12 Ways to Beat Menopausal Belly Fat
Hormonal changes as we age can lead to extra weight around the middle. Stay healthy and fit with these tips.
Weight gain may feel like it’s inevitable once you’ve entered your fourth decade, but the truth is, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Natural hormonal changes mean you may experience symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings, but you shouldn't fatalistically accept that the number on the bathroom scale will skyrocket, too.
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Here’s what’s going on with your body if elastic waistbands are now your go-to fashion choice: Weight distribution changes as you hit menopause, with the added pounds accumulating right around your belly. “I named the extra fat that collects around your middle the ‘menopot,’” says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, author of Body for Life for Women.
Before, during, and after menopause, your estrogen levels begin to wane and your metabolism slows, making it more difficult for you to lose weight, particularly around your middle. And belly fat isn’t just annoying — it’s also unhealthy. A study published in the journal Menopause found that menopausal weight accumulation around the middle — even if you haven’t gained a single pound — puts you greater risk for cardiovascular disease. “It’s a fact of life that both men and women gain weight as they age, but we can take action to combat it,” says Stephanie Faubion, MD, medical director of the North American Menopause Society director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Women’s Health in Jacksonville, Florida. “It can be hard, but it is possible to do it.” Here, a dozen ways to successfully fight the battle of the bulge.
Exercise More Often, More Intensely to Counter Midlife Weight Gain
Start with a mix of moderate and vigorous exercise to burn off menopausal weight gain. Your routine should include aerobic exercises like swimming, walking, bicycling, and running, as well as resistance or strength training. “What you want to employ now is high-intensity interval training (HIIT),” Dr. Peeke says. “Basically that means that moderate levels of exercise are interspersed with high intensity intervals throughout the week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week and two or more days a week of muscle-strengthening activities that work all of the major muscle groups, like the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. If you take the HIIT approach, you should tailor your overall exercise routine to aim for an equivalent mix of moderate and high intensity exercise every week, along with those same two days of strength training.
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“What we did when we were 30 and what we do when we’re 60 is very different,” says Kathryn A. Boling, MD, a family medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Lutherville, Maryland. “We have to adjust our exercise some as we get older.” If you’ve lost some gusto, create incentives for yourself to stay moving. “I have an Apple Watch, and I like to see that [completed exercise] circle closed,” she says. A gym membership isn't a requirement, but you do need to do enough strength training to keep your muscles strong and your metabolism revved. “Try activities that have you lifting, pushing, and pulling,” she says.
Bear in mind that exercise intensity is personal. So, someone who hasn't exercised in years may need very little exercise for it to feel intense, while someone in great shape really needs to push it and may be better suited to try HIIT. When in doubt, and to avoid injury, find a personal trainer or physical therapist to help guide your routines.
It’s Better to Stand Than Sit, if and When You Can
The formula is simple: The longer your body’s in motion, the more calories your body will burn. One low-effort way to do that? “Stay as vertical as possible throughout the day,” Peeke says. Not only will that increase calorie burn, it can also help prevent other health problems. A study published in the journal Obesity found that prolonged sitting is connected to higher levels of abdominal fat, as well as fat that’s accumulated around the liver, which increases risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Staying vertical isn’t exactly the same as breaking out a full-on sweat (although it’s great when you can do that too). To stay upright and moving more often, stand and pace when you’re on the phone; go upstairs to chat with a family member instead of texting them; or park further from the front door of the places you’re going, so you’ll get more steps in.
And if your job has you sitting in front of a computer all day, try a standing desk (along with taking breaks to move around). Research published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that workers with standing desks reported significantly less sedentary behavior and had less upper back, shoulder, and neck discomfort, too. And a review published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology examined studies on standing desks and found that a person who weighs roughly 143 pounds could potentially burn 54 calories a day by standing — instead of sitting — for six hours.
Watch Your Carbohydrate Intake
Not all nutrients are created equal, and some experts believe that a steady diet heavy in processed or refined carbs like pasta and bread are a significant factor for excess belly fat. “Carbs are the enemy of the middle-aged woman, says Dr. Boling. “If you are perimenopausal, look at how much sugar you are eating. Carbs turn into sugar in our bodies. Some turn faster, like candy bars, oatmeal burns slower, but eventually it all turns to sugar. If you are aware of how many carbs you are eating, you are going to do better.” Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a reduced-carbohydrate diet may decrease the risk of postmenopausal weight gain.
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Shrink Belly Fat With Tai Chi
Maybe you’ve never tried it — or perhaps you’ve seen a group of people practicing tai chi together in a public park — but research out of Hong Kong showed that this Chinese discipline of low-impact meditative movements linked with breathing could help trim waistlines in middle aged and older adults. The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that people ages 50 and older with central obesity (weight disproportionally packed in their midsection) who practiced tai chi for 12 weeks shrunk their bellies as successfully as those who participated in aerobic exercise and strength training for the same amount of time. The study authors wrote that “tai chi [has] health benefits similar to those of conventional exercise and thus provides an alternative and more amenable exercise modality for middle-aged and older adults to manage central obesity.”
