculoskeletal health.

Research shows that women are more prone to back pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and frozen shoulder. And because of how their hips are angled to allow for child bearing, they’re more likely to develop knee pain. “We also see more headaches and neck pain because women have a tendency to carry stress in that area of their body,” says Dr. Stewart.

This doesn’t mean that being born female automatically sets you up for more — or more severe — MSK issues. It simply means that recognizing these issues may help you take better care of yourself. 

Let’s Explore Exercise Therapy  

Exercise therapy is a type of physical activity that’s tailored to your unique needs, with a goal of reducing pain and improving function, explains Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. It goes beyond the idea that exercise is just a fitness regimen. Rather, it is a personalized approach to improve or restore physical function, address specific health concerns, reduce pain, and enhance overall well-being. 

Exercise Therapy vs. Physical Therapy or Just Working Out

Exercise therapy is different from “plain old” exercise, which — for the record — we’d never knock because any type of movement can be beneficial for you. “The distinction is that ‘working out’ isn’t necessarily aimed at improving musculoskeletal pain symptoms,” explains Dr. Peterson. Exercises in an exercise therapy routine are more targeted.  

Exercise therapy is also different from physical therapy. There are similarities between the two, but physical therapy is administered by a licensed physical therapist or physical therapy assistant. Like exercise therapy, it’s aimed at improving mobility, reducing pain, and enhancing overall physical function. Exercise therapy can be a significant component of physical therapy, but PT can include other interventions, too.

At Hinge Health, our members can see their own licensed physical therapist who prescribes exercise therapy and personalizes and oversees their care plan. A personalized exercise therapy program can address any number of health issues that affect women, from arthritis to osteoporosis to everyday head-to-toe aches and pains. Whether you’re already super active or could use more physical activity in your daily routine, here’s how a simple exercise therapy plan can benefit your body now and in the future.

How Exercise Therapy Helps Women

“Movement is like a multivitamin,” says Dr. Stewart. It nourishes your body in so many ways, and incorporating it into your routine helps to augment all the effort you put into your health and well-being. Here are a few of the many ways you can benefit from it. 

1. Prevent and Manage Chronic Pain 

Exercise therapy serves as a natural pain management tool for women dealing with MSK issues. It helps with joint flexibility and mobility, which prevents stiffness and discomfort. It also increases strength, which gives joints better support and stability. Furthermore, physical activity releases endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. Targeted exercises can address specific pain points and contribute to long-term relief.

2. Strengthen Bones 

One of the primary benefits of exercise therapy is its ability to enhance bone density and muscle strength through weight-bearing exercise. “Women have a higher risk of osteoporosis, which relates to low bone density,” says Dr. Stewart. “Weight-bearing exercise — anything that loads your bones or puts weight on them — is what we use to treat that.” Think: walking, jogging, playing pickleball, dancing, resistance training (e.g., squats, lunges, push-ups, resistance band exercises), exercise therapy, or carrying a bag of groceries. Just about any activity where you’re on your feet and moving against gravity stimulates bone growth, improves muscle mass, and contributes to overall skeletal health.

3. Improve Mental Health 

You may already know this one: Mental health is very closely tied to physical health. And when it comes to MSK health, this connection is even more profound. Mental health challenges can contribute to MSK conditions, and struggling with MSK pain can greatly impact mental health. This can be a tricky cycle to break, but exercise certainly helps — a lot. 

Research shows that physical activity is associated with improvements in sleep, anxiety, depression, and a number of psychiatric disorders. Exercise therapy is commonly recommended to inactive adults as a means to improve quality of life. “Movement helps to balance hormones,” says Dr. Stewart, including stress hormones like cortisol. This helps people manage anxiety and depression and fosters a sense of empowerment and self-efficacy. 

4. Enhance Sleep

Sleep does more than just allow you to wake up feeling refreshed. It’s actually when your body repairs and regenerates, making it really important to MSK health. Poor sleep can also heighten sensitivity to pain. 

There are many ways to improve sleep, like establishing a calming bedtime routine, increasing your time spent outdoors, reducing caffeine, and more. And exercise therapy is not only an effective strategy to improve sleep quality and duration; it’s also efficient. A little bit goes a long way. “Remember that you don’t have to have a total lifestyle change to make an impact on your MSK health,” says Dr. Stewart. Whether it’s walking, strength training, or yoga, a few minutes of movement each day can help regulate hormones and your circadian rhythm (sleep cycle), allowing you to better manage your MSK health and feel your best each day. 

Pregnancy places unique demands on your musculoskeletal system. Making exercise therapy a part of your normal routine before pregnancy sets your body up to cope with the physical changes that occur during pregnancy (hi, back pain). During pregnancy, it helps with discomfort, strengthens your core and pelvic floor muscles, and prepares your body for childbirth. And postpartum? “Think of it as if you were recovering from surgery,” says Dr. Stewart, no matter how you delivered. “Even though your body is designed for childbirth, it’s still a lot for your body to handle, and exercise therapy helps you heal and recover.”  

6. Manage MSK Issues During Perimenopause and Menopause 

Many women experience joint pain and other MSK challenges during perimenopause and menopause. By enhancing muscle strength, flexibility, and joint stability, regular exercise therapy mitigates the impact of hormonal fluctuations on the musculoskeletal system. Weight-bearing exercises can help maintain bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis (which increases with lower levels of estrogen). And the release of endorphins that movement causes can alleviate mood swings, anxiety, and depression commonly associated with menopause. 

As we at Hinge Health always say: Movement is medicine. By acknowledging the unique challenges and physiological changes you face as a woman throughout your life, you can tailor an exercise therapy plan to address and prevent MSK issues. “Women often live or work as caretakers, and it’s easy to disregard aches and pains as they crop up,” says Dr. Stewart. “You want to avoid letting those things turn into (or lead to) prolonged issues. You have to take care of yourself so you can take care of others.”

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  1. QuickStats: Percentage* of Adults Aged ≥18 Years Who Had Lower Back Pain in the Past 3 Months,† by Sex and Age Group — National Health Interview Survey, United States, 2018. (2020). MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(5152), 1196. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm685152a5

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