Talking to most women over 50 you will quickly find that menopause and weight gain are linked in their experience. It is very common to put on weight at this time and while some of this may be due to lifestyle changes, that does not explain why suddenly we develop a tendency to put on weight at different parts of the body, especially the abdomen, while any weight gained when we were younger tended to be centered on the hips.
The truth is that hormonal changes do have a part to play in this, although the process is not completely understood. At menopause a woman stops ovulating, her monthly menstruation periods end, and her body produces much lower levels of the female hormone estrogen which is responsible for the ovulation process. Low estrogen has been shown to cause weight gain in animals and it almost certainly is the reason why our bodies change shape. While women of childbearing age store fat in the lower body, after the menopause they store it on the abdomen instead, like men. This leads to a greater risk of heart disease.
At the same time, both men and women tend to find muscle turning to fat as they grow older, and the metabolism slows down. This means that if you do not adjust your eating habits you will probably find that your weight increases. A person of 60 just does not need as many calories as a person of 40.
Hormone therapy with estrogen is sometimes prescribed to control menopausal symptoms. Many women will be surprised to hear that studies have shown that hormone therapy does not cause weight gain. Some women experience bloating and water retention in the early stages of hormone therapy but this is usually temporary and they have not gained any fat. Hormone therapy can reduce the risk of heart disease by preventing the changes in storage of body fat around the abdomen and lowering cholesterol. However, hormone therapy has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in some studies.
If you find that you are gaining weight around the menopause, there are several things you can do.
- Eat a healthy, low fat diet with plenty of fiber, avoiding sugar.
- Take regular exercise. As people get older their physical activity levels naturally drop. Work often becomes less physically demanding, there are no kids to run around after, we take less active holidays and do things more slowly. 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day will help to balance out the effect of this.
- Maintain your muscle strength and mass. Use weights for arm muscles and walking or cycling for legs.
- Accept the changes to the shape of your body. If you are not overweight, but simply have a thicker waist and slimmer legs, that is fine.
Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program if you have any medical conditions or your fitness levels are low. Your doctor can also help with symptoms of the menopause and weight gain.