If you’re in the inevitable menopause, maybe you’re struggling with the menopausal belly fat…
Turning 40 isn’t the crossover into old age that it once was, but it can come with certain complications and drawbacks. Most women begin perimenopause (the period of two to 10 years before menopause) sometime after the fourth decade — which means you may start to experience menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings at this age. You may also notice that the number on the bathroom scale begins to creep up and that your pants fit a little tighter around your waist. That’s because of the menopausal belly fat.
And that’s because your weight distribution changes as you hit menopause, with the added pounds accumulating right around your middle. “I named the extra fat that collects around your middle the ‘menopot,’” says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, author of Body for Life for Women.
Before, during, and after menopause, your estrogen levels begin to wane and your metabolism slows, making it more difficult for you to lose weight, particularly around your middle. And belly fat isn’t just annoying — it’s also unhealthy. Studies show it increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and perhaps even early death. Here, 10 ways to help you fight the battle of the bulge.
Break a Sweat
Start with vigorous exercise to burn off menopause weight gain. Your routine should include aerobic exercises such as swimming, walking, bicycling, and running, as well as resistance or strength training. “You need to build muscle mass to maintain your edge,” Dr. Peeke says. “You’re not going to be at the same level as you were in your twenties, but your goal is to be ‘optimal’ for your age.” Note that you’ll need to work harder and longer than you had to when you were younger, as your metabolism decreases about one percent every year after age 30. Start with at least a half hour of aerobic exercise five times a week and increase the length, frequency, and intensity of your workouts as you build strength. Also include 15 minutes of strength training two to three times a week. Muscle burns more calories than fat.
The more your body is in motion, the more calories you burn. “Stay as vertical as possible throughout the day,” Peeke says. “As soon as you sit down, you turn off your fat-release enzymes.” That, plus the fact that your fat cells become much less efficient at dumping fuel after the age of 40, means you need to squeeze as much activity into your day as possible. Try standing and pacing when you’re on the phone, or park further from destinations so that you’ll have to walk more. If you’re normally a bit of a couch potato, place a treadmill in front of your TV so you can walk while still catching up on all your favorite shows.
Control Your Portions
By the time you hit menopause, your metabolism may be more than 20 percent slower than it was when you were younger, which means that any food you consume will take longer to convert into energy. You can’t eat the way you used to if you want to stay healthy and fit. The optimal menopause diet is heavy on fruits and vegetables, but light on sugars and fats. Meats should be lean and dairy low-fat. “When you combine protein and fiber, it’s very satisfying, so you’re more inclined to eat less,” Peeke says. Pay attention to how much you eat, too — portions of even healthy foods can add up to unwanted menopause weight gain. When dining out, for example, share your meal or eat half and take the rest home to have for dinner or lunch the next night.
Choose Fats Wisely
Fat has flavor and makes our food taste good, so don’t eliminate it from your menopause diet altogether. But be choosy. The healthiest fats are those from vegetable sources such as olives and nuts. Eat limited amounts of them to avoid menopause weight gain, and avoid unhealthy fats — hydrogenated oils, such as palm oil, and anything that contains trans fats — as much as you can.
Keep an Eye on the Clock
It’s not just what you eat on a menopause diet that counts, but also when you eat, Peeke says. Midnight ice cream binges and potato chip raids, for example, are generally bad ideas (even though they seem good at the time), as are big meals right before bed. “Don’t eat too much too late,” Peeke says. Also try to avoid mindlessly nibbling throughout the day or falling into the afternoon snack trap. “What a menopausal woman does from 3 p.m. on every day will determine how big her belly is. That’s when most women tend to overeat and oversnack, and that’s when they get themselves into all kinds of trouble.”
Mix It Up
It’s easy to get into an exercise rut. Generally, if you find a workout you like, you’ll stick with it — especially if you’re not a fitness nut. Any kind of physical activity is better than none at all, but if your body gets too accustomed to a routine, it won’t burn belly fat or any fat as efficiently as when you first started working out. Fool it by doing something different every few months to keep menopause weight gain and other menopause symptoms under control. In good weather, for example, take your show on the road: Go for a bike ride or run through the park.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Insomnia is a common menopause symptom. And when you don’t sleep well, you’re likely to be too tired to exercise when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. “Your hunger and appetite hormones become discombobulated,” Peeke says. “So you keep eating and eating — and it turns to belly fat.” Try to get a minimum of seven (and ideally eight) hours of shut-eye daily. Keep your bedroom cool to offset hot flashes and night sweats, and don’t watch television or use a computer for at least an hour before you want to fall asleep. Get on a steady schedule — and stick to it the way you stick to your menopause diet.
To attack belly fat and any other menopause weight gain, you’ll need to burn between 400 and 500 calories most days of the week from cardiovascular exercise such as walking briskly, jogging, bicycling, dancing, or swimming, Peeke says. Need motivation to get you out on the tennis court or down to the gym? Find a friend, colleague, or family member who needs to exercise as much as you do, and set a date to work out together. You’re less likely to skip your routine if you know someone is waiting for you. A good support system can help with diet motivation, too.
“There is a stress-fat connection,” Peeke says. “If you walk around completely stressed all the time, your cortisol levels will increase, and that will make it easy for you to deposit fat deep inside the belly.” To reduce stress and belly fat, take time for activities you like, such as reading a book or watching a movie. Don’t take on more work or responsibilities than you know you can handle. Ask for help from family and friends if necessary. Stay with your menopause diet. And try stress reduction techniques such as yoga or meditation.