Keep Portions in Check and Consider Your Eating Patterns
Your metabolism has slowed down by the time you hit menopause — with some research suggesting it burns a couple hundred calories fewer a day. “Extra weight can very quickly add up if you don’t reduce the number of calories you consume,” says Christine Palumbo, RD, a nutrition expert in Chicago.
It’s also this time in your life, Palumbo notes, when you may be easing up from the daily duties of preparing meals for your family, and you're delighted to take a break from the kitchen (if you take this role in your family). “She has cooked for 25 years, and is sick of it, and she just wants to go out to eat,” says Palumbo. “What happens then is that you will inevitably eat twice as many calories as you need at that meal, and it’s often accompanied by alcohol, which is also associated with abdominal weight gain.” Order appetizers as entrees and ask for a to-go container for leftovers when you do indulge in a large main course.
Cutting back on restaurant meals and takeout is an easy way to control portions, but the timing and frequency of your meals can make a difference too. “There’s a lot of research about meal timing, and there is an increasing body of knowledge suggesting that we’ve had it all wrong when we talk about eating five or six small meals a day,” says Palumbo. “Research is pointing to doing better in the weight department by eating three square meals a day.” She says to start your day with a hearty breakfast that contains lean protein, and finishing the day with a light supper. “Eating your main meal at noontime can be beneficial for your weight,” according to Palumbo. (Research experts are still debating the optimal times to eat meals and how calories are best distributed throughout the day, though, notes a study in the Journal of Biological Rhythms.)
Choose Fats Wisely and Eat Meals With Healthy Fats to Counter Weight Gain
Fat adds flavor, makes our food taste better, and is part of a healthy diet. So the good news is that it isn’t necessary or recommended to completely eliminate it from your diet altogether. You just need to learn how to be more choosy, says Palumbo. Think more walnuts, fewer Whoppers.
The healthiest fats are the ones that derive from plant sources like olives and nuts, but keep in mind that healthy fats — like those found in avocados — have the same number of calories as the fat found in a hot fudge sundae. “An ounce of nuts has 170 calories, so you have to be very careful,” says Palumbo. “The same goes with extra-virgin olive oil. The American way is to go overboard, so you have to be extremely cautious when you use it and measure the amounts of fats and oils that you consume.”
And restaurant meals are not your friends in the fat department, either. “Restaurants are not in business to make us healthy. They add a lot of flavor carriers, which are known as fats,” Palumbo says. Salad dressings are one of the biggest sources of added fat in our diet, so order your salad with the dressing on the side.
Time Meals and Snack Right to Counter Mindless Eating
When you are following a midlife diet, it’s not just what you eat that matters, but also when you eat. Midnight ice cream binges and potato chip raids, for example, are generally bad ideas — and would be a poor choice even in the light of day. But the general message on food timing is clear: “Don’t eat too much too late,” Peeke says. “Eating later in the evening is murder for trying to keep weight off.”
Another way to keep snacking calories in check is to avoid mindlessly nibbling in the afternoon. “What a menopausal woman does from 3 p.m. on every day can determine how big her belly is. That’s when most women tend to overeat and oversnack,” Peeke adds. And while the conventional wisdom used to be that snacking could help promote weight loss by curbing cravings, an analysis in Nutrition Research found it often results in excess pounds, particularly when it’s done late in the day or in front of a computer.
To help rein in your snacking, Peeke says to start paying attention to your circadian rhythm. “Eat during a window of 8 to 12 hours a day, and then don’t eat for the rest of the time. Experts find this imperative to take care of weight at any age, but especially during menopause,” she says. “End your eating at a reasonable time, like 7 p.m., and pick it up again 12 hours later the next morning at 7 a.m.” Before exploring intermittent fasting as a weight loss strategy, its best to check in with your doctor to avoid risks from under-nourishing yourself and any risks that may be specific to your health conditions.
Vary Your Workouts and Try New Activities
It’s easy to get into an exercise rut, and even easier to fall out of the habit of exercising at all. But at this stage of your life, not getting your move on is not an option. “Ideally to keep your weight in check, you’ll be working out three or four times a week — with the injection of some HIIT," says Peeke. “It’s extremely effective at keeping excess body levels of fat down, and make sure to get in some weight training, even if it’s just using your own body weight.” A meta-analysis in Experimental Physiology found that cycling HIIT was more effective at reducing body fat than running in post-menopausal women.
So potentially take a Soul Cycle class to get your spin on, or see what all the CrossFit fuss is about. And if you’re not into group exercise, try a virtual reality fitness game at home. According to research published in the Journal of Sport Behavior, adding variation to your exercise routine may be the most successful way to make you stick with it.
Any kind of physical activity is better than none at all, but if your body gets too accustomed to a routine, it won’t burn belly fat (or any fat) as efficiently as when you first started doing it. “If you’re doing the same workouts you’ve always done and are expecting the same results, that isn’t going to happen,” says Fabuion.
Again, listen to your body when trying new classes, especially strength-focused ones like CrossFit. If you feel lost, if you experience discomfort, or if the instructor isn't helping you, it may be best to get more formal guidance from a trainer as you start an exercise routine. They can help you optimize your form to avoid injury.
