As you hit your mid-to-late 40s, you may notice that besides battling the occasional hot flash or mood swing, your favorite black go-to pants are starting to feel noticeably more snug. This time it’s not your imagination.
The average woman gains about four-and-a-half pounds as she starts the transition to menopause in her 40s, according to a landmark study. And it’s a trend that doesn’t slow down, either: Women continue to put on about a pound and a half each year in their 50s and 60s, according to a new review published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
The main reason is the natural loss of muscle mass that occurs with age. Since muscle burns more calories than fat, your metabolism slows down, causing you to put on weight. Starting at age 30, research shows that you lose on average about a half pound of muscle each year; and that number rises to almost a full pound once you hit 50.
But as you glide through the big M, you may also notice something else: Even if the number on the scale is not rising considerably, any weight you do gain ends up accumulating around your abdomen, leaving you with what sure looks like someone else’s beer belly.
This type of fat, known as visceral fat, is toxic. It produces hormones such as the stress hormone cortisol as well as inflammatory proteins known as cytokines. This, in turn, causes you to put on even more belly weight and also sets you up to develop insulin resistance, a key factor in the development of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Sounds daunting, but here are 9 expert-approved ways to reverse your scale’s upward spiral.
1. Crank it Up
Start with a mix of moderate and vigorous exercise to burn off menopausal weight gain. Your routine should include aerobic exercises, like swimming, walking, bicycling, and running, as well as resistance or strength training.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week, and two or more days a week of muscle-strengthening activities that work all of the major muscle groups, like the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. If you take the HIIT approach, the CDC recommends that you should aim for an equivalent mix of moderate and high intensity exercise every week, along with those same two days of strength training.
You’re not necessarily going to be at the same level as you were in your twenties, but you need to redefine normal. The normal now is a different metabolism profile, and the level of wiggle room has decreased. What you thought you got away with when you were 20 is not happening when you are 50. You have to get that right out of your brain.
An increase in activities in your daily routine is the recipe for success. You don’t have to go to a gym, but you do need to do enough heavy lifting to keep your muscles strong and your metabolism revved. Try activities that have you lifting, pushing, and pulling.
2. Stand When You Can
The formula is simple: The more time that your body’s in motion, the more calories your body will burn. One low-effort way to do is stand. Not only will that increase calorie burn, it can also help prevent other health problems. A study published in January 2018 in the journal Obesity found that prolonged sitting is connected to higher levels of abdominal fat, as well as fat that’s accumulated around organs such as the liver, which increases risk for diabetes and heart disease.
To stay upright more often, stand and pace when you’re on the phone, or park farther from the places you’re going so you’ll have to walk a little more. If you’re a binge-watcher, place a pedal exerciser on the floor in front of your couch, so you can fit in some needed movement while still catching up on your favorite shows.
And if your job has you sitting in front of a computer all day, try a standing desk. According to a research report from the Society for Human Resource Management, standing desks are the fastest-growing employee benefit in U.S. workplaces. There’s good reason for this trend: A review published in January 2018 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology examined studies on standing desks and found that a person who weighs roughly 143 pounds could potentially burn 54 calories a day by standing — instead of sitting — for six hours.
3. Incorporate Resistance Training
In order to remove weight as you get older, you have to lift weights. A 2016 study of post-menopausal women in their late 50s and 60s found that those who did an hour of strength training twice a week for eight weeks not only significantly reduced their body fat compared to a control group, they also reported less physical pain and felt better overall. If you’re resistant to pumping iron, consider yoga. It has the same kind of weight-bearing benefits, and a 2016 German review that looked at 13 studies concluded that yoga also helps relieve menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes.
4. Keep Portions in Check
Your metabolism has slowed down by the time you hit menopause — with some research suggesting it burns a couple hundred calories fewer a day. You can very quickly avoid 200 calories, but that can also very quickly add up if you don’t reduce the number of calories you consume.
It’s also this time in your life when you may be easing up from the daily duties of preparing meals for your family, and you just want to take a break from the kitchen. Cutting back on restaurant meals and takeout is an easy way to control portions, but the timing and frequency of your meals can make a big difference, too. There’s a lot of research about meal timing, and there is an increasing body of knowledge suggesting that we’ve had it all wrong when we talk about eating five or six small meals a day. Research is pointing to doing better in the weight department by eating three square meals a day. Consider starting your day with a hearty breakfast that contains lean protein, and aim for a light supper. Eating your main meal at noontime can be beneficial for your weight.
5. Stop Eating After 7pm
Research shows that intermittent or alternate day fasting, where you eat normally for a day and restrict calories dramatically the next, can work. People who slashed their calories to between 750 and 1,100 for five days a month for three months lost significantly more abdominal fat — and improved blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels — than those who didn’t, according to a University of Southern California study published last year.
6. Update Your Sleep Strategy
Insomnia is an extremely common symptom of perimenopause, which is the period of time when women’s bodies transition toward their final menstrual cycle. And according to the North American Menopause Society, that transition phase can last for four to eight years. All that time spent waking up unrefreshed means you’re probably feeling too exhausted to head out for a workout, too. It’s imperative to get sleep as you get older. One of the things that truly helps combat the menopot is high-quality sleep.
Aim for a minimum of seven (and ideally eight) hours of shut-eye. Keep your bedroom cool to offset hot flashes and night sweats, and turn off all glowing screens for at least an hour before you want to fall asleep. If you really can’t fathom doing that, wear amber-lensed glasses to counteract the sleep-disrupting effects of blue light, or see if your device has an amber light setting.
7. Find an Exercise Buddy
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. Need motivation? Find a friend who needs to exercise as much as you do, and set a date to work out together. A study published in November 2015 in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that actively looking for a new workout partner and exercising together is beneficial for both exercise and emotional support.
If you don’t have a buddy to join you on your weight loss mission, it may be time to try a group fitness class at your local gym or community center. A study published in November 2017 in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that participating in regular group fitness classes resulted in a significant decrease in stress and a rise in physical, mental, and emotional quality of life compared with exercising regularly on your own or not engaging in regular exercise at all.