The end of your period is something some women want to celebrate, but the process of that can drag out for 10 years or so (known as perimenopause) before finally reaching menopause, a time many of us associate with weight gain. Even active, healthy women may gain weight in the years leading up to menopause, but it isn't inevitable. Learn what you can do to manage your weight during menopause.

Why We Gain Weight

The reason we gain weight is a matter of calories in vs. calories out⁠—as in, there are more coming in than going out. What prompts this weight gain, however, is where the frustration comes in since, as some of my active clients say, the weight gain seems to come from nowhere. "I'm doing the same workouts and eating the same as always, yet I suddenly have this belly," one client said.

Unfortunately, there’s a Bermuda Triangle effect that happens before and during menopause, three things that, when put together, lead to weight gain:

  • Increased calorie intake: Studies show that women eat more calories as estrogen declines and that we crave more fat and sugar and less nutritious, more satisfying foods that have protein and fiber.
  • Decreased physical activity: Spontaneous physical activity also decreases, often without us even being aware of it. This may be compounded by some perimenopause and menopause symptoms like fatigue, difficulty sleeping, depression and other mood changes.
  • Decreased RMR: Experts suspect that declining estrogen can decrease your resting metabolic rate (RMR) by 40-70 calories a day, calories that add up if you don’t compensate for them with diet and exercise.

It's obvious that estrogen plays an important role in weight management. It affects our appetites, how active we are, and the foods we crave. The lack of it even changes how fat is distributed, depositing it around the belly which puts us at risk for heart disease and diabetes.

There are other age-related issues that can make things worse: Loss of muscle and aerobic power as well as a decrease in the number of calories you burn during exercise. In "Exercise, Weight Gain and Menopause," Wendy Kohrt states that a young, healthy woman can increase her energy expenditure by 8-10 calories per minute during exercise, while a middle-aged woman may only be able increase it by 6-8 calories per minute. That means maintaining the same calorie burn may require more frequent and/or more intense exercise.

That doesn't mean you're doomed to gain weight and exercise is your first line of defense against the Bermuda Triangle of menopause.

4 Things You Can Do to Avoid Weight Gain

If you're frustrated with changes in your body that seem to come from nowhere, there are things you can do about it. By creating more effective workouts and looking at other areas of your life that may be contributing to the problem, you can get your weight under control.

Add Intensity to Your Cardio

How hard you work is directly related to how many calories you burn and raising the intensity can help you burn more without having to add time or frequency to your workouts. Here's what you can do:

  1. Try interval training or high intensity interval training
  2. Learn 5 ways to add intensity to your workouts
  3. Learn how to burn more fat with cardio
  4. Increase Your Frequency: If you're not maxed out on your workout days, try adding another day of cardio. Even a brisk 20-minute walk is enough to boost your calorie burn.
  5. Increase Your Duration: Another option is to make your workouts longer. Try adding 5-10 minutes to one or more of your workouts to burn a few extra calories.

Make Friends With Strength Training

Of all you do, strength training is the most important for maintaining your strength, balance, muscle mass and weight as you get older. Studies show that older adults can increase resting metabolic rate and energy expenditure by adding resistance training. One study even shows that a combination of high intensity cardio and strength training, along with a balanced diet, is the best way to reduce abdominal fat. Get the most out of strength training:

  • Lift heavy: Most women don’t lift enough weight because they’re afraid of bulking up or injuring themselves. If you're a beginner, work up to heavy weights over time but, if you’re experienced, going heavy enough that you can only complete 8-10 reps of each exercise will help you build more muscle. Your last rep should be hard, but possible with good form.
  • Mix it Up: Try split routines where you work different muscle groups each day to focus more attention on each muscle. Try different training techniques such as drop sets (starting heavy and dropping your weight by 20% for each set), supersets (doing two exercises for the same muscles, one after the other) or other training methods to shock and challenge your body.

If you feel like you're doing everything right and you're still not losing weight, hiring a trainer can help you figure out the best way to change what you're doing to get better results.

Focus on Small Changes

The weight gain that happens with menopause is often the result of small increases in calories that add up over time⁠—eating a little more, moving a little less and, of course, a metabolism that’s a few calories less than it was. The good news is that small changes can also reverse these things, good news if you don’t want to overhaul your whole life.

Monitor Yourself

Keeping track of your daily habits, eating, and exercise can help you stay on top of your weight and notice if extra calories are creeping in. This isn't to micromanage every bite you eat or movement you make, but to be aware of what's happening overall. Some ways to monitor yourself:

  • Keep a Food Journal: This is a good place to monitor your meals, snacks, and calories, but also to keep track of your cravings and find ways to deal with them that won't derail your diet.
  • Keep a Workout Log: Tracking your exercises, weight, reps, and sets can help you progress in your strength training workouts and make sure you're really challenging yourself.
  • Keep an Activity Log: Tracking your movement (or lack thereof) on a regular basis can tell you how active you are and, more importantly, where you can improve. For example, do you sit more after lunch? That may be a good time to take a walk or do some light exercise to fight post-lunch fatigue.
  • Keep a Health Journal: This is where you can track sleep patterns, menopause symptoms, how you're feeling, and the tools you're trying to manage your symptoms. You'll see how those tools are working or if you need to try another approach.

Other things to do include:

  • Talk to your doctor: There may be medication or other treatments available that can help.
  • Tweak your diet: Focus on fruits, veggies, and whole grains while minimizing saturated fat, processed sugar, and high sodium foods.
  • Find substitutions: Check the calories of the foods you eat regularly, such as yogurt, cheese, cereal or bread and spend some time at the grocery store to find lower calorie substitutes.
  • Eat smaller portions: Eat a little less cereal, a smaller piece of chicken, a smidge less olive oil when you’re sautéing the vegetables—these small changes can shave off calories here and there without making you feel deprived.
  • Be More Active: Spontaneous activity often declines during menopause because it's hard to fight the fatigue that comes from lack of sleep, hot flashes, anxiety, and depression. Exercise and daily movement can help fight these symptoms while generating energy. Every little bit counts including household chores, short walks around the office or neighborhood, standing up as often as you can and just about anything that helps you avoid sitting for long periods of time. You may need to work in things like meditation or other stress-reduction techniques to help you stay calm and more centered.

Going through menopause doesn't mean automatic weight gain, nor does it mean your body won't go through some changes no matter what you do. Try to work with what's within your control: How much you move, what you eat, how you handle stress and the efforts you make to handle menopause symptoms the best way you can. Managing what you can and allowing your body to respond to your efforts can help you keep a healthy, positive attitude about the changes you're going through.

In wake of loss of muscle and aerobic power, SMART Fitness Studio has a Strength Training class, Aerobic classes, including Spinning, and Personal Training. Sign-up today for Strength Training and Aerobic classes. Inquire in person for Personal Training and Special Personal Training and Class discounts.

Good luck!