Menopause and weight gain are closely linked in many women’s minds—the shifting of your curves and appearance of bigger numbers on the scale can be a big shock. Our bodies do change with menopause, but that’s no reason to just accept the bulge and toss out your skinny jeans. Menopausal weight gain is primarily affected by 5 main factors: hormones, exercise, genetics, diet, and stress. While we can’t completely stave off the effects, understanding the changes your body will go through and making small adjustments to your lifestyle can help you reign in your growing belly fat and the health issues—like heart disease and high cholesterol—that often come with it.
What’s a little belly fat?
Our weight shifts as we age, moving to our bellies and expanding our waistlines. Unfortunately abdominal fat is not just an extra bit of padding right under the skin (subcutaneous fat), it is also visceral fat – found deep inside your abdomen surrounding your internal organs.
It’s this visceral fat that increases your risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. Some research has also linked belly fat –regardless of overall weight – with premature death.
Managing your weight and fitness during and after menopause is crucial to staying healthy well after menopause is over. Here are the biggest factors that lead to belly fat and what you can do to avoid it.
Control Your Hormones
While some studies do link lower estrogen to increased appetite, the effect on muscle appears to have a larger impact on your waistline. As estrogen levels dip, muscle mass all over the body shrinks and your muscle to fat ratio decreases. This affects your metabolism (the speed at which your body burns calories) because even at rest muscle burns more calories than fat. A recent study by the Mayo Clinic also found that the lack of estrogen during menopause not only causes fat cells to increase the amount of fat stored, but it is also the cause of fat re-distributing from your hips to your abdomen and thighs.
So the bad news is that even if your diet doesn’t change, your metabolism can slow down and those unused calories might jiggle in places you don’t want them to. The good news is you do have options in controlling your hormones. Contrary to popular belief, estrogen hormone replacement therapy (HRT) doesn’t cause you to gain weight.
Recent studies show that HRT administered for menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings can also help you avoid abdominal fat by keeping your muscles healthy and your curves where they are. There are also natural options for boosting estrogen in the body—including certain herbs and plant based phytoestrogen.
Certain parts of our lives might calm down a bit as we grow older, but this is not the time to give up on exercise. A National Institutes of Health review found that people who did aerobic activities for at least 10 minutes every day had waistlines that were on average 6 inches smaller than those who did not exercise.
But don’t just stick to aerobic exercise, as we’ve seen muscle building is keyto maintaining your health through menopause. A combination of aerobic exercise and strength training not only helps you build muscle, but also assists in maintaining bone density and preventing osteoporosis –for which menopausal women are also at a higher risk.
Exercise also increases the release of endorphins (happiness hormones), which help combat other symptoms of menopause such as mood-swings, depression, and anxiety. It might feel like a chore at first, but once you get into a routine, exercise can make you feel (and look!) amazing.
You’ll also want to exercise those super important muscles that you can’t see: your pelvic floor muscles. During menopause you lose muscle tone in every part of your body, including your pelvic floor, which can contribute to issues with incontinence, vaginal dryness, and even prolapse. So be sure to keep up with your Kegel exercises and invest in a good Kegel exerciser to help you keep your most important muscle group as toned as the rest of you.
Adjust Your Eating Habits
To keep a healthy weight you have to burn more calories than you eat, but that doesn’t mean that you have to starve yourself – just start eating healthier. One University of Pittsburgh study of 465 overweight and obese post-menopausal women showed that women who ate more fruits and vegetables while reducing desserts, meat, and cheese not only lost weight, but also maintained that weight loss for four years. Work in some time to speak to your doctor or a nutritionist, you don’t have to give up all of the foods you enjoy, just be aware of where that extra slice of cake (handful of chips) might end up.
Understand Your Genes
This is one case in which you really do get it from your mama. Women in the same family often have similar experiences with menopause-whether it’s hot-flashes or weight gain. Have a chat with your mother, aunts, and sisters about how they were affected by menopause, who better to help you prepare for it than someone close to you who has already been through it?
Manage Your Stress
Menopause is a time of change not only in our bodies, but also other parts of our lives, we see changes in our families, with children moving out or older relatives passing away, as well as increases in responsibility at work and strains on their marriages. All of these changes often create higher stress levels, which have been linked to increased appetite and a lower rate of exercise in all people. Finding a way to eliminate or manage stress early is a good way to ensure that you keep those inches off. If you’re already exercising it will go a long way toward relieving stress, but there are other simple things you can do to lower your risk.
Make an effort to spend time with your friends and family, and use that time to laugh and decompress. Laughter stimulates circulation and brings more oxygen into your blood and organs while simultaneously releasing endorphins and relaxing your muscles. If you prefer to take a little “me” time, meditation is a great way to calm your heart rate and even improve your mood and memory retention (and we all know how stress can make us scatterbrained).
Just remember that you are not alone in this, all women go through menopause at some point and there’s a good likelihood your friends are also struggling with some of the same issues. Work together to ease the strain and keep each other motivated. You can do it and opening up to your friends and family about your experiences can help you understand and cope with all of the changes you’re going through.