Losing weight after menopause feels impossible. It's not, and we can prove it.
Get your Zumba shoes, we’re going dancercising
Menopause was not on my list of things to do before turning 30. Instead, I’d hoped to get into better shape. I had finally started working out, and endured past the dreaded one-month mark that promised to turn it into a habit. But after being diagnosed with multiple interfering uterine fibroids, I sidelined my first recommended course of treatment — having a child — and grasped at the alternative with both hands. Induced menopause. It briefly stop my periods and hopefully, the fibroids would shrink.
The progress I was making came to a standstill while I, myself, could barely stand still with growing anxiety and hormone-induced irritability. I lost the motivation to work out and my midriff seemed to be expanding. I was also scared of losing the strength I’d built that had eased my joint pains and strengthened my lower back. The joke in my friends’ circle is that I’ve always complained about having the joints and muscle tone of someone in their 70s. Did I… manifest… menopause?
I struggled through the confusion and anxiety of those first few days. Only then did I realise that for me, this was a temporary state. ‘Real menopause’ wouldn’t hit me until later in my life. There are thousands of women who are actually struggling with weight loss after menopause and feeling like they’re trying to Hulk their way through a seriously thick wall holding them up on their fitness journey.
“Menopause takes place when there’s a 12-month period of no menstruation for women in their 40s-50s,” explains Dr Damini Goyal, OB-GYN and fertility specialist. Think of menopause as the destination. Perimenopause, on the other hand, is ‘The Change’ we often refer to when talking about the symptoms. This phase can last for years before your period stops for good.“Common symptoms are night sweats, hot flashes, the inability to sleep, moodiness and irritability because of hormonal changes,” adds Goyal.
Companies have picked up on the growing confusion around menopause, weight gain, and fitness. My research into my own health condition led to a barrage of algorithm-driven advertisements on my news feed, all talking about ‘cracking the code’ of menopause and weight loss with special teas and tinctures that would get rid of belly fat. Or magic capsules to kickstart your metabolism and get you on your way to a happier, healthier future.
But as tempted as I was to take the easy way out, I’m glad I saved my money. According to most experts, these products are purely marketing gimmicks with no real regulation or scientific backing. “If you’re concerned about weight gain, there is no menopause code to crack and no hormones to balance for weight loss,” says Dr Jen Gunter, OB/GYN and author of books such as The Vagina Bible and The Menopause Manifesto. She warns her clients and readers alike about the increased fervour with which companies are trying to capitalise on our insecurities and sell us things which rarely work, or worse, cause harm to our systems.
So what’s the deal with weight loss after menopause? Is it really the iceberg that takes down the Titanic? What’s the point of spending all this time and effort getting into shape if menopause is just going to reverse everything?
I’m not the only one with questions. In a poll, 86% of 169 Tweak readers admitted to struggling with weight loss after menopause. Some, like Swati Vijayan, 54, hit a weight loss plateau she couldn’t break through for months, while others like Gurleen Kaur, 57, struggled to stay motivated and control their growing appetite.
With the help of experts like Dr Shalini Vijay, a senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Motherhood Hospital Pune, and Dr Veena Aurangabadwala, gynaecologist at Zen Multispeciality Hospital in Mumbai, we got to the bottom of the menopause fitness blues.
What hinders weight loss after menopause?
While midlife weight gain for women has long been associated with menopause, growing research suggests that it’s the subsequent bodily changes in our body — growing hunger, age-related muscle loss, and slowing metabolism — which derail attempts to control the kilos.
“As women age, they lose lean muscle mass, which slows metabolism. Their activity decreases, so burning fewer calories causes weight gain,” says Aurangabadwala. “The same hormonal changes that cause a shift in weight distribution add to the challenge,” adds Vijay.
Researchers at the University of Missouri have been looking into why physical activity decreases in women as they get older. They’ve identified a link between the ovarian hormones and dopamine levels in our brains. Associate Professor Victoria Vieira-Potter says that the loss of these hormones during menopause causes a decline in dopamine signals in our brain’s pleasure or reward centres.
That’s why women like Kaur who may have been regulars at the gym before menopause cringe at the thought of putting on their track pants and sneakers. “I used to love going to the gym. But once menopause started I slowly found that excitement started to fade. I went from going to the gym five times a week to just twice.”
