Every woman knows how hard it is to lose body fat on the butt, thighs and belly. We feel miserable when it simply doesn’t budge.
But it’s the abdominal fat that creates the greatest health risk to a woman. This abdominal fat seems to rear its ugly head when a woman reaches her mid- forties or peri-menopause (the years leading up to menopause).
Researchers are now finding that hormonal fluctuations brought on by lifestyle factors and menopause, are having a significant effect on a woman’s ability to fight weight gain.
By the time a woman reaches her late thirties she is starting to lose muscle mass. This muscle mass speeds up a little each decade of life. When a woman reaches her forties, it is estimated she will GAIN about 500g of fat each ensuing year…..that’s a weight gain of 5kg every ten years!
Inactive women can lose up to 5% of muscle mass each decade. Active women will also lose muscle mass but at a much slower rate, especially if they maintain a regular weight training program (more of this in a minute).
Muscle assists with fat burning but a lack of muscle mass simply allows more room for fat cells to spread and take a strong hold. In other words, if you have more fat cells than muscle tissue, you will find it difficult to keep the weight off long-term without some form of regular strength training to help build muscle.
It should be pointed out that absolute weight gain is determined first and foremost by non-hormonal factors such as poor nutritional habits and lack of regular exercise, and not menopause itself.
Weight gain at midlife is age-related not due solely to menopause. But the hormonal changes a woman experiences as she enters menopause, certainly contribute to abdominal weight gain.
So when a woman enters the mid-life years, Estrogen levels drop significantly and it’s this hormone reduction that has some influence on your belly bulge.
The Estrogen and Fat Gain Relationship
Men can be a victim to hormonal imbalance and the ensuing weight gain this causes, just as much as women. But not all men experience hormonal imbalances. However, generally speaking, almost all women experience weight gain once estrogen levels decrease with the onset of menopause.
When a woman is young, vibrant and able to procreate, healthy levels of estrogen help her maintain normal body weight. When she exercises, vitamin A triggers an enzyme (Aldh1a1) to help her body burn fat for energy. But this enzyme also releases a hormone (retinoic acid) that encourages the growth of visceral fat (fat that accumulates around internal organs).
Researchers have found that a high-fat diet/high sugar diet will switch off the enzyme Aldh1a1 making the body less able to burn fat efficiently. This allows retinoic acid to start building fat – hence the belly fat blowout.
This fine balance between fat burning and fat building is upset a little when the woman reaches her forties. With the drop in estrogen levels, retinoic acid is allowed to influence the spread of more fat cells to the abdomen. This can become a health risk for the inactive woman.
A study on weight gain among menopausal women found that the way fat is deposited changes as a woman enters menopause because of a drop in estrogen levels. http://informahealthcare.com/doi/full/10.3109/13697137.2012.707385?prevSearch=allfield%253A%2528Menopause%2Band%2Bweight%2Bgain%2529&searchHistoryKey=
The research discovered there is a shift in a woman’s fat stores away from the hips and thighs to the abdomen, that it occurs in women of all weight variances, from those women with a healthy weight to those heavily overweight.
Review leader Prof. Susan Davis at Monash University in Australia says “…women going through the menopause should begin to…..control their weight before it becomes a problem…”
The study concluded that moderate to intense exercise on a daily basis, combined with a healthy calorie-controlled eating regimen, can reduce a woman’s exposure to weight gain and the health risks associated with it.
Other Hormonal Factors
When a woman approaches menopause not only is there a significant drop in estrogen, there is also a decrease in levels of Human Growth Hormone or HGH. This hormone helps prevent fat storage in the abdomen by encouraging muscle growth throughout the body.
The role of insulin is to help the body utilize glucose efficiently for energy. After a high–sugar or high-fat meal (i.e. hamburgers, chips and ice cream), insulin will rise quickly pushing glucose absorbed from the meal into the muscle tissues to be used for energy expenditure. As quickly as insulin rises, it will decline just as rapidly, stressing the liver and leaving you feeling fatigued and un-motivated to perform healthy activities.
However, in cases of poor insulin sensitivity, insulin levels will remain highly elevated for longer because it is unable to force glucose into the muscle. To compensate for this imbalance, the pancreas is forced to manufacture more insulin to help circulate the glucose. The pancreas becomes stressed and if left untreated, this condition often leads to the onset of Type 2 Diabetes.
During menopause, it is common for women to experience insulin sensitivity.
Is Long Term Weight Loss Possible After Menopause?
Yes it is but it is challenging for the older woman.
While more research is still required, it is obvious from present findings that while fat loss is achievable for the older woman, keeping weight gain in check well before she reaches menopause is the most effective way to maintain a healthy body weight.
A study team in the U.S. found that natural declines in energy expenditure during menopause, makes weight loss extremely challenging for a woman. http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v32/n6/full/ijo200825a.html
Factors such as a drop in BMR or basal metabolic rate, appetite changes due to hormonal fluctuations, and the simple fact that the brain sends signals to eat when a woman has lost some body fat, all make it a challenge to lose weight for women in their mid forties and onwards.
But all is not lost!……Here’s how:
Key Steps To Successful Weight Loss for the Older Woman
1. Start Lifting Weights
Loss of muscle mass will help reduce the onset of insulin sensitivity. The more muscle you have will help the body to dissipate glucose (i.e. burn body fat)
However, if you lose muscle mass your body will find it difficult to burn off that stored glucose. It soon becomes apparent that this stored energy quickly turns into stored fat – nature’s way of ensuring you survive in times of famine!
