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Call it what you will, ‘the change’, ‘the menopause’, ‘that time of life’ but the menopause will come to all of us women eventually. And with it comes the worries of a slowing metabolism and middle aged spread. But is the menopause a reason for colossal weight gain? And if so, what can we do about it?
I have been asked on occasion whether being peri-menopausal or menopausal actually impacts on whether we can lose weight. My gut reaction was to think that there are some significant hormonal changes going on in our bodies when we hit that stage of life, that will potentially slow down our metabolism, but I wonder if it is enough to significantly impact our ability to lose weight, once we start ‘the change’.
At Be Strong we like to do things properly, we don’t just go to pseudo-science to find things out, we look at published scientific papers and research to get you the best answers to your questions, so this article is a combination of all that I have researched to help you to understand how the menopause and peri-menopause affects our bodies, and what we can do to maximise our chances of getting to a healthy weight and keeping fit.
What is the menopause and peri-menopause?
The time of peri-menopause (which means ‘around’ menopause) or the menopause can start at around the late 30’s in some cases, but mainly early 40’s to mid 50’s.
The menopause is expected to be completed by the time we are 52, but is actually classed as finished when you haven’t had a period for 12 months.
Our 40’s and 50’s is a time of personal, as well hormonal changes for many women. Therefore, many other factors come into play in this situation, not just what is going on with our hormones.
The menopause means that our fertility starts to reduce, which therefore causes changes to our monthly cycle. Periods may initially becoming irregular before ceasing all together. As this happens, our hormone levels change. We experience a change in oestrogen and androgen levels. These hormones are known to impacts on our satiety signals and insulin resistance – meaning we may feel hungry when we shouldn’t and that our bodies may not process glucose (sugar) as well as it could.
Generally speaking, as anyone ages (which is known as chronological ageing) our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), reduces. This is the rate at which our bodies cells function at complete rest – including how we burn calories. Therefore if our BMR reduces, the number of calories required to keep our bodies functioning whilst maintaining a constant weight will also reduce. Finally, as we age the amount of lean muscle mass within our bodies, reduces. Lean muscle mass helps to burn calories. The more lean muscle we have, the speedier our metabolism is and the quicker we burn calories. So if our lean muscle reduces, our ability to burn calories is also reduced.
What else is happening?
The time when women start to go through the change is also a time when her lifestyle may change. This time is likely to coincide with the increased independence of her family (if she has one) which may result in an increase in personal freedom.
This increase in freedom allows time for more food to be eaten out of the home, and maybe even an increase in alcohol consumption. Less running around after young children, being mum’s taxi and looking after everyone may also result in a reduction in activity, and therefore a reduced calorie burn.
The incidence of reduced calorie burn coupled with the hormonal changes we have discussed above will affect our ability to manage and even lose weight. The reduction in oestrogen impairs our bodies ability to regulate hunger signals, meaning that we may feel hungry more frequently, therefore potentially leading to overeating. If this coincides with a reduction in physical activity, and a reduction in our BMR and muscle mass, and therefore our bodies ability to burn calories, then weight gain will be the result.
Unfortunately ladies, the tale doesn’t end there. The changes in our hormones also changes the way that our body stores fat, moving it from hips and breasts, to our abdominal area. So there is some truth in the phrase ‘middle aged spread’ after all.
In addition to this, we then also have to look at the psychological factors. Hormone changes or imbalances can affect mood. This, coupled with changes in home life, such as children growing up or even leaving home, may bring about psychological distress resulting in low mood. It is reported in one report that women are more prone to dealing with psychological distress by engaging in unhealthy eating behaviours (this could be overeating, eating unhealthy foods, or conversely a loss of appetite), adding this to the other factors, we are starting to build a picture of why it may become more difficult for women to lose weight as they age and hit the menopause.
But we can do something about it!