Update Your Healthy Sleep Strategies to Rest Better and Fight Weight Gain
Insomnia is an extremely common symptom of perimenopause and, according to the North American Menopause Society, that transition phase can last for four to eight years. All that time spent waking up unrefreshed means you’re probably feeling too exhausted to head out for a workout, too. “It’s imperative to get sleep as you get older,” says Peeke. “One of the things that truly helps combat the menopot is high-quality sleep.” A small study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that not getting enough sleep can lead to an increase of abdominal fat.
Inadequate sleep also impacts our hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin. “Ghrelin and leptin become dysfunctional when you don’t get enough sleep, so good luck trying to lose weight if you don’t fix that problem,” says Peeke.
Palumbo says that you should shut down your kitchen and brush your teeth by 7 p.m. This will keep you from eating late, which can keep you from getting restful slumber that can cause you to pack on unwanted pounds. “You shouldn’t be eating before you sleep, because it will interrupt your sleep,” she says.
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Aim for a minimum of seven (and ideally eight) hours of shut-eye, although this varies from person to person and over time. Keep your bedroom cool to offset hot flashes and night sweats, and turn off all glowing screens for at least an hour before you want to fall asleep. If you really can’t fathom doing that, wear amber-lensed glasses to counteract the sleep-disrupting effects of blue light, or check if your device has an amber light setting, says Peeke.
Find a Friend or a Group to Exercise With
To attack belly fat and any other menopausal weight gain, you’ll need to burn between 400 and 500 calories most days of the week from cardiovascular exercise, such as walking briskly, jogging, bicycling, dancing, or swimming, Peeke says. Need motivation? Find a friend who needs to exercise as much as you do, and set a date to work out together. Research in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that actively looking for a new workout partner and exercising together is beneficial for both exercise and emotional support.
If you don’t have a buddy to join you on your weight loss mission, it may be time to try a group fitness class at your local gym or community center. Data published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine found that participating in regular group fitness classes resulted in a significant decrease in stress and a rise in physical, mental, and emotional quality of life compared with exercising regularly on your own or not engaging in regular exercise at all.
Adjust Your Coping Strategies and Address Your Stress Levels to Help Reduce Weight Gain
If your fat is making you feel stressed — or vice versa for that matter — don’t disregard that link. “There is a stress-fat connection,” Peeke says. “If you walk around completely stressed all the time, your cortisol levels will increase, and that will make it easy for you to deposit fat deep inside the belly.”
Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, stimulates the liver to increase production and release of blood sugar and helps the body convert fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into usable energy. As part of the body’s “fight or flight” response, cortisol is released during stressful times to give your body a natural energy boost, but when cortisol levels are constantly high because of chronic stress, these same effects may result in insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
To reduce stress and potentially belly fat, employ quick and simple techniques to help calm you down.
- Step outside and enjoy the greenery. Studies show that being in nature reduces stress. One study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, found that people who simply looked at images of trees reported feeling less stressed out.
- Try a new app. Meditation apps such as Aura, Headspace, and Calm offer five-minute and other timed meditations for beginners that can lower heart rate and short-circuit the stress response.
- Take up knitting or crochet. Needle and yarn hobbies can have a calming effect. Research in Perspectives in Public Health found that women ages 41 to 60 reported feeling calmer, happier, and more productive when they crochet.
- Ease up on alcohol. While drinking wine or alcohol may feel like a stress reliever, it’s not a long-term coping strategy, and the extra sugar from the booze and the mixers are adding to the belly-fat situation.
- Seek help from a counselor or your primary care doctor. If you find it hard to reduce your sugar or alcohol intake, or if you're overeating, it may be a sign of some unprocessed emotional energy or mind-body imbalance like trauma, depression, or anxiety that could be driving the behavior.
Talk With Your Doctor About How to Minimize Weight Gain and Other Menopausal Symptoms
If your lack of estrogen is contributing to typical menopausal symptoms, such as severe hot flashes and night sweats, and the symptoms (despite trying nonmedication approaches) are severe enough to impact your quality of life, you may want to consider hormone therapy (HT) or other medication.
HT has had a controversial history since it was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of menopausal hot flashes in 1942. As early as the 1950s, suspicions arose that taking hormones might harm a woman’s health, and since that time concerns have continued, although the North American Menopause Society recommends HT as a first line of treatment for hot flashes. Whether the risks outweigh the benefits, though, is something each woman should discuss with her healthcare provider, especially as new, lower-dose formulations have become available.
Some research suggests that HT may actually help women prevent menopausal weight gain. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, menopausal hormone therapy may help prevent an increase in visceral (belly) fat, body mass index (BMI), and body fat in general. The study reported that, compared with women who had taken HT in the past, current users were found to be nearly 1 point lower on the BMI scale and have nearly three pounds less of fat mass.
Ask your ob-gyn about medication and nonprescription supplements you might take to help you control your menopause symptoms. Complementary therapies such as acupuncture may help, too. Your doctor will likely want to investigate whether your weight gain is indeed from menopause and not from some other health condition that needs treating as well.