Even elite athletes gain a little weight with age, and nonelite folks have been known to gain a lot. The trick to weight management is to stay active and eat quality calories that invest in good health. Yet, many women fear midlife weight gain. As Mary, an avid tennis player complained, "No matter what I do, I can't seem to stop gaining weight." She was frustrated about her expanding waist and frightened about runaway weight gain. She fearfully asked, "Are women doomed to gain weight in midlife?"
The answer is no. Women do not always gain weight during menopause. Yes, women aged 45 to 50 commonly get fatter and thicker around the middle as fat settles in and around the abdominal area. But these changes are due more to lack of exercise and a surplus of calories than to a reduction of hormones (Wing et al. 1991). (Young athletes with amenorrhea and reduced hormones do not get fat.) In a three-year study of more than 3,000 women (initial age 42 to 52 years), the average weight gain was 4.6 pounds (2.1 kg). The weight gain occurred in all women, regardless of their menopause status (Sternfeld et al. 2004). If weight gain is not caused by the hormonal shifts of menopause, what does cause it? Let's explore a few of the culprits.
Menopause occurs during a time when a woman's lifestyle becomes less active. If her children have grown up and left home, she may find herself sitting more in front of a TV or computer screen than running up and down stairs, carrying endless loads of laundry. A less-active lifestyle not only reduces calorie needs but also results in a decline in muscle mass; when women (and men) age, they tend to lose muscle mass unless they do regular strength training. Muscle drives the metabolic rate, so less muscle means a lower metabolic rate and fewer calories burned.
Another problem is that sleep patterns commonly change in midlife, often due to night sweats and a husband who snores. Many women end up feeling exhausted most of the time. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation can easily drain motivation to routinely exercise, and this perpetuates more muscle loss and extends the drop in metabolism.
Sleep deprivation itself is also associated with weight gain. Adults who sleep less than seven hours per night tend to be heavier than their well-rested counterparts. When you are sleep deprived, your appetite grows. The hormone that curbs your appetite (leptin) is reduced, and the hormone that increases your appetite (grehlin) become more active (Taheri et al. 2004). Hence, you can have a hard time differentiating between being hungry or tired. In either case, cookies and chocolate can be very tempting.
Menopause may also coincide with career success, including business meals at nice restaurants, extra wine, plush vacations, and cruises. That means more calories and less exercise. By midlife, most women are tired of dieting and depriving themselves of tempting foods; they may have been dieting since puberty. The "No, thank you" that prevailed at previous birthday parties now becomes "Yes, please."
The best way to prevent weight gain is to exercise and maintain an active lifestyle. Research suggests that women who exercise do not gain the weight and waist of their nonexercising peers (Sternfeld et al. 2004). The optimal exercise program includes both aerobic exercise (to enhance cardiovascular fitness) and strengthening exercise (to preserve muscles and bone density). The book Strong Women Stay Slim by Miriam Nelson is a good resource for helping women develop a health-protective exercise program.
Despite popular belief, taking hormones to counter the symptoms of menopause does not contribute to weight gain. If anything, hormone replacement therapy may help curb midlife weight gain (DiCarlo et al. 2004).
If you have gained undesired fat, do not diet. If you have been dieting for 35 to 40 years of your adult life, you should have learned by now that dieting does not work. Rather, you need to learn how to eat healthfully.
This means fueling your body with enough breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack to curb your appetite and energize your exercise program. Then, eat a lighter dinner. Think small calorie deficit. Consuming 100 fewer calories after dinner (theoretically) translates into losing 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of fat per year.
To find peace with food and your body, meet with a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in sports nutrition. This professional can develop a personalized food plan that fits your needs. To find a local RD, go to www.eatright.org or www.SCANdpg.org. In addition, ask yourself, "Am I really overweight?" Maybe there is just more of you to love. Your body may not be quite as perfect as it once was at the height of your athletic career, but it can be good enough. I encourage you to focus on being fit and healthy rather than on being thin at any cost. No "perfect" weight will ever do the enormous job of creating midlife happiness.
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