It may seem like weight gain is an inevitable effect of menopause. It is indeed common, and there are several reasons why, including:
- Levels of estrogen, which appears to have a weight-regulating effect, drop significantly during menopause.
- Older women are less likely to get enough exercise than younger women.
- Muscle mass declines, and this has a slowing effect on your metabolism. This means that you may need fewer calories, but if you adjust your food intake accordingly, creeping weight gain will likely be the result.
- Older women are more likely to have jobs that demand very little in the way of physical labor; they may also eat out more with the kids out of the house.
And weight gain isn’t just a cosmetic issue – it also increases your risk of many health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and several types of cancer.
However, you still have plenty of control over your weight during and after menopause, so don’t fall for the notion that weight gain is natural or that there’s nothing you can do about it. Even though weight control may be more of a challenge because of physiological and lifestyle changes that take place during menopause, it still boils down to taking in no more energy than you expend.
If you find the pounds adding up, your first line of defense is to eat less. In your fifties, you probably need a couple hundred calories a day less than you did when you were younger. Make your food choices more carefully. No one needs empty calories, but menopausal women should be especially careful to choose mostly vegetables, fruits, lean meats, whole grains, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products.
Exercise is another key step to beating menopause weight gain. Exercise gives you more energy and burns fat, while building muscle. And maintain or increasing your muscle mass is important because the more muscle you have, the faster you burn calories all day long. Adults up to 65 years old need at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week, such as brisk walking, and at least two muscle-strengthening workouts a week. You may need to add even more if your goal is to lose weight.
A good support system is also important. Enlist the support of your family and friends, or better yet, find a partner to work out with who can help encourage you and keep you motivated – and do the same for him or her.
The answer to menopause weight gain isn’t glamorous or easy, and there is no secret formula. But with concentrated effort to control your diet and exercise habits, you can absolutely maintain or even improve your weight at any stage of life. For more information on menopause, see my book, Inside Information for Women.
– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H