Turning 40 isn’t the crossover into old age that it once was, but it can come with certain complications and drawbacks. Most women begin perimenopause (the period of two to 10 years before menopause) sometime after the fourth decade — which means you may start to experience menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings at this age. You may also notice that the number on the bathroom scale begins to creep up and that your pants fit a little tighter around your waist. This is because your weight distribution changes as you hit menopause, with the added pounds accumulating right around your middle.
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. Studies show it increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and perhaps even early death.
Ask any woman about her least favorite body part, and most of us will point to our middles. And in my experience, bellies can become especially anxiety-provoking when excess fat spills over the top of our jeans. Yes, the dreaded "muffin top."
Any woman can get a muffin top. But women are more likely to gain excess belly weight -- especially deep inside the belly -- as they go through perimenopause and into menopause, when their menstrual cycle ends. That's because as estrogen levels drop, body fat is redistributed from the hips, thighs, and buttocks (where it used to be stored as a fuel reserve for breastfeeding) to the abdomen.
Developing a pooch of subcutaneous (below the skin) fat -- what I call the "menopot" -- is perfectly normal. But if you gain more than 2 to 5 pounds, it's likely to go deeper into the abdomen, creating too much visceral fat. You need some fat in your belly, but when it becomes excessive, I call it "toxic fat." That's because excessive amounts of visceral fat increase inflammation in the body and ultimately contribute to several conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
That's the downside.
The upside is that you can do something about it. The first thing I want you to do is to whip a tape measure around your waist across your belly button. Your goal is to be well below 35 inches. If you're 35 or greater, you have too much internal belly fat.
Next, take a look at how you eat. Remember the "big three" diet rules: Pay attention to the quality and quantity of your foods, as well as the frequency of your meals and snacks. In other words, choose whole foods (veggies, fruits, whole grains) and high-quality fats, carbs, and proteins. Eat smaller meals, more often -- being especially sure to eat a healthy snack after 3 p.m., when fatigue and frustration drive many women to reach for junk food.
Finally, get moving -- to truly trim your waist, you need to use both diet and exercise.
You might have noticed by now that certain areas of your body have a higher tendency to store fat. These areas tend to be your lower back, love handles, butt, hips, and thighs. These same areas of fat are also hard to get rid of. Many people label these areas as stubborn fat. Stubborn fat is real. It is not a myth or marketing term. There are reasons why these particular areas of fat are stubborn.
The way you store your fat is highly dependent on a couple of different factors. Some of the factors have to do with your sex and genetics. But more specifically, it’s the different ratio of hormones men and women have. The two sex hormones that influence fat disposition are testosterone and estrogen. Your ratio of testosterone to estrogen is going to have a large role in where you store fat on your body.
So then, do we just store our fat in different places, or is there actually something different about this so-called stubborn fat? There are some very important differences actually. Your fat tissue contains two major receptors – alpha and beta.
Beta-receptors are the receptors you want. These receptors increase the breakdown of fat, and also increase blood flow to fat cells. On the other hand, alpha-receptors inhibit fat metabolism and have decreased fat tissue blood flow. Blood flow is very important when it comes to fat loss. Your blood shuttles many of the required hormones and nutrients into cells that are needed for lipolysis to occur. Less blood flow into fat cells means less fat loss.
Your love handles and other stubborn fat areas have a higher ratio of alpha-receptors to beta-receptors – up to 10 times more. What this means is that where your typical diet and exercise would succeed in mobilizing fat stores, it fails (or at least makes it more difficult) to get rid of love handles and other stubborn fat.
Here are the top recommendations on how to deal with annoying love handles and belly fat:
1. Break a Sweat
Start with vigorous exercise to burn off menopause weight gain. Your routine should include aerobic exercises such as swimming, walking, bicycling, and running, as well as resistance or strength training. Note that you’ll need to work harder and longer than you had to when you were younger, as your metabolism decreases about one percent every year after age 30. Start with at least a half hour of aerobic exercise five times a week and increase the length, frequency, and intensity of your workouts as you build strength. Also include 15 minutes of strength training two to three times a week. Muscle burns more calories than fat.
Here are several simple exercises specifically recommended to address the belly fat issue:
* Deeper abdominal muscles
This exercise targets deeper abdominal muscles by doing "abdominal hollowing" or "drawing in the bellybutton." First, get down on all fours. Let your tummy hang down as you take a deep breath. Let your breath out, and at the end of your exhalation, gently draw your bellybutton inward and upward toward your spine. You should feel a slight tightening around your waist — think of it as trying to squeeze through a partially closed door. Hold for 10 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Work up to 10 repetitions. During each effort, your spine position shouldn't change and you should breathe freely. Eventually, you'll be able to do this exercise standing up. It's so subtle, no one should be able to tell you're doing it.
*Lower abdominal muscles
Tone your lower abdomen by doing pelvic tilts and pelvic lifts. To do a pelvic tilt, lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent. Flatten your back against the floor by tightening your abdominal muscles and bending your pelvis up slightly. Hold for five to 10 seconds. Repeat five times and work up to 10 to 20 repetitions.
For pelvic lifts, lie on your back with your knees bent up toward your chest and your arms relaxed by your sides. Tighten your lower abdomen and lift your buttocks up off the floor, with your knees aimed toward the ceiling. Hold for five to 10 seconds. Repeat five times and work up to 10 to 20 repetitions.
