It’s a common complaint among women as they reach menopause age: “Why am I gaining weight?”
Though menopause doesn’t automatically add pounds, it does lead to changes that may make it more difficult to maintain your pre-menopausal weight. For example, research in animals suggests that estrogen may help control weight, and that less estrogen may lower the metabolic rate, which determines how quickly the body burns calories. So, as your estrogen level declines during menopause, you may find you gain weight more easily than you did in the past.
In addition, aging itself can lead to weight gain. As women age, they are less likely to exercise as much as when they were younger. What’s more, muscle mass declines with age.
“The more muscle you have, the more energy your body uses just to maintain it,” says Sanja Jarebica, MD, a family medicine specialist at Scripps Coastal Medical Center, Hillcrest. “When you lose muscle mass, your body doesn’t work as hard to burn calories, making it easier to gain weight.”
Despite these factors, weight gain after menopause is not inevitable. There are steps you can take to prevent unwanted pounds from creeping on. In fact, maintaining a healthy weight is important after menopause, since excess weight increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Here are four evidence-based tips to help you keep the numbers on your scale stable.
The hormonal changes going on in your body during menopause can cause mood swings, depression and fatigue — none of which are conducive to being active or feeling motivated to eat right and exercise. If you have kids going off to college, empty nest syndrome can add to the problem. It can be easy for women to console themselves with comfort food, or just eating too much in general. Plus, once a woman begins gaining weight, she may feel worse about herself, give up and gain more.
The key is to address the issues that are keeping you from staying fit. Hormone therapy may help with mood swings and fatigue. Counseling or medication can help with depression. Ironically, exercise can help depression as well.
If you’ve gained weight and don’t know how to lose it, weight management programs can get you on the right track. Once you realize that you can lose weight successfully, you’ll likely be motivated to keep it going.
You don’t need hours of exercise to get the benefits. According to a National Institutes of Health review, people who did aerobic exercise every day for 10 or more minutes had 6 fewer inches around their waistline compared to people who didn’t exercise. Try to get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling, dancing or tennis most days of the week. You can break it into three 10 or two 15-minute chunks if that’s easier — whatever works for you. Find something you enjoy and recruit a friend to join you, and you’ll be more likely to do it.
Strength training can help you build and maintain muscle and bone mass, which is especially important since you lose them as you age. As mentioned earlier, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories your body uses even at rest. Ask a trainer at your gym or hospital wellness center to put together a basic strength training routine for you using weights machines, free weights or your own body weight. Yoga, Pilates and similar activities also build strength. Try to do this two or three times a week.
It’s sad but true: As you get older, your body doesn’t need as many calories to maintain your weight. That means you need to eat less just to stay where you are. However, a few simple tips can help you adjust your calorie intake without making drastic changes. Add more whole fruits, vegetables and grains to your diet, and reduce the amount of juice, processed foods and refined grains such as white bread and white rice. Practice portion control; you may find you are satisfied with smaller meals instead of the big ones you’re used to.