2. Lift Weights Often
At least 3 times a week using moderate to heavy weights.
Lifting light weights will not be adequate to enhance muscle growth and burn unwanted fat.
You need to lift weights that are at least moderate in intensity. For best results the weight ought to be challenging to lift but still remain a weight that you can control throughout the exercise.
The safest way to learn to lift correctly is to hire a personal trainer who understands your needs, abilities and female physiology.
3. Lifting Weights Make You Slim Not Bulky.
You can expect to get some muscle definition but there is absolutely no way on earth women can naturally bulk up to the extent of a male body builder.
Lifting weights 3 times a week is crucial for menopausal women to stop the belly fat.
Lifting moderate to heavy weights will encourage the growth of HGH to keep women looking younger and slimmer. It will also improve your posture, improve your mood, give you more confidence and more strength, and give you more energy.
4. Do Full-Body Movements
Forget about doing tricep exercises. You will burn more fat by doing compound exercises that utilize the whole body in one movement. So instead of doing shoulder presses, combine a squat with your press to work both the upper and lower body. It will fast-track your overall fitness and general strength.
Some compound exercise examples: kettlebell swings, lunge press, push up rows, bench presses, cable lunge rows/presses, cable woochop, plank with knee to elbow.
5. Eat More Protein
Exercising with weights regularly means your muscles need additional protein to help with muscle growth.
Most women commonly don’t eat adequate amounts of protein. When trying to lose body fat, many women drastically drop the carbs in the misguided thinking they will lose weight. However, this way of eating only encourages more body fat.
Drastically lowering your intake of energy forces the body to hold onto existing fat stores making it even more difficult to shift the weight.
Increasing your daily protein intake to about 1gram per kilo of body weight per meal will be adequate to encourage muscle growth and fat loss.
Protein will help keep you feeling full for longer throughout the day and it will also help reduce urges for sweet empty calories such as chocolate bars, ice cream and sticky buns etc.
Sources of good protein: lean red and white meat, deep sea fish, tofu, eggs, nuts, legumes, protein shakes.
6. Stay Away from Low-Carb Diets
A very low carb diet will do you more harm than good.
The body requires a healthy dose of calories (roughly about 2000 calories/day) to assist in raising your metabolic rate to help burn fat. Much of the daily calories come naturally from carbohydrates, the body’s easiest source of immediate energy.
Drastically cutting back on carbs simply makes you feel stressed, sends your cortisol levels sky high, and in turn ‘switches’ on the body’s fat storage capacity to full steam ahead!
Strict low Carb diets simply send the wrong messages to your body.
A 2011 study revealed that a moderate reduction in carbohydrates produces better weight loss results than a severely restricted carb diet. The study authors found that over a long term period (12 months or more) the lower carb female participants displayed a greater body fat loss than the low-carb women participants.http://www.endo-society.org/media/ENDO-08/research/New-weight-loss-diet-recommends-high-carb.cfm
If you are unsure about your food intake seek out an experienced nutritionist or dietician for more detailed guidance.
7. The Right Way To Do Cardio (aerobic activity)
Women generally perform too much slow, easy-as-you-go aerobic exercise and not enough strength training.
A fitness program of 2-3 days of cardio + 3-4 days of weight training, combined with a healthy diet, will encourage muscle growth, and that means a slimmer waistline!
Low to medium intensity cardio activity will help burn fat only while you are performing that activity. Once you stop that activity your body stops burning up the fat.
Higher intensity aerobic activity (such as 10 x 15 second sprints on the exercycle) will help raise your BMR and keep it elevated throughout the day. This allows your body to burn fat more efficiently for longer.
However, because the mid-life woman is losing body mass more than a 30-something female, she needs to limit her exposure to high intensity aerobic activity to about twice a week.
Remember – strength training is now a key factor in weight loss not endless hours of aerobic activity.
I must point out that if you are keen to run a marathon or enter a 100km cycling event, then by all means do so. Long distance, endurance cardio activity is excellent for your health and you will almost certainly see a drop in your overall body weight.
However, such intense activity for a lengthy period will not only burn fat deposits but it will also burn your precious muscle mass. If the latter does not worry you then keep on with your exercise routine.
8. Eat More Fresh Fruit and Vegetables With Your Protein
These fresh foods will help de-tox the body naturally, give you added fibre, help promote good health and keep you looking younger.
Overall it will help reduce the impact of any body fat gain you may experience.
9. Keep Caffeine/Sugar at Low Levels
Caffeine and sugary foods/drinks will quickly go on the abdomen as fat.
Instead drink more green tea or fresh vegetable juices to help the body de-tox.
10. Take Omega-3
Either in supplement form or by eating foods high in Omega-3 such as canola oil and olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, deep sea fish such as salmon or tuna, and oily fish such as sardines or mackerel. Omega-3s are important for the growth and maintenance of all cells.
Weight loss or weight control for the mid-life woman is always going to be more of a challenge than it is for a much younger female.
However, to maximise your gains, follow the steps outlined above and get moving and eating well.
Be patient with your new-found health plan. Quick results will never ever teach anyone – male or female- how to keep the weight off long term. For best results the human body needs time to re-adjust to any new program.
However, if you are consistent with your eating and exercise habits the results you desire will soon become evident.