You work out just as hard as that 20-something in class next to you. Week by week, you see her arms getting more toned, her waist getting more whittled. And though you feel fitter, you really don’t look it. What gives?
“There are as many reasons why a woman of a certain age might not respond the same to an exercise program as there are women of a certain age!” says certified exercise physiologist Gillian Hood.
That said, here are some top contenders.
Falling Hormones Levels
As you are no doubt aware, estrogen levels drop rapidly as women approach menopause. The part that’s a bit less well publicized: “The body tries to compensate for this drop, and one way it does this is by using fat cells to produce estrogen,” says Hood. Unfortunately, “it’s nowhere near enough, compared to what had been produced earlier in life, so the body will be less likely to allow body fat to be utilized as fuel or to be released.”
In a nutshell, your body is hanging onto your fat cells and working against your shaping-up efforts.
Rising Stress Levels
Another midlife situation can wreak havoc on your body’s hormones: stress. “Under stress, the body attempts to keep the fat and store more, assuming a famine or other disaster is on the way or here,” Hood says. “In addition, an after-effect of the stress response is the release of cortisol, which causes us to crave carbohydrates.” (She notes this means that your desire for post-workout macarons is not a sign of poor willpower but a physiological need — sugar is the fastest way to get carbs into your system.) Hood’s surprising recommendation: Work out less hard.
“Dieting, overexercising, and all the things we do to try to lose weight don’t work, and a major reason for this is because they are stressful to the body and the mind,” she says. “[At age 45] I decided that since my female hormones were already all over the place due to perimenopause, why attempt to lose weight and cause my stress hormones to have a field day as well?” Now, Hood says, about three and a half years later, her hormones have calmed down and the weight is coming off naturally.
“It’s been very comforting to know that the body will take care of itself if we stop trying to beat it into submission.”
“By the time many, many women are premenopausal or perimenopausal, they have been on diet after diet after diet,” Hood says. “And the more dieting you do, the lower your metabolism.”
Here’s how that works: You diet and exercise, you lose weight from everywhere — both from fat and muscle. The less lean muscle you have, the fewer calories your body burns at rest — i.e., the slower your metabolism. You stop dieting and exercising, you gain weight back, but in the form of fat only — and often more than you had in the first place. “The net effect is a higher body fat percentage, even if you don’t gain more pounds on the scale than when you began the diet — and it becomes harder and harder to lose weight with every diet.”
The long-term solution here: Make lifestyle changes that work for you and don’t involve extreme dietary restrictions, and keep up your activity levels, particularly resistance/weight training over cardio, as stronger muscles stoke the metabolism.