Forget the hot flashes, mood swings and brain fog—if you’re approaching or experiencing menopause and noticing extra weight gain, it can become your number one annoyance. Ask any of your girlfriends, workout buddies, or even close coworkers, and they’ll probably have similar gripes to share about the “middle-age” spread that takes ove during this time. But is menopausal weight gain really inevitable? From a medical perspective, there are things you can do to balance your hormones and lose those menopausal pounds. Let’s explore why many women gain weight in menopause and the concrete things you can do to prevent menopausal weight gain in the first place.
What Causes Menopausal Weight Gain?
Lifestyle changes and hormonal fluctuations are likely the causes of weight gain during a woman’s menopausal years. During menopause, there are significant hormonal changes that can affect the way your body is shaped, namely decreasing estrogen. Lower estrogen levels can cause a woman’s fat to distribute itself more in her midsection. Pear-shaped woman can find themselves becoming more “apple-shaped” in middle age. But this change in body shape doesn’t necessarily translate to an higher number on the scale—which is what many menopausal women notice as well.
According to sources at the North American Menopause Society, the average woman gains five pounds during menopause, but some women put on much more. These same researchers, however, will also tell you that there is no scientific evidence that menopause causes weight gain. So our shapes may change…but the number on the scale doesn’t necessarily need to. This is beyond frustrating for anyone dealing with menopausal weight gain. What gives? And what can we do about it?
5 Lifestyle Problems That Contribute to Weight Gain In Menopause…And How To Solve Them
Step one in preventing menopausal weight gain is bringing your hormones into balance as best you can. Check out this article on balancing 4 hormones to lose weight to learn the dietary and lifestyle changes you can do to balance your estrogen, insulin, cortisol, and leptin levels. (Things like cutting back on red meat intake, eliminating processed foods, and taking a magnesium supplement, for example!)
Step two is addressing the lifestyle changes that happen to coincide with the age many women enter or experience menopause. These lifestyle factors can exacerbate menopausal weight gain; if you want to prevent gaining weight in menopause, check to make sure you’re combatting these five lifestyle problems below!
PROBLEM #1: Muscle Loss
Muscle is the active tissue in your body that burns up more calories than body fat. The more muscle you have on your body, the more calories your body burns at rest. As we age, we slowly lose a little bit of that muscle each year if we are not actively replacing it. In fact, as early as age 30 we start to lose 5% of our muscle mass with each passing decade. So by the time menopause rolls around, less muscle and less activity can unknowingly slow down your metabolism and your body’s ability to burn calories.
SOLUTION: Strength Training
Replace lost muscle with strength training! You can lift weights or use your own bodyweight to build muscle all over and in turn, boost your metabolism. The primary reason most women choose not to strength train (besides deciding they don’t have time) is because they think it will make them bulk up. Hear this loud and clear ladies: that is false! Lifting weights -or any other kind of strength training for that matter – does not bulk you up. The only way to get muscles big and bulky is to lift a lot of weights WHILE CONSUMING lots of calories. In addition, extra hormones are often involved in this bulking up process. The complete opposite is true for the woman looking to strength train for health. By building your muscles and eating healthy you are going to wear a smaller size. Keep in mind that although one pound of muscle and one pound of fat both weight one pound, the muscle is condensed and takes up much less space. Another reason women choose not to strength train is that they don’t know what to do. Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training or the 8 Strength Training Moves Women Over 50 Should Do if you want to get started. These will help get you on the right track. If you are looking for even more help and maybe a workout partner to boot, check out some of our great strength workouts on GHU TV you can do at home with coaching and guidance by our trainers. And don’t forget, strength training also burns a lot of calories, strengthens your joints and connective tissue and builds bone density along the way. These are all extremely important as you work your way through menopause and beyond!
PROBLEM #2: Poor Sleep
Sleep can become challenging during menopause, and it tends to set off a whole slew of events with your eating and exercise habits, too. When you don’t get enough sleep, two key hormones in your body—leptin and ghrelin—get thrown out of whack. These hormones are responsible for your appetite, so after a night of poor sleep, you’re literally chemically motivated to eat more in order to feel satiated—and the foods you crave are usually of the salty/fatty variety. Getting a good night’s sleep can often be the first step in addressing poor eating habits and a lack of energy that affects your desire to exercise. So how cruel is that to tell a woman at your age? I’m sure you’d be the first to tell me that poor sleep haunts you fairly consistently and there is seemingly nothing you can do to change it. Let’s take a look at all the options and see if you’ve really tried it all.
SOLUTION: Create Healthy Sleep Habits
First, make your bed for sleeping! It can be so easy to answer emails or texts in bed when you first wake up, or insist upon staying in bed even when you’re tossing and turning. But most sleep experts agree that you should only use the bed for sleep or sex; no computers, cell phones, or aimless tossing and turning allowed! If you find yourself unable to sleep after 15 minutes, you should get up and walk around, do a calming activity like reading a book, or occupy yourself in another way until you get sleepy again.
Second, create a good sleeping environment. Keep your bedroom dark with blackout shades, and get your partner on board with setting the thermostat lower – lower than you might think. According to most sources, between 60-68 degrees is preferred, with 65 degrees being most optimal.
