The bad news on menopausal weight gain
“There are changes in metabolism that occur at the same time as menopause,” says Dr. Michelle Jacobson, a menopause specialist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. The way the body stores fat also changes during this time, and most women will notice it’s harder to maintain their weight.
So just how much weight are we talking about here?
On average, women on the other side of menopause can gain four to six pounds over three years, says Jacobson. Menopause also changes where you carry weight: Before menopause, any surplus typically heads to the hips and thighs. Post-menopause, you’ll see it on your stomach, says Dr. Wendy Wolfman, director of the Menopause and Premature Ovarian Insufficiency clinics at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
Related: What They Don’t Tell You About Perimenopause
It isn’t a few pounds that concern most health care practitioners, however. It’s the fact that menopause increases the percentage of the body’s visceral fat—which surrounds internal organs and is associated with an elevated risk of heart disease. However, menopause isn’t the only culprit behind midlife spread: From age 30 onward, all adults lose three to eight per cent of their muscle mass each decade. Menopause just accelerates this decline, which impacts metabolism-—and by extension weight-—because muscle uses calories more efficiently than fat.
Is gaining weight at midlife inevitable?
Not necessarily, but the advice for fighting it is the same good stuff you’ve been told all your life, with a few tweaks. If you’re sedentary, get active. An increase in physical activity is associated with reduced weight gain during menopause as well as improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Overall, adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a week (that’s around 20 minutes a day of heart-pumping movement).
If you’re already active—or pressed for time—try high intensity interval training once or twice a week. HIIT is simply exercise in short, intense bursts (think timed sprints versus a long run), and it’s associated with improvements in body composition and blood pressure.
Not strength training? This is the time to start. Weight lifting, using free weights or resistance bands, or simply adding body weight exercises like squats and planks to your routine will help maintain and build muscle mass, creating a more efficient metabolic process.
The good news
These activity tweaks don’t just help maintain weight, they also improve heart health. To that end, both Jacobson and Wolfman advise adopting a heart-healthy eating plan, such as the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins (protein is harder to digest, so it puts the metabolism on blast). Keeping alcohol consumption within recommended guidelines is advisable, too.
Consider menopause an opportunity to prioritize your health. Symptoms like fatigue, sleep disturbances, hair and skin changes and weight gain are all associated with this transition, but they may also be symptoms of other issues. “It’s important to see your physician to ensure you’re getting the appropriate treatment,” says Jacobson.
At the end of the day, the most crucial thing to drop is the culturally imposed angst over gaining a few pounds. “This is normal,” says Wolfman. “People say they want to age gracefully, but part of that natural process also means weight gain.”