Around the time you hit your mid- to late-forties you probably started noticing something different about your body. Even when you maintain your same diet and exercise routine, there’s a gradual uptick on the scales, and your best attempts to keep your weight in check just don’t seem to work the way they once did. What’s even worse, all the weight you put on seems to go straight to your middle.
You are not alone. According to a landmark study, the average woman gains about four-and-a-half pounds as she starts the transition into menopause in her 40s. And it’s a trend that doesn’t slow down. Without intervention, women continue to put on about a pound and a half each year in their 50s and 60s, according to an article published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
The primary reason for menopause-related weight gain is that starting at about age 30, you lose about a half pound of muscle mass a year and it increases to about a full pound by age 50. Because muscle burns more calories than fat, your metabolism slows down, causing you to put on weight.
So why does most of your weight gain seem to end up around your middle? After menopause, your ovaries stop producing estrogen, and the only place where it can be generated is in your abdominal fat cells. The result is that your body naturally begins storing fat in that area, in an effort to get estrogen. This type of fat, known as visceral fat, is dangerous because it produces the stress hormone cortisol as well as inflammatory proteins known as cytokines. These chemicals force your body to make more insulin, ramping up your appetite and increasing the storage of fat in fat cells. Not only are you putting on more belly fat, but you are at greater risk of developing insulin resistance, a key risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Get moving. If you’re sedentary, starting an exercise program will help you shed pounds as well as relieve menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. If you are already active, turn up the volume. One great way to pick up the pace is with short duration high-intensity interval training (HIIT), where you alternate brief periods of intense physical activity with more relaxed recovery periods. According to a study published in Menopause, obese postmenopausal women who did 10 minutes of HIIT five times a week lost twice as much weight as those who did more traditional endurance exercises, like brisk walking.
Pump it up. To successfully lose weight, as you get older, you are going to have to not only pick up the intensity of your workout, but also lift more weight. Weight training is key to reversing muscle loss that occurs naturally with age. Another study of post-menopausal women in their late 50s and 60s found that those who did an hour of strength training twice a week for eight weeks significantly reduced their body fat compared to a control group. They also reported less physical pain and felt better overall. If strength training is not your thing, consider yoga. It has the same kind of weight-bearing benefits, and may help relieve menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes.
Watch your intake. Researchers tell us that after menopause, following a low-fat diet that includes five servings of fruits and veggies and six servings of whole grains will make you three times more likely to lose weight. It also is recommended that you keep your fat intake under 20 percent, with most of it coming from healthy fats such as olive oil, fish or avocados. Try starting your meal with veggies and protein and eat your starch last. It will significantly reduce your blood sugar and insulin levels and help keep you feeling fuller longer.
Kitchen closed after 7 p.m. Eating only between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. can help in your quest to lose weight, and can result in improved blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Research also shows that intermittent or alternate day fasting, where you eat normally for a day and restrict calories dramatically the next, can work. People who slashed their calories to between 750 and 1,100 for five days a month for three months lost significantly more abdominal fat.
Catch enough zzz’s. Not getting an adequate amount of sleep doesn’t just feel awful, it leads to weight gain over time. Lack of sleep causes your hunger hormones to go haywire: It lowers the levels of leptin, which suppresses appetite, and increases ghrelin, which stimulates your appetite. Talk to your doctor about options for improving sleep, such as hormone replacement therapy, cognitive behavior therapy or some medications. Regular exercise and maintaining a screen-free bedroom can also help.
The good news is that losing weight after menopause is possible – but it does take more effort. Eating a healthy diet and getting enough of the right kind of exercise will boost your waning metabolism and recharge your ability to burn extra fat. Wherever you are in the menopausal transition, it’s never too late to take charge and reverse the effects of hormonal changes