2. Stay Vertical
The more your body is in motion, the more calories you burn. Stay as vertical as possible throughout the day. As soon as you sit down, you turn off your fat-release enzymes. That, plus the fact that your fat cells become much less efficient at dumping fuel after the age of 40, means you need to squeeze as much activity into your day as possible. Try standing and pacing when you’re on the phone, or park further from destinations so that you’ll have to walk more. If you’re normally a bit of a couch potato, place a treadmill in front of your TV so you can walk while still catching up on all your favorite shows.
3. Control Your Portions
By the time you hit menopause, your metabolism may be more than 20 percent slower than it was when you were younger, which means that any food you consume will take longer to convert into energy. You can’t eat the way you used to if you want to stay healthy and fit. The optimal menopause diet is heavy on fruits and vegetables, but light on sugars and fats. Meats should be lean and dairy low-fat. Pay attention to how much you eat, too — portions of even healthy foods can add up to unwanted menopause weight gain. When dining out, for example, share your meal or eat half and take the rest home to have for dinner or lunch the next night.
4. Choose Fats Wisely
Fat has flavor and makes our food taste good, so don’t eliminate it from your menopause diet altogether. But be choosy. The healthiest fats are those from vegetable sources such as olives and nuts. Eat limited amounts of them to avoid menopause weight gain, and avoid unhealthy fats — hydrogenated oils, such as palm oil, and anything that contains trans fats — as much as you can.
5. Avoid Distracted Eating
People tend to eat more when they stop thinking about them. Set aside specific meal times. Eat at a dining room table, when possible, and prohibit yourself from eating in front of the television or at your work desk.
6. Avoid Crash Diets
Starvation will only cause your metabolism to slow down, causing you to gain more weight later on. Be careful loosing large amounts of weight. Being very thin can lead to an increased chance of developing osteoporosis. Yes, it takes more time and efforts to lose weight at this age. But remember: if you lose weight slowly, you're more likely to keep it off.
7. Keep an Eye on the Clock
It’s not just what you eat on a menopause diet that counts, but also when you eat. Midnight ice cream binges and potato chip raids, for example, are generally bad ideas (even though they seem good at the time), as are big meals right before bed. Don’t eat too much too late. Also try to avoid mindlessly nibbling throughout the day or falling into the afternoon snack trap.
8. Smoke Weed
Based on the several recent studies, prevalence of obesity in cannabis users is much lower than in the general population, potentially attributable to a synergistic effect of THC combined with CBD (the main components of the cannabis). Smoking weed not just helps to intensify the internal body processing, involved in the body fat burning, but also assists in stress reduction. The only culprit is the higher hunger, some people experience after the session, drawing them to the fridge at late hours. You should try to arrange your routine the way you will not consume a package of doughnuts before you feel asleep.
9. Mix It Up
It’s easy to get into an exercise rut. Generally, if you find a workout you like, you’ll stick with it — especially if you’re not a fitness nut. 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 working out. Fool it by doing something different every few months to keep menopause weight gain and other menopause symptoms under control. In good weather, for example, take your show on the road: Go for a bike ride or run through the park.
10. Enjoy your Active Hobbies
When you start exercising regularly, you begin enjoying it more and more. However, if you have your favorite physical activities, which are also useful for the weight loss, consider combining it with your ongoing activities routine. For example, if you really like dancing, become regular at the dance floor. When you enjoy the process per se, and forget all multiple benefits, while you are involved in the moving meditation, you get significantly higher and more versatile, leveraged weight loss benefits. Look for the new active lifestyle activities. Have you ever tried drumming, canoeing, or rock climbing?
11. Get a Good Night's Sleep
Insomnia is a common menopause symptom. And when you don’t sleep well, you’re likely to be too tired to exercise when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. Try to get a minimum of seven (and ideally eight) hours of shut-eye daily. Keep your bedroom cool to offset hot flashes and night sweats, and don’t watch television or use a computer for at least an hour before you want to fall asleep. Get on a steady schedule — and stick to it the way you stick to your menopause diet.
12. Seek Support
To attack belly fat and any other menopause 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. Need motivation to get you out on the tennis court or down to the gym? Find a friend, colleague, or family member who needs to exercise as much as you do, and set a date to work out together. You’re less likely to skip your routine if you know someone is waiting for you. A good support system can help with diet motivation, too.
13. Control Stress
There is a stress-fat connection. 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. To reduce stress and belly fat, take time for activities you like, such as reading a book or watching a movie. Don’t take on more work or responsibilities than you know you can handle. Ask for help from family and friends if necessary. Stay with your menopause diet. And try stress reduction techniques such as yoga or meditation.
14. Check your Medications
Some prescribed medications, such as anti-depressants, for example, may cause your weight increase. Discuss with your primary physician potential side effects of the meds you are taking and seek for the alternative solution, if you suspect, they are responsible for your weight gains.
15. Talk to Your Doctor about HRT
If your lack of estrogen is contributing to other bothersome symptoms such as severe hot flashes and night sweats, you may need hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or other medication to help you deal. Many women fear that HRT will cause them to gain weight, but several studies have dispelled this notion. Some even suggest that HRT can prevent weight gain. Ask your ob-gyn about medications you might take to help you control your menopause symptoms. 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.
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