When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, there are two basic “rules” that everyone, no matter their age or gender, should follow: eat well and move your body. Simple, right?
In theory, these guidelines are straightforward and easy to adhere to. In practice, however, there are a lot of variables in play that ultimately determine what you should eat and how you should move. One of those variables is menopause.
What Is Menopause?
Via UCLA Health, Menopause is medically defined as the period in time when a woman’s menstrual cycle permanently ceases due to “the natural depletion of ovarian oocytes from aging. The diagnosis is typically made retrospectively after the woman has missed menses for 12 consecutive months. It marks the permanent end of fertility and the average age of menopause is 51 years.”
For brevity, this article will focus on fitness and nutrition for those going through menopause as opposed to the science behind an aging reproductive system. These will be basic guidelines that can be applied to perimenopause and surgical menopause as well.
– The Symptoms of Menopause
Unfortunately, menopause is usually accompanied by an array of less-than-ideal symptoms like irregular periods (at the onset of perimenopause), hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, mood swings, memory lapses, decreased libido, dry skin and hair, stiff joints, and weight gain.
Some of these symptoms will lessen after the transition, but menopause affects every woman differently. The one thing that many women do have in common is that they find it is much harder to lose weight and much easier to gain weight during and following menopause.
Why Does Weight Gain Coincide with Menopause?
The best way to lose excess body fat is to understand why it’s there in the first place.
When women go through menopause, their estrogen levels decrease. When estrogen is lowered, the body’s metabolic rate may also decrease. WebMD states that, “Less estrogen may also cause the body to use starches and blood sugar less effectively, which would increase fat storage and make it harder to lose weight.”
Lack of proper sleep, due to night sweats or hot flashes, can also attribute to weight gain.
Low estrogen paired with sleep deprivation and various age-related factors like decreased exercise, decreased energy levels, and decreased muscle mass can all attribute to menopausal weight gain. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to live your healthiest life during and after menopause.
Exercising Through Menopause
Movement is beneficial for all beings. As we age, it becomes even more important. The less we move, the more we feel the “side effects” of aging. For those going through menopause, engaging in a regular fitness routine holds an array of benefits:
- Prevent Weight Gain – It’s well understood that, typically, if you’re active, you’ll gain fewer pounds than someone who is inactive.
- Reduce Disease Risk– Maintaining a regular exercise routine during and after menopause can reduce your risk of developing various cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
- Bone Strength – Remember that pesky little hormone, estrogen? According to the Cleveland Clinic, there is a “direct relationship between the lack of estrogen after menopause and the development of osteoporosis.” Weight-bearing exercises can help maintain bone strength.
- Mood Boosting– Because stress is a contributor to weight gain and because women going through menopause often experience a range of mood swings, the mood-boosting effects of exercise are important for the physical and psychological health of menopausal women.
- Better Sleep– Sleep deprivation is a common side effect of menopause. Exercise has been shown to improve one’s quality of sleep. Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, backs this claim: “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.”
Best Physical Activities During/After Menopause
Doctors point to four activities that can help strengthen the body and drop body fat during and after menopause: aerobic activity, strength training, stretching, and balance work.
- Aerobic Activity – Aim for 150-minutes of moderate aerobic activity weekly. Research has shown that regular aerobic activity can help decrease body fat for those going through menopause. Not only can cardio assist with weight loss, but it’s important for the heart and lungs as well.
- Strength Training – Along with aerobic activity, strength training is important for maintaining muscle mass (which will increase overall calorie burn) and for maintaining strong bones. Aim for 2-3 days a week.
- Stretching – The older we get, the stiffer we become. Maintain muscle and joint elasticity by regularly stretching. Yoga is a fantastic mental and physical outlet that will keep you limber for years to come.
- Stability and Balance – Yoga and weight-bearing exercises can help with maintaining stability and balance. As we age, making sure that we are regularly challenging our stability is important as this will help lessen the chances of falls in the future. Even standing on one leg in the morning while brushing your teeth is great for challenging your balance.
Best Diets During/After Menopause
When it comes to diet, it’s always best to check with your doctor. With that being said, there are a few dietary recommendations that health organizations have for menopausal women:
- Get enough calcium– Cleveland Clinic recommends that women over 50 should aim for 1200-1500mg of calcium daily. Aside from supplements, calcium can be found in dairy, some seafood, dark, leafy greens, and calcium-fortified beverages.
- Get enough Vitamin D– Vitamin D is incredibly important for overall health, especially during menopause. Vitamin D can help protect your bones and lift your mood. Experts recommend 1,000-2,000 IUs of the vitamin daily.
- Fruits and veggies daily– Because metabolism slows as we age, adding low-calorie fruits and vegetables into your diet can fill you up and cut down on cravings.
- Hydrate– During menopause, skin and hair lose a great deal of moisture. It is important to stay hydrated.
- Get enough protein – Don’t forget about protein when planning out your meals for the week! Lean proteins can help maintain muscle mass and provide the body with essential vitamins.
- Foods to avoid– Everything is fine in moderation. Don’t think that once you hit menopause, you can never have a slice of cake, piece of pizza, or a beer. You absolutely can! The trick is to prioritize leafy greens, lean proteins, healthful fats, and whole grains, and enjoy other foods occasionally.
The recommendations above are pretty straightforward, but is there a diet out there that is best for menopausal women? To no one’s surprise, the Mediterranean Diet reigns supreme. A large study based in Australia found that “menopausal women who ate diets high in fruit, certain vegetables, pasta and red wine were 20% less likely to have hot flashes and night sweats.”
Menopause is tough. Fortunately, women are too. By engaging in regular exercise and following certain dietary recommendations, menopausal and post-menopausal women can maintain a healthy weight and a happy quality of life.
If you have specific concerns regarding your weight or are experiencing any symptoms that may point towards a hormonal imbalance, speak with your doctor about the appropriate treatment options.
Regardless of your age, we highly recommend the book “Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life.” It’s available on Amazon and is a fantastic resource for our female Jungle Gym members!