Third, and probably most important, don’t eat sugary, fatty foods or drink alcohol or caffeine too close to bedtime. These are sleep stealers! The fat will build up acid in your stomach and cause heartburn, and the sugar will either keep you awake or wake you up a few hours into your sleep. Alcohol metabolizes quickly and has the same effect as sugar, only worse. If you are hungry before bed, try sleep helpers like a tablespoon of almond butter on whole wheat toast or fruit, 1/2 cup of jasmin rice, 1/2 cup nuts and dried fruit or a 1/2 cup greek yogurt. And do we really need to say why you should avoid caffeine? Just because it didn’t keep you awake in your 30’s doesn’t meant it won’t keep you awake now! You’ve changed.
BONUS: Anecdotal evidence has shown that a few minutes of calm, slow yoga can also promote good sleep. Try this Bedtime Yoga for Better Sleep and see what you think.
PROBLEM #3: New Stressors
Let’s face it, there can be many new and difficult challenges that come with this period in life. Children leaving or marrying, caring for aging parents, a spousal death or illness, job changes or nearing retirement—all these things can add up and cause new and unwanted stress. Stress increases your body’s level of cortisol, which can actually lead to excess belly fat. (If if you want to stay sane and slim at the same time, learn more about the correlation between stress and belly fat here.) No- we can’t change the stress in our lives. Parents will age. Children will leave home. Job changes are inevitable. However, knowing and expecting change and learning how to deal with stress makes all the difference in the world.
SOLUTION: Prioritize Mindful Self-Care
It’s time to put yourself first. Likely you’ve spent many years caring for others—and that’s a beautiful thing—but you shouldn’t feel guilty about putting your self-care at the top of your to-do list. Schedule daily time to meditate, be alone, spend time talking with a friend, reconnect with a creative passion, read a book, or whatever else fills you up. Make it a priority to check in with yourself daily in a calm, mindful way.
Related: The Beginner’s Guide To Meditation
PROBLEM #4: Less Activity
Want to hear some truth? You probably move less that you used to. Take a real assessment of your daily activities and see what you come up with. And it’s not just exercise, though we’ll get to that in a moment. But daily activity – actual steps – get less and less as we age. In the teens and twenties there still sports activities and running around with friends. In your late 20s and 30s your often chasing your kids and taking care of their many needs. Even into your 40s there’s still plenty going on with family and career and life. However as we get into our 50s, 60s and beyond the days tend to be more sedentary and we can become more comfortable and at ease with staying home in the evening rather than being out and about. Usually this turns into more couch time. It’s normal for our daily routines to become more relaxed when we get older. Our lives become slightly less active and most of us simply don’t burn as many calories in middle age as we did during our busy early adult years. As we age, aches and pains in our body also start to add up. When you move less, you lose muscle and gain more weight. And that leads to the dreaded E-word – exercise. Simply put, women in their 50s, 60s and beyond get less exercise which means less muscle and more fat. That’s simple science. Get moving not only for weight management but to keep your joints and bones healthy.
SOLUTION: Consistent Activity
Consistent cardiovascular activity as well as daily movement is equally as important as strength training. You may have heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” Refer to the Mayo Clinic for more on the truth in that statement! Daily movement is key! In addition, cardio strengthens your heart, increases your energy and helps you shed some of the extra pounds you might have already put on. So what if things hurt more than they used to? It doesn’t have to be high impact to work. There are plenty of low impact options around like our Low Impact Cardio Workout you can do at home. And don’t forget about all the benefits of a good walking program! Keep in mind the CDC recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise a week! But in addition, make sure you stay active throughout the entire day. It’s not enough to simply get in a 30 minute workout in the morning and then spend the rest of the day on the couch. Even simple things like gardening, walking the dog, taking the stair, parking far away and daily chores can add up, so keep moving!
PROBLEM #5: Sugar!!!!
Dessert may or may not be the problem for you. The real issue, however, is that unwanted, extra sugar is found in EVERYTHING from barbecue sauce to breakfast sausage to bread! Just read your labels and you’ll see! Unfortunately, not only does excess sugar cause you to pack on the pounds, but excess sugar makes menopausal symptoms worse. Hot flashes and night sweats are most severe in women who eat a lot of sugar. this is called a lose-lose situation. At some point you need reconcile with breaking the sugar cycle and eating more whole, nutritious foods. If you aren’t going to take the time to read labels then consider eating things with fewer labels. Seriously! The more packaged and preserved, the more likely it is to have added sugar. Eating things that come “as-is” is your best bet! Think: a piece of chicken, an egg, a handful of almonds, a sweet potato. Here are some more ideas.
SOLUTION: Eat Quality Food and Less Sugar
Reduce your daily sugar intake for your waistline as well as your hot flashes. Natural sugar found in fruit is better for you because it’s accompanied by fiber; this helps your body break down the sugar more easily as opposed to artificial sugars. Make sure your diet is filled with dark, leafy greens, brightly-colored vegetables and fruits, lean meat and fish. Go organic to avoid preservatives, pesticides and chemicals that disrupte your horomones. Choose foods that reduce inflammation in the body and avoid those white, starchy or sugary carbs that spike blood sugar and end up getting stored as fat. Want to know exactly what it takes to eat clean? Download our best-selling Clean Eating Guide below!
Getting older holds many positive and exciting new changes. However, it also holds its own challenges. Don’t make weight gain one of them. Keep a positive attitude and do what you can to stay healthy and strong. You can always check with your doctor if something seems out of whack or just not right. Remember—it’s your body and you have the power to feel great in it.