Women’s bodies undergo a lot of changes from the time puberty hits till the midlife milestone known as menopause.
Menopause is defined as one year after the last period. In the U.S., the average age for menopause is 51. Many women experience a hormonal roller coaster as their hormones recalibrate.
A decline in estrogen, often coupled with decades of sedentary habits, can kick off the following changes:
More Belly Fat.
Before menopause, fat often gathers on the hips and thighs, leading to a “pear shape.” Post-menopause, the decline in estrogen causes more storage of visceral fat. This type of fat is stored in the belly region, in and around organs, and carries a higher risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and breast cancer. Easy access to high-calorie food choices – often coupled with sedentary lifestyles – make it far too easy to store visceral fat.
Lower Bone Density.
After menopause, women begin to lose up to 20% of their bone density. Estrogen protects our bones by increasing our absorption of calcium from our food and decreasing the rate of bone breakdown. Declining estrogen after menopause removes this protective factor, and it increases the risk for osteoporosis (brittle bones).
Decreased estrogen during menopause can lead to hot flashes in most women. My Southern Belle aunt used to call them “personal summers”. Hot flashes only last about 3 minutes but can really tank your sleep quality. And you know there’s a connection between sleep and weight loss, right? Chronic sleep deprivation is tied to poor decision-making, food cravings and more body fat.
Loss of Muscle Mass.
Aging brings about changes that favor muscle breakdown versus growth, so menopause is often accompanied by loss of muscle mass and strength. This trend is worsened by lack of activity — especially strength-building exercises — and can start as early as the 30s and 40s. The upside? This one is fairly easy to combat. Find something heavy. Pick it up. Put it down. Keep doing that.
Here is What You Can Control
Aging is inevitable. While you may feel that some of these changes are conspiring against you, take heart in knowing that there are quite a few factors you can control. No matter your age, the following strategies can start helping you right now:
Eat some protein in all your meals.
Protein is not just for tough gym guys who want to bulk up, and you don’t need to go overboard to see results. Eating a higher-protein diet is important in the context of aging and weight loss because it helps spare lean tissue that can further stimulate fat loss. About 25–30 grams of protein per meal is just the amount you can easily digest and absorb. Learn more in this beginner’s guide to protein.
Keep up the cardio.
Continue with your cardio routine (brisk walking, biking, jogging and dancing), and try to get a total of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. Cardio exercises keep your heart, lungs and brain happy. Strapped for time? Do your strength training at the right intensity, moving quickly between exercise, and boom – you’re doing cardio. Speaking of which…
Start strength training.
If you’re a cardio junkie, make strength training your new buddy at least two days per week. Strength training will help build strong leg, arm and back muscles and better bone density.
Are you uncomfortable on the gym training floor with all that testosterone? No worries, you can do body-weight exercises like push-ups and dips, get a DVD and a set of resistance bands, or join a Pilates class.
Or just ask me. I know so many exercise options and variations that I sometimes have to forget stuff so my head doesn’t burst.
Get your calcium and vitamin D.
As we age, both nutrients are increasingly important since they play vital roles in bone health. Calcium is an important mineral for laying down strong bones while Vitamin D activates the cells that build up the foundation. This is why daily calcium recommendations jump after age 50.
To date milk and dairy are important sources of calcium in the American diet. And you can turn to non-milk sources, especially if you have a lactose allergy or intolerance, by trying these calcium-rich alternatives to milk.
There are limited foods that contain vitamin D – fatty fish, fortified foods and eggs. To get the right amount each day, some doctors will recommend a supplement if the blood levels for this vitamin dips below a certain amount – consult your doctor or health provider to find out what’s best for you.
Reduce added sugar.
As we age, we lose some taste buds and we require more stimulation to enjoy the same sensation. Our threshold for sweetness diminishes, so we have to be more vigilant with the amount of sugar we sprinkle into our coffee. Cutting added sugar is beneficial for keeping the steady weight gain in check and reducing chronic illness, and here’s a great way to start taking taking added sugar out of your diet.