How did I get so chubby? Will exercise help?
Want to know what are the best exercises for building bone density/muscle mass over 50? Find out what the evidence says!
It can all seem so unfair when you reach the menopausal stages and your body changes all by itself without your say so! Especially so if you’re the type that’s managed to keep pretty fit during your life.
You might be wondering – what the heck happened? Where did my waist go? How come my arms wobble and my belly jiggles when they didn’t before!?
Of course there’s plenty of online advice on what you can do about menopausal weight gain. Very often it can sound, well, a tad obvious. Things like – “just eat less and move more”. Well duh, you don’t say!
But anyway, boring as the advice might sound, as long as it’s based on evidence, it’s actually the best way to go. Based on what we know to this point anyway, since no one has yet invented a magic pill to melt menopausal fat (I wish!)
So what causes menopausal weight gain?
Menopausal weight gain is a real thing – it’s actually not an excuse like some say. Here are five factors involved in it, quite apart from lifestyle.
1. Hormonal changes
At menopause, estrogen fluctuates and then declines – which often leads to body fat accumulating around the abdomen rather than the hips and thighs. Not only that – more fat seems to start accumulating in general, sometimes in unexpected places!
2. Ageing process
As people age their metabolism slows down and they tend to lose muscle – at about 3kg per decade from middle age according to some studies.
And guess what one of the main contributors to a higher metabolism is? You guessed it – skeletal muscle, or lean body mass. The more you have of it, the better your ability to burn calories and reduce body fat.
Bone density also starts to decline after about 40 and especially once estrogen levels decline, making us more prone to fractures.
The contribution of genetic factors to weight varies between individuals. Harvard Health says it can range from 25% to 80%.
Also, our bodies in general are designed to hang on to their fat stores. Harvard says about 85% of us have ‘thrifty genes’ – great for our ancestors’ survival, not so great for us today with the abundant availability of tasty food everywhere you look!
Believe it of not there is a link between poor sleep and weight gain.
Sleep disturbances can interfere with appetite hormones and body fat composition. So if hot flushes are interfering with your sleep, or you’re just not sleeping well, it could be affecting your weight as well.
5. Body size
It tends to be a bit easier for taller people to lose weight than shorter ones. They usually have more muscle mass for a start, which increases their metabolism.
So if you’re one of the ‘vertically challenged’ (like me at under 5ft) you may have to put in a bit more effort to get results.
How exercise can help
So there you go – it’s often a whole gamut of factors that can lead to menopausal weight gain, and some of us are a bit (un)luckier than others!
The good news is that while exercise isn’t usually enough on its own for weight loss (we won’t talk about the food here – that’s for another time!) there are exercises you can do to improve the situation.
This is because exercise can improve health, fitness, bone density and strength, and increase that magic ingredient of lean body mass. And that’s on top of burning up some extra calories!
Here are some proven examples.
Also known as strength training, resistance exercise includes the use of hand weights, weight machines and resistance bands, or simply using your own bodyweight – e.g. through push-ups and squats.
Resistance exercise is great for building muscle and improving bone density. It also improves flexibility, balance and sleep, and enhances immunity.
Research shows doing strength training three times a week increases lean body mass, reduces fat and maintains bone density in post-menopausal women. So if you’re not yet post-menopausal, now is a good time to start.
The Vic Govt Better Health Channel has more tips on how to do resistance exercise, especially if you’re new to it.
Cardio is also called aerobic exercise. The word ‘aerobic’ refers to the use of oxygen, which means aerobic exercise generally requires a bit of puff. Anything that gets your heart pumping – like jogging, brisk or uphill walking or cycling, dancing, climbing stairs, or group fitness aerobics and step classes – fits into this category. Swimming is considered a low-impact form of aerobics as well.
Cardio is great for burning calories and improving fitness and heart health. In the process, it also builds lean body mass and helps to improve bone mineral density, especially if combined with strength training.
The recommended amount of cardio for older adults is 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous activity. This might sound like a lot, but you can build up to it gradually. It also doesn’t have to be boring – for example, it could incorporate something you simply enjoy, like dancing or walking and playing with the dog.
Studies show that regular aerobic exercise reduces body fat in overweight older women. Also, both low impact and high impact aerobic exercises have been shown to contribute towards building bone density in menopausal women.
This includes yoga stretches and Pilates for building core strength, and Tai Chi if you prefer gentler non-impact exercise.
However, for building muscle and bone density, non-impact exercises should be combined with resistance training and aerobics.
Tips for exercising
👚 Make it fun. If you push yourself to do something you don’t like, you probably won’t last.
👚 If you’re new to exercise, complete a pre-screening questionnaire first. Also speak to your doctor before commencing if your fitness is low.
👚 Warm up before exercising with some stretching. Also see these tips from the Better Health Channel for preventing injury in group aerobics classes.
👚 Start slowly and build up gradually. Any movement is better than none.
👚 Listen to podcasts while walking to make it interesting (OBL’s podcasts are pretty good – hint hint!).
👚 Vary your workouts as much as possible so you don’t overwork any particular muscle group.
👚 Keep track of your activities so you can see if you’re hitting your goals.
Helpful free apps
I don’t know about you, but while I don’t like apps popping up telling me what to do every five minutes, I do find fitness apps can be motivating. There is something about planning and recording activities that works for me.
For example, I find the free version of MyFitnessPal useful for setting targets, tracking calories and recording exercise – even if that’s just a few minutes of jigging about to music.
Another one I find helpful is Google Fit. It allows you to track workouts, estimate calories used, set goals and earn ‘heart points’ – with 150 points a week apparently being the magic goal number. Google Fit is supposed to work in conjunction with a few other apps as well, but I’ve not tested that out.
There are also of course plenty of YouTube videos on various types of exercise if you’re into that. But the most important thing at the end of the day is to do something you enjoy, and to do it in a way that works best for you.
Writer | Menopause Champion