Say no to menopause weight gain
We often think of menopause weight gain as being one of the inevitable features of reaching middle age. Although women in their forties and fifties are very positive about life, many of them share this concern:
How can I avoid piling on the pounds (kilos) and getting all fat and dumpy at middle age?
Obesity is the modern epidemic. In the USA a shocking 1 in every 3 people is now obese(1). And though levels are lower in Europe, the trend is going the same way – in the UK, obesity in adults rose from 15% in 1993 to nearly 25% in 2008 (2).
We know that in rich countries, as people get older they tend to gain weight. For women, the worry is that even if they have managed to keep their weight under control in their youth, when they reach midlife they won't be able to avoid menopause weight gain.
But there is good news:
Menopause weight gain can be avoided!
The answer is not too difficult:
Menopause weight gain can be avoided if we increase our physical activity levels.
But let's take a moment to revise some high school sums:
Food intake(calories) greater than energy used(physical activity) = weight gain
Food intake less than energy used = weight loss
Food intake = energy used = weight stays the same
As we age, two factors contribute to our risk of menopause weight gain: i) we tend to become less active and ii) our metabolism slows down so we need fewer calories to maintain our daily activities at the same level.
So inevitably if we keep eating the same diet as when we were younger, and don't take adequate exercise, then as sure as eggs are eggs, we’re going to put on weight...
… and since many of us do just that …
…weight gain and menopause come together, hand in hand, like a newly married couple.
BUT there are two possible solutions to avoid menopause weight gain:
EITHER we start eating less OR we start exercising more …
Now if you’re a bit of a foody like me, and you think that tasty, healthy and wholesome food is one of the joys of life, you may be a bit reluctant to eat less … in which case the next question is:
How much does a middle-aged woman need to exercise to avoid menopause weight gain?
There's some good scientific data available to answer this question, based on a large study done in the US(1).
The Women's Health Study was a large trial involving nearly 40,000 women, which originally set out to test whether aspirin and vitamin E might prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.
After the trial ended in 2005, most of the women continued answering annual health questionnaires for another 13 years.
Dr I-Min Lee and colleagues from the Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, who analysed the data came up with the following finding:
An hour a day keeps the fat away!
In order to maintain their normal weight and avoid weight gain, a middle aged woman needs to take sustained moderate-intensity exercise for about 60 minutes EVERY day.
Women in the study who were less active were much more likely to gain weight – in the order of at least 2.3kg (5 lbs or more) over a 3 year period.
This finding really makes you sit up and think, because it implies that we need to take more exercise than was previously thought necessary if we are to maintain our normal weight – assuming we keep to our usual diet.
The recommended level of physical activity to lower our risk of developing chronic diseases is lower – around 150 minutes, spread out over 7 days(3).
But if we want to keep our weight down while eating the same, then we need to really crank up the exercise. And what's more, the activity needs to be sustained - that is, we have to keep it up – for ever.
We can't just take up an exercise programme for a few weeks over the summer and then hope for the best. In other words, physical activity must become an integral part of our lives – it needs to be woven into our days in a natural way.
But there are so many benefits of physical activity apart from helping to avoid menopause weight gain, that we really, really should try to make it part of lives.
The Harvard study showed that the common belief about weight gain and menopause being bosom pals is true to a certain extent: because the researchers found a significant relationship between the menopausal status of women and their weight gain. Post-menopausal women were more likely to gain weight than pre-menopausal women.
BUT physical activity is the magic key to breaking this apparently strong bond: menopause weight gain is only inevitable if you're not physically active enough – and enough – means 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day.
So what is moderate intensity exercise?
You know when you are exercising at a moderately intense level if you are aware that your heart is beating faster and you are a bit out of breath, BUT you can still hold a normal conversation. So examples might be a brisk walk to work or a gentle lunchtime jog, raking or light digging in the garden or a cycle ride at a moderate pace.
Vigorous exercise on the other hand is when you can’t talk very much because you would become too out of breath – running, swimming, heavy digging or fast cycling for instance.
The Women's Health Study found that the best way of maintaining weight at middle age is not to gain it in the first place.
Because the hour a day recommendation only seemed to work for normal weight women. For heavier women, increased physical activity alone was not sufficient to avoid weight gain at menopause. Once you are overweight, the only way to keep your weight down is to combine a physical activity programme with calorie restriction – eat a bit less AND exercise.
So the news is good and bad about menopause weight gain:
The good news is that menopause weight gain can be avoided
The bad news (but it’s only bad if you don’t like being active) – is that you need to do at least 1 hour of moderately intense exercise EVERY DAY if you want to maintain your normal weight.
- Lee IM et al. Physical activity and weight gain prevention. JAMA 2010; 303:1173-1179.
- UK National Obesity Observatory webpage (consulted 10/7/10)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity Guidelines (consulted 10/7/10)
Published 11/7/2010. Updated 26/8/2010
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