It’s not laziness or a lack of interest, believes Vieira-Potter, as much as it is a change in brain functioning caused by hormonal changes. These also drastically increase your appetite, according to studies.
The decline in oestrogen during perimenopause and menopause causes menopause munchies to take over as our satiety hormone, leptin, snoozes on the job of regulating appetite. Hunger isn’t always in our control, but we can shift our focus to boosting our metabolism and staying active.
What to focus on if you’re trying to get fit during or after menopause
Try and maintain a calorie deficit
When people say that weight loss is 80% diet and 20% working out, the first bit refers to a calorie deficit. Consuming fewer calories than you burn. You can do that by changing how much, but more importantly, what you’re putting on your plate.
As with any health journey, the best diet is one that is balanced with veggies, fruits, proteins, and fibre. You could eat a serving bowl of raw greens and still ingest fewer calories than by eating a McAloo tikki. Of course, a woman can’t live on salad alone, but your usual diet might be too high in calories to allow for weight loss after menopause.
While a nutritionist will design a calorie-deficit daily diet based on your lifestyle and exercise regime, experts agree that cutting down 300-500 calories daily will knock off kilos, and keep them off.
You can try the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation or the Harris-Benedict equation to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which tells you the number of calories your body needs to maintain basic daily functioning. The equation is different for men and women.
The Mifflin-St. Jeor equation for women:
BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) – 161.
For example, the BMR of a 56-year old lady who weighs 70 kgs and is 5’7’ would be calculated as (10 x 70) + (6.25 x 173) – (5 x 56) – 161 = 1662 calories, approximately.
The Harris-Benedict for women:
BMR = 655.1 + (9.563 x weight in kg ) + (1.850 x height in cm) – (4.676 x age in years).
The same woman’s BMR in this case would be calculated as 655.1 + (9.563 x 70) + (1.850 x 173) – (4.676 x 56) = 1383 calories, approximately. These estimates vary, but they can give you a rough idea of your minimum calorie needs.
Switch up between cardio and resistance/strength training
Cardio or aerobic exercise is essential for maintaining a happy heart and getting your blood pumping. If you enjoy your early morning jogs or Zumba, stick to them, but slowly add strength or resistance training to your workout routines.
These grow muscles and build strength by using resistance, an opposing force which could be dumbbells, an exercise machine or your own body weight. This gives your dropping metabolism a kick, which helps reduce body fat.
So don’t shy away from weights. They’re going to build bone strength and muscle mass, help you maintain coordination as you age, and burn through excess visceral fat that wraps around your abdominal organs.
You can alternate strength training with cardio workout days or do a bit of both on the same day. The important thing is creating a routine that you are most likely to follow and that works for your body.
Ensure you’re getting enough daily protein
You might be getting a mental picture of jacked-up gym bros with their protein shakers in one hand and water bottle in the other, talking about creatine and pre-workout caffeine shots. But protein isn’t just for bodybuilders.
Essential for muscle growth, studies have found that protein can help counter menopause-driven hunger by helping you feel more full, as compared to the other macronutrients, fats and carbohydrates. It works by reducing ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and inadvertently causing you to shift into a calorie deficit.
Studies have also found that people with high protein intake maintain better bone health as they get older and have a lower risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Your protein intake can be in different forms – eggs, meats, lentils, tofu, or opt for a protein shake that makes hitting your daily requirement a lot easier.
Your daily requirement depends on weight and activity levels. One formula dictates you multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36 to know the number of grams of protein you should eat daily. You could also try this online calculator.
Sejal Chauhan, 62, and Vijayan agree that increasing their daily protein intake had a tremendous impact on their health. Vijayan finally managed to break through the weight loss plateau she had hit, and Chauhan felt her post-workout soreness decrease and energy increase. “I was able to bounce back a lot faster. On the days my protein intake was low, I could feel it in my energy levels and the soreness of my muscles.”
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Weight loss after menopause may take more time than what you’re used to in the past, but it’s achievable with a few lifestyle tweaks. Consult dieticians and fitness trainers, even if it’s just to get started.
Try different workouts, sign up for new classes, and finally give that healthy bhindi recipe you’ve had bookmarked for months a try. There’s no such thing as failure as long as you’re doing your best to make smart food choices and keep your body moving.
A note of caution: This story is for educational purposes and contains inputs from experts. Please consult your healthcare provider if you’re in crisis for a treatment plan that works for you.