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Losing the ‘matronly look’ of menopause

Why do women gain weight at menopause? And what can they do to shed those extra pounds? Smart Fitness answers your workout queries.
Image: Exercising past menopause
Women gain about a pound a year around menopause, research shows, but a fitness program can help counter it.Tanya Constantine / Getty Images stock

Why do women gain weight at menopause? What can they do to shed those extra pounds? And can an older woman exercise too much? Smart Fitness answers your workout queries.

Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, click here. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q1:As a menopausal woman, my fitness routine consists of some Pilates (one to two times a week) and the treadmill (30 to 50 minutes, three times a week). I have always been rather trim, but over the last six to eight months I've been gaining weight and am now about 10 pounds overweight. I try to watch my diet. What exercise advice would you give me to trim off the "matronly look" I am now sporting?

Q2: I'm a 53-year-old woman who has always been slim. Since menopause the weight has been creeping on. I don't overeat, so why is belly fat my problem? Some days I eat little and walk an awful lot.

A: As if hot flashes and mood swings weren't enough, menopause also can promote weight gain, a pound or more a year on average, says Dr. Cynthia Stuenkel, a spokesperson for the North American Menopause Society. Typically, it settles in the midsection, hips and thighs.

It's not clear exactly why the pounds pack on though, says Stuenkel, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego. There's debate over whether it's mostly due to hormonal changes or other factors that are related to aging.

Doctors do know that hormone replacement therapy doesn't seem to prevent weight gain, she says. "And there's no question that our metabolism decreases, and our calorie requirements to maintain our weight decline," she says.

Unfortunately, that means that menopausal women may need to eat fewer calories or burn more through exercise in order to stay at the same weight. And to lose weight, they'll need to work even harder, probably in both areas.

"It's no magic bullet," says Stuenkel. "It comes back to the things we always say — diet and lifestyle."

One study found that women who do work at diet and exercise can stave off weight gain as they enter menopause — and stay healthier, too. The Women's Healthy Lifestyle Project involved more than 500 premenopausal women, half of whom were instructed to follow a reduced-fat, 1,300-calorie-a-day diet and increase their physical activity (to burn 1,000 to 1,500 calories a week through exercise), while the other half did not follow any special intervention.

Results published in the journal Circulation showed that during nearly 4.5 years of follow-up, the women who worked hard at diet and exercise did not gain weight but actually lost an average of .2 pounds. Meanwhile, those in the other group gained an average of 5.2 pounds — roughly a pound a year. The women in the intervention group also were healthier with regard to their blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood levels of glucose and insulin.

While health experts often recommend 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity to boost health, many endorse much more — 60 to 90 minutes a day — for weight loss.

Reader No. 1, you say you're doing the treadmill 30 to 50 minutes three times a week, so you may want to try increasing your aerobic activity. Keep in mind that an exercise program that worked for you in your 20s, 30s or even 40s may not be enough now, says Los Angeles personal trainer Kathy Kaehler, author of "Fit and Sexy for Life."

"You must work harder," says Kaehler, also a columnist for's Fit List.

Reader No. 2, your walking program may not be enough to burn off the fat, especially if you're strolling along.

Both of you should experiment to find what's working for you, and aim to mix things up, Kaehler says. When you do the same activities over and over, such as the treadmill or walking outdoors, your body isn't challenged as much as when you regularly do different activities. So consider biking, tennis, swimming, step class or whatever else you enjoy.

Reader No. 1, you also mention that you're doing Pilates, and that should help with toning. But it's also important to do strength training to maintain muscle mass with age. Not only does that keep you strong, it also helps keep your metabolism up, Kaehler says.

Toning activities that target the abdominal muscles can help keep the midsection tight. In addition to regular sit-ups, she also recommends the "waist whittler" to firm up the obliques that run along the sides of your waist.

Here's how to do it: Lie on your right side with your body supported on your right forearm and elbow. Your thighs should be in line with your body. Now bend at the knees so your feet are behind you and your calves are at a 90-degree angle to your thighs. Lift your hips off the ground. Hold for five counts. Then return to the floor. Repeat five to eight times and then switch sides.

Q: I am a 63-year-old woman who has never exercised until a year ago. I am quite healthy, with my blood pressure and blood glucose well within normal ranges. I have been using the recumbent bicycle at home and love it! I don't go to the gym nor have a trainer. Ten months ago, I started doing eight miles a day but now find myself doing 16 miles for 75 minutes a day, four or five days a week. Am I doing too much at my age, for my heart or my knees or my back? Should I reduce the time or speed or distance?

A: There's no age limit on exercise, so good for you on getting active. But given that you went from zero to 75 minutes a day in so short a time, it would be a good idea to check with your doctor to make sure your heart is up for the challenge.

You may also want to consult a personal trainer about your biking program. Doing the same activity over and over can lead to so-called "overuse injuries." It also may eventually cause boredom. A trainer can suggest different ways to use the bike — with regard to time, speed and distance — to keep you safe and boost your fitness level, too.

Keep in mind that incorporating different types of activity, including weight-training, into your fitness routine can give you more all-around benefits.