Menopause can bring numerous side effects that range from irritating to life disrupting — including mood swings, hot flashes, insomnia, night sweats, depression, fatigue and dryness down there — but one of the most frustrating for many women is the seemingly inevitable weight gain, especially in the belly area.
The phenomenon is so common there’s even a term for it: the “menopot.” This new or expanded pot belly can develop even if you’re on track with your nutrition and maintain a regular workout schedule, thanks to a number of factors unique to menopause.
In some cases, a certain degree of menopot will be here to stay, especially since genetics is often involved in terms of where you store fat. But even if you’re tangling with your genes, it’s often possible to overcome a genetic predisposition through exercise, some research suggests.
Changing up how you’re doing things — from eating to stress reduction — can go a long way toward scaling down the size of that menopot.
WHY YOU’RE GAINING
Usually occurring in women between the ages of 47–55, menopause is caused by a loss of estrogen. When that happens, you tend to accumulate fat, especially around the abdomen — and also lose muscle mass. The result is that telltale belly and love handles.
This happens because when your ovaries stop producing estrogen, your body searches for it elsewhere, and the only other place it’s generated is in the abdominal fat cells. Your body stores fat there in an effort to increase estrogen levels.
Weight around your middle is more than frustrating; it can also increase health risks, including greater chance of cardiovascular problems and metabolic disease.
Women tend to put on about a pound and a half each year in their 50s and 60s, because of this hormones-plus-muscle-loss combination, according to Dr. Jo Ann Pinkerton, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia Health System.
Since muscle burns more calories than fat, this causes a metabolism slow down. So, even if you’re eating the same amount you always have, you’re likely not burning the calories at the same rate as you once did. As you continue to lose muscle mass — unless you work on building it up — the problem can get worse, leading to faster weight gain.
LIFT HEAVY STUFF
During the first few years after menopause, bone-density loss speeds up, which increases the risk of osteoporosis. Although any kind of exercise is helpful for cardiovascular health, strength training specifically has been shown to help prevent bone loss and maintain bone mass, even in those who already have osteoporosis.
Strength training can also be useful for whittling that growing middle, says Janet Viljoen, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Rhodes University in South Africa.
“Women over the age of 50 should try lifting weights and doing other strength-training exercises if they want to kick menopause symptoms,” she notes. In addition to potentially lowering weight, this type of exercise often makes it easier to climb stairs and reduces knee and hip pain, says Viljoen.
If possible, the best possible approach is to combine cardio and strength in some way during the week, to get the benefits of both. The North American Menopause Society suggests cardio like interval training and circuits that work different muscles, along with lifting weights or doing resistance training 2–3 times per week.
GET MORE SLEEP
In addition to focusing on what you’re doing in the kitchen and in the gym, it’s vital to consider other lifestyle tweaks that cannot only help with weight, but also potentially lessen the severity of other menopause issues like depression and emotional disruption.
One of the biggest is getting more sleep, since sleep deprivation can increase levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for your stress response. Heightened, chronic cortisol also tends to cause more belly fat storage, so lack of sleep in menopause is like a hormonal double whammy.
Granted, this can be tricky advice, since the National Sleep Foundation reports many women struggle with insomnia during menopause. The organization suggests looking for treatment options that seem to work well for you. It may take time to find something that’s a good fit, but it’s worth trying out some options, considering how vital sleep is to your health.
TALK WITH YOUR DOC
Whether you’re feeling challenged by weight gain or not, be sure to check in with your doctor about what’s going on, advises Dr. Lila Nachtigall, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Health.
“Even if you seem to be going through menopause at the same time as your mother or other female relatives, and you have the same symptoms, it’s important to make sure that’s the case,” she says.
Keep up with regular screenings and be especially vocal about whether your weight gain is sudden and feels more like bloating — which can be a symptom of something more serious like colon issues or ovarian cancer.
Your doctor may also suggest thyroid testing to rule out that as a cause. The main thing to keep in mind is that although you might start to see your weight creeping upward, you don’t have to see the situation as inevitable or irreversible. Get a double check about what’s going on — menopause or a different condition — and make some healthy lifestyle changes in the meantime.