My phone conversations with my mom have often followed a similar pattern of what we'll call the three Ws: Talk of my upcoming wedding, work, and weight. While all three topics lend themselves to varying degrees of ups and downs, the latter tended to be a steady pain point. We'd rather not give any sort of airtime to the numbers on the scale or the way our clothes fit, but considering we'd both put on weight in the past few years, getting back into shape had been an unwavering goal. The issue, though, is that we'd hit a plateau—a frustrating gridlock we'd worked ourselves into despite eating in such a way we both deemed "healthy."
But admittedly, there was no science behind our diets—we were cutting carbs, eating less, but indulging when we felt we deserved it—the result of two women who haven't done their research yet moan when their waistbands cinch. Eventually, I put my detective cap on and dove deep into studies, articles, and the advice of personal trainers for what I needed to do to tone up and lean out. The consensus was steady HIIT at least three days a week, more protein, healthy fat, non-starchy vegetables, and little to no sugar and refined carbs. Having finally gained muscle and a noticeable change in my body, I suggested my mom try this method too. But this only garnered more frustration.
In her almost 60 years of life, my mom's body has taken a toll: She's had major back surgery, experienced bone loss, and can't move like she used to, so to her, HIIT sounds more like n-o w-a-y. "Weight loss is so hard post-menopause—I can't do what these young women are doing," she pleaded to me one night as we approached the final W of our conversation. Her friends and her co-workers constantly share these same gripes. So given Byrdie's large network of nutritionists, doctors, and trainers, I wanted to find an answer for my mom and all women who find it difficult to move down from the plateau they've hit post-menopause, because as you'll learn below, there are some key changes that need to be made later in life.
Why Is It More Difficult to Lose Weight/Easier to Gain Weight Post-Menopause?
"As women age, they become less physically active and lose muscle mass," says Shelena Lalji, ob-gyn. Muscle helps to rev your metabolism, so by having less muscle mass, you begin to store fat, especially around the waist, Lalji explains. She adds, "In addition, aging means a drastic change in hormones. Our estrogen levels decline, which is associated with lower energy levels in general, and therefore, lower energy during exercise. A steady decline in estrogen also means sleepless nights, hot flashes, and night sweats. With less rest and poor sleep, our bodies produce increased levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, and decreased levels of the 'stop eating' hormone, leptin."
It can also yield dryness, atrophy, and sexual satisfaction—Shelena Lalji, MD, offers her patients a solution to this with a noninvasive treatment called BTL Ultra Femme 360, which has been FDA cleared to treat these medical conditions by utilizing 360-degree volumetric heating to increase blood flow and enhance oxygenation. Erika Angle, CEO and co-founder of internal fitness test kit Ixcela, says hormones also trigger a cascade of biochemical changes in the body and the gut microbiome. "The effects of these changes vary and are affected by both genetics (who you are) and lifestyle (how you behave). One of these effects can be weight gain. This can have serious implications: increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems, sleep pattern disruption, anxiety, and certain types of cancer including breast, colon or endometrium."
How Should You Adjust Your Diet Post-Menopause?
Interestingly, the same food suggestions I've been given as a 27-year-old are almost identical to what the experts suggest for a postmenopausal woman. "Three major types of food are huge contributors when it comes to weight gain: gluten, yeast, and sugar," explains Lalji. In addition to cutting back (and if possible, cutting out) these foods, she suggests increasing your lean protein consumption (turkey, chicken, fish, and eggs) as well as healthy fats like coconut oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut butter. Lalji also isn't a fan of dairy products for their contribution to weight gain—but speak with a doctor to ensure it's safe to cut this out of your personal diet, in addition to gluten, yeast, and sugar.
Michele Pernetta, 53, and founder of dynamic downtown Manhattan hot yoga studio Fierce Grace follows this diet: "I have increased my intake of fats even more (I already adhered to a high-fat diet—good fats, ghee, butter, and healthy oils), reduced sugar, and try to stay away from too many carbs like bread, but I still go for pasta and rice. I follow the Ayurvedic diet for my body type, and I recommend anyone wanting to understand what they should be eating to do the Dosha quiz and find out which of the three types they are (pitta, vata, or kapha). Then look at the dietary recommendations for your constitution. It's 5000 years old. No need to guess what you should eat and avoid—it's too risky!"
Realistically, eating a balanced diet every day isn't always feasible, especially when we're traveling. To help with this, Ashley Koff, RD, and Espira by Avon nutritionist, recommends supplementing your diet. "Espira Daily Essentials 40+ help maintain a healthy foundation of nutrients. We also do better with clean and easy to digest/absorb nutrients and want to get enough protein to support building lean body mass (along with strength bearing activity), so the Espira Plant Protein is a great choice, as liquid nutrition is easily absorbed, and this protein blend includes nutrients to support healthy digestion." Before taking supplements, however, speak with your doctor.
What Types of Exercise Should Aging Women Do to Stay in Shape?
"Exercising before menopause and exercising during or after menopause are vastly different," says Lalji. "The more active you are, the more likely you will be able to keep weight off. Light cardio activities, such as brisk walking, jogging, or biking, are a great start and are good for your heart and lungs," she explains. Just remember to check in with yourself and your doctor to ensure your joints are up for the movement. "Strength training and weight resistance exercises with light weights regularly can help your body to burn fat, improve your metabolism, strengthen your muscles and your bones, as well as burn calories more effectively. Stability exercises and yoga are also great options, as they help strengthen your muscles and can prevent falls later in life."
To that last point, Pernetta, unsurprisingly, is a huge proponent of yoga practice. "Too much attention is put on losing fat and not on building muscle, which will then burn more calories (and fat!) even when we are at rest. Yoga builds long, lean muscle so women don't have to worry that they will get bulky. Take up a stronger yoga practice, as it will take care of your joints while keeping you supple and strong. This is important because menopause can bring on joint issues, weakness, and being prone to injury, so working safely with joints while strengthening the whole body is even more important during menopause."
What if you have specific joint areas of concern, like my mom with her back? Pernetta says hot yoga, specifically, is a great place to begin. "Many women suffer joint pain and aching due to hormonal fluctuations. Around 100 degrees is the working temperature of your muscles and joints, which is approximately the temperature of the hot yoga room, so your joints feel loose and easy. The synovial fluid [Ed. note: The fluid held in the cartilage of a synovial joint like the shoulder and knee] is thinner at this temperature and can get deeper into your joints, keeping them oiled and moving freely."
Any Other Tips?
Lalji says the reality is that we're busy at all stages of our lives, which in turn takes a hit on our wellness plans, so through each birthday, remember this interesting tip: Treat your soul like a bank. "You must make deposits to have the funds to make withdrawals. When you care for yourself and really love you for who you are from the inside out, you invigorate and replenish your funds, allowing you to give more of yourself to others," she explains. "Take time to focus on yourself, whether it's preparing a healthy meal, making a trip to the gym or setting aside time for yoga. As women, we are conditioned to care for everyone else first. Make deposits in your own bank. Replenish your soul. And in turn, you will be able to continue giving to others."
Up next, take a look at these helpful makeup tips for women over 40.