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My friend, Colin DeWaay, loves to read research more than I do, so I asked him to look for the science being done on how menopause changes how our bodies respond to weight training. We also know there is something different about how we store fat and how long it takes to lose it. Too often, menopause is discussed as if it were a disease -as if aging were a disease – which neither are because continuing to be alive is actually NOT a disease… (Oops – off my soapbox now.) One thing that did not come up in the research, but that I strongly believe is an issue for us, is cortisol. I believe there is a link between increased cortisol and menopause. And I also believe cortisol may be increased by life stress that comes with being a female of a certain age with all sorts of adult responsibilities to juggle – and then add sleep-deprivation to that mix. I suggest you look around online for more information about cortisol. There is research out there about it, but maybe it’s not been specifically studied in combination with menopause very often? I have seen it studied as a result of sleep disturbances… Hello? Night sweats? ~ Tammy
I have to be honest. I’ve been dragging my feet writing this article for a long time. After my last blog about getting the most out of an online coach I actually planned on writing about weight loss for women in their 50’s. Then Tammy reached out to me wondering if I’d write about weight loss, muscle growth, etc. in menopausal women. So it only made sense, only one problem. As a 37-year-old male without an extensive background in this subject, who am I to tell you what to do?
Well I guess because it’s my job (my certification and the text books I’ve read cover this but it’s SO small) and I do have a large number of clients who fit this demographic. But at the end of the day all I can do is empathize and teach what I’ve discovered. I can’t know what it’s like or how it feels on a personal level, however, I want to help people the best I can, so let’s do this. (Side note even if you’re a women not even close to menopause, you could likely get a lot out of this article.)
So with that I set out to scour through PubMed to gather as much relevant information I could. After searching and searching, reading and reading, putting together as much data as I could, wanna know what I found? Well for one I think there’s a severe lack of data on this demographic, which is actually something I’ve noticed on my own. Whenever I get a unique problem with a client the first thing I do is try to find data to help give me answers. Rarely is there much out there in the way of menopausal women, which even researchers seem to agree with. (1)
The other thing I’ve found? If you’re a menopausal/postmenopausal woman, this stuff’s probably going to be tough…. Really tough. Probably not what you wanted to hear I’m sure, but don’t stop reading now. Even though it’s likely going to be more difficult for you than many others, it’s also more important than ever you get a handle on things. Even if the odds are stacked against you. Let’s discuss.
Due to many hormonal changes that occur during menopause, the risk of raising body fat increases significantly. Sitting around being inactive and eating whatever you want is a recipe for things to get worse in a hurry. With that comes the increased risk of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, at least partially due to increases of fat within the abdominal cavity (AKA visceral adipose tissue or VAT.)(2) In a nutshell, research shows that post-menopausal women are at increased risk of cardiovascular diseases since VAT is considered a correlation and they are more prone to store fat in that area, even if total fat loss is the same during a weight reduction program. (3)
Another major player that hardly anyone ever talks about is the importance of minimizing loss of bone mineral density (BMD.) Likely due to significant drops in estrogen women in perimenopause might experience up to a 3% loss of BMD a year if they aren’t active or on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and can even carry on post menopause. This is why osteoporosis is such a problem in older females. Since the loss of BMD can be slowed with heavy resistance training, this is just one more reason to lift weights. For those who haven’t reached their upper 30’s yet (around the time women start experiencing a loss in BMD) it’s all the more reason to start heavy strength training NOW.
The good news? Aging does not appear to reduce the ability of our bodies to adapt to strength training. Improvements in BMD as well as strength, power, muscle mass and functional capabilities have been observed in older people participating in strength training programs. (4, 5, 6) Basically no matter where your starting point is or how old you are, you can make improvements. Just proof that it really never is too late to start.
Before I go on I’d like to say one quick thing about HRT, this gets thrown around a lot. This is NOT something I can suggest nor should anyone tell you whether you shouldn’t or shouldn’t go down that path. That is something for you and your doctor to discuss if it’s the right thing for you or not. I’ve heard of other trainers telling their clients they need to get HRT and that is NOT okay. I’m not, nor is any other trainer qualified to make that assessment.
Anyway, what do most experts recommend as an effective method to prevent obesity or reduce body fat during menopause? Well, diet and exercise of course. (7) One study took 439 overweight-obese postmenopausal sedentary women and assigned them into one of 4 groups. Basically there was a group that dieted only, exercised only, dieted and exercised and a control group. After 1 year not surprisingly the diet and exercise group did the best losing 10.8% of their body weight, followed by 8.5% for the diet group, and 2.4% for the exercise only group. (1)
As you can see fat loss is most definitely possible for postmenopausal women, it’s just likely results are going to be slower than you’d like. You MUST be okay with this, and focus on a plan you find to be sustainable. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, the time is going to pass anyway. The unfortunate truth is if you’re unhealthy now, it’s only going to get worse if you don’t do anything about it. This is why I said it’s more important than ever to get serious because the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle will pile up a lot faster when you become menopausal.
Again don’t get me wrong, I definitely empathize with you ladies. I really do. You were dealt a tough hand and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like. Set aside for a moment all the physiological reasons obtaining and maintaining a healthy body is likely more difficult, you have to add on all the factors that make training and staying mentally in the game tough. Things like hot flashes, difficulty sleeping, menstrual irregularity, lowered sex drive, mood swings/irritability, etc. Also dealing with the emotions that come with no longer being able to conceive and everything else that comes when your body changes on you. ALL of life’s stressors, mental and physical, add up and need to be factored in.
This stuff goes WAY beyond just physical change. You have every reason in the world to feel like it’s impossible. You have every right to feel like you should give up. But I’m telling you right now, DON’T. You don’t have to be perfect, hell you shouldn’t even TRY to be perfect. I’d actually argue it’s more important to be more flexible at this stage. You have a lot of things to deal with and work around, so factor that all in. The worst thing you can do is go down the all or nothing path. Because all or nothing ALWAYS ends in nothing.
That said, now more than ever is it important to take care of yourself. Your body is fighting against you and you basically have two choices. Lay down and let it take you out, or fight back. Go ahead, feel your feelings, you can’t control how you feel and there is NOTHING wrong with the way you feel. But you CAN do something about what you do about it. I wouldn’t be doing you any good if I said “It’s okay, it’s going to be hard so go ahead and give up” and more importantly you don’t want to tell yourself that.
Time and time again people (much like Tammy herself) have shown that it absolutely can be done. Results may come slow, it may be difficult, but it’s literally life and death stuff here. Don’t take it lightly. Start slow, allow for sufficient recovery, make small changes, keep learning and getting better and if you need help by all means get help. Regardless, like Tammy always says, “Just keep showing up.” Remember, it may suck that it’s more difficult for you than others, but reality is reality and you can’t change it. The best thing you can do is deal with it from a place of acceptance. Otherwise you’ll just end up fighting yourself the whole way.
The last thing I’d like to say is if you are a woman who has yet to get to this stage of your life. Do yourself a favor and get started! As you can tell it’s only going to get more difficult and the sooner you can get ahead of things the easier and healthier you’ll be in the long-run. Nothing is more effective than prevention.
If you ARE looking for a coach to help take the guess work out and hold you accountable I am accepting clients for training and/or nutrition help. Just head here and select the option you’d like.
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