First of all, as with all science, this is based on general data from a large general population. We are dealing with averages here, not you specifically, but that aside, this information is actually really useful. Because, as we often advocate at Be Strong, once you know the logic and reasoning behind something, you can understand what you should do about it. Having learnt all the above, I can see that a strategy can be developed, if you feel that you are hitting the menopause and your weight management is getting more difficult. Some things you could include in that strategy are:
- Check your calories, your date of birth and your physical activity level settings in your weight tracker to make sure they are correct. At Be Strong we give you a calorie allowance based on general scientific data. Our calculations do include provision to reduce as we age, and provision for our physical activity levels. However, as we know this isn’t an exact science; so it maybe that if your weight loss has slowed significantly, or even halted and you are totally on point with your calories, you may need to either change your activity levels to reflect what you are currently doing, or you simply may just need to reduce your calorie intake slightly compared to what we give you. You don’t need to go crazy, but try taking 50-100 off each day, and see if that makes a difference.
- Rebuild your muscle mass. I am not saying I want you to start pumping iron like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the more lean muscle we have, the more efficiently our bodies burn calories. So, build some strength training into your physical activity routine. This doesn’t have to be formal weight training, it could be gardening, rigorous housework, workouts with resistance bands, squats, push ups, lunges, yoga, Pilates, anything that is weight bearing through our limbs is going to build and strengthen our muscles. There are all sorts of other benefits to this too – such as reducing the risk of osteoporosis, reducing the risk of falls and improving recovery times after injury or illness.
- Make sure you get a sweat on. And I don’t mean from the Hot Flushes! Aerobic exercise which gets you out of breath, and sweating such as brisk walking, jogging, running, or HIIT sessions, all take you into the fat burning range of intensity. This has been shown to especially help with burning visceral fat in the abdominal area (helping to keep that middle aged spread under control), which not only helps with improving body image, but also reducing disease risk associated with excess fat carried in this area.
- Prevent false hunger pangs. If we know that we are at risk of false hunger cues we can take steps to manage them – drinking a pint of water when the tummy starts rumbling, and ensuring that you eat plenty of protein, vegetables and wholegrains to fill us up at meal times and for planned snacks, will help to keep pangs at bay. Reduce the foods which are just empty calories and find those low calorie bulky snacks to nibble when the pangs are insatiable – chopped vegetables, strawberries, apples, pears.
- Find other ways to improve your mood. If you know, or you have now recognised that you engage in unhealthy eating behaviours as a result of your mood, make a conscious effort to do something else to both keep your mood on a even keel, or do when the urge to eat your feelings hits. Reason your feelings out with yourself, use self-talk, go and do some physical activity to get those mood boosting hormones going, take a bath, chat to a friend, put on your favourite tune and dance around your living room, get out of the house and do something in nature. Physical activity also helps to relieve symptoms of the menopause, such as hot flushes.
We do have control
In answer to the original question posed, does the menopause make it harder to manage our weight? The answer is yes, but all is not lost.
We can still do something about it, and we have good reason to. These steps won’t just help to manage our weight but they can help with control of menopausal symptoms, improved mood and reduction in health risks.
Hopefully after reading this you have been reassured that the perimenopause or menopause is not the time to just give up and accept your lot. Things may be changing internally which we have no control over, but there are still things that we can do and things that we can take control of. Don’t let this stage of life drag you down, take charge and do everything you can to age healthily (and gracefully or disgracefully depending on your outlook), to ensure you are living life to the full, for as long as you can.
Remember, we don’t need to struggle through the menopause anymore, thanks to Davina McCall and other high profile figures speaking out about their experience the tide is changing. The subject is now less taboo and the medical profession are taking it more seriously, there is now more research being undertaken too, which in time will help us manage our symptoms and understand more about what is really going on with our bodies.
Never be afraid of going to speak to your health care professional about the menopause and it’s symptoms, particularly if it affects your quality of life. Don’t let them fob you off either – The Menopause Charity has lots of useful information about what to expect and how to speak to your healthcare professional, to get the right help for you.
If menopausal weight gain is a worry for you, then start to take some of the steps in the article and see if it improves your weight management and perhaps also your symptoms.
You may not currently be at the stage where you need this advice, but I think it’s really important for women of all ages to understand what to expect in the future, so that we are more prepared when it does hit.
And of course, you may be a man reading this article, and if you are then I am sure there is a woman in your life who would benefit from the advice shared – it’s nothing to be embarrassed about – after all it happens to 50% of the population!