We all know it can become incredibly difficult to control our weight during and after menopause. This is partly due to changes in our hormones around this time. As menopause approaches, our hormones often fluctuate wildly, leading to a whole host of problems: irregular periods, hot flashes, mood swings, changes in appetite, an increase in tummy fat and just general weight gain. The most concerning of these issues is an increase in visceral fat. This is the fat that lies deep in your abdominal area and increases your risk for health problems like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The changes in hormones that happen during menopause make it harder to control your weight in a number of ways – by making it easier for your body to store fat, by decreasing your resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn just by being alive) and by increasing your appetite.
One of the best things you can do to prevent weight gain during menopause is exercise. Research consistently shows that women who are physically active either prevent menopausal weight gain or greatly reduce it. We’re talking about vigorous exercise here, like the kind that really gets your heart rate up. It’s common for women to decrease the intensity of their workout as they age when they really should be increasing it. High-intensity interval training is much better than steady-state aerobics (walking or jogging on the treadmill) for reducing body fat and increasing metabolism.
Also, do not ignore the benefits of weight training. If you’ve never picked up a dumbbell in your life, now is the time to start. As estrogen levels decline, loss of lean muscle mass increases. Weight training helps to preserve muscle while giving your metabolism a boost. If there’s one thing every woman going through menopause needs to do it’s workout with enough weight to build muscle. If you’ve never weight trained before, start small (think 2.5 lb dumbbells), be consistent and work your way up.
The quality of your diet at this time is also key. Limiting processed foods and refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, any sweets) helps to improve insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity declines with age and is a risk factor for weight gain and other health problems. Aim to choose whole foods, like whole fruits and vegetables. It’s also important to get enough lean protein and fiber to keep you full throughout the day.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, at least 7 hours a night, and are taking steps to manage stress. Stress and lack of sleep increase cortisol levels and further add to the problem of tummy fat. When your stressed and fatigued it can also be more difficult to control food cravings and your appetite.
The moral of the story is that by making the right lifestyle choices during menopause (especially leading up to it), you can greatly reduce your risk of gaining weight!