Last month, we talked about how restricting calories too much could actually be detrimental to losing weight while going through perimenopause and menopause, and we discussed what foods and strategies would actually help alleviate some of the symptoms and counteract some of the weight gain brought on by that.

Have you ever considered that the way you exercise could also be contributing to that weight gain around the middle?

“But Genevieve, exercise is GOOD for me, and I have been doing it for years to feel good.”

Just like you could polish off half a bottle of wine and no longer feel the effects in the morning in your twenties, the exercise regimen that you have in your forties will likely need to be different than what you’ve been doing for the last number of years.

A brief recap if you didn’t read last month’s blog, or if you need a refresher: we discussed how as our hormones start to dip, women are particularly sensitive to the cortisol response of fight or flight or freeze. Restricting your calories puts your body into a state of famine, which means that your brain sends the signal to your adrenal glands to secrete some cortisol to start storing some adipose for later use.

Your brain perceives deadlines, the stress of moving, driving in rush hour traffic, as being chased by a bear and mobilizes appropriate resources accordingly. Want to know what else feels like being chased by a bear? Too much high intensity exercise and long mindless cardio.

Yep! I am about to demonize this beloved activity. Sort of…

An excess of cardio vascular activity does not serve the woman over forty, unless of course you are a long distance athlete and your body has adapted and you eat a TON of nutritious food and get adequate rest. A colleague of mine was telling me that despite cycling to work every day, running on the weekends, and taking group cycling classes during the week, she was gaining weight, not losing it. I challenged her to do nothing but walk her dog for two weeks, and increase her calories. Two weeks later, she stops me in the hallway, amazed that she lost 6 pounds in 2 weeks doing absolutely nothing. She is the perfect example of how the hormonal shift of perimenopause change the way your brain/body perceive exercise.

So what’s a woman to do to keep fit once the precarious hormonal balance is thrown into a blender?

Indulge me for a second.

As a woman over the age of forty (or I could make the argument for any woman), the single most important type of exercise you can do to build resilience is resistance training. Did you know that women over the age of forty stand to lose 10% of their overall muscle mass compounded year after year? And that because of the drop in hormones, it makes it even more difficult for us to build muscle?

But the benefits are worth it. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which means that increase in muscle mass can increase your metabolic rate. Your metabolism begins to use fat as fuel, which in turn decreases inflammation in your body, and thus reduces the risk of disease. Muscles are Magical!

Because of the dip in estrogen, we are more prone to conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis. Something that we could have bounced back from in our youth now becomes a liability. Think I’m wrong? Let’s look at the statistics: A landmark study demonstrated that for people who sustain a hip fracture over the age of 60 (still young), there is a 50% risk of death within the first six months! Cause of death? Sepsis (infection) and myocardial infarction (heart attack). There is an additional 30% risk of death within the first year. Culprit? Inactivity that leads to blood clots and pneumonia.

Although this study talks about cause of death, the triggering even was a fall leading to a fracture due to poor bone health. Nutrition can help with better bone health, but it’s a known scientific fact that resistance training can prevent bone loss and even help build more bone.

There is NO magic pill. No really. My mom was on Fosamax (a pill to prevent bone loss) for a decade before she started resistance training, and after 6 years of lifting heavy, her rheumatologist has discharged her. No more pills. She has the bone density of a 40 year old. His services are no longer needed. Oh, and she is 73.

While resistance training for women has gained momentum in the last 20 years (Thank you Instagram and Crossfit!), a lot of women are still apprehensive about it:

  • “I don’t want to look like a man”. Menopause. Where all hormones plummet, including testosterone, which is needed to build those huge muscles. The closest we can come to looking like a man is managing our newly found facial hair (thank you Mother Nature). So go ahead: grab the heavy dumbbell, squat, deadlift, master the pull up! The only thing you have to gain is strength! Which brings me to:
  • “I don’t want to get big”. And I ask you, “Why not?” What is wrong with occupying a bit more space if it means living a life of quality that you can enjoy without fear of injury? Furthermore, just like driving your car out of the garage doesn’t turn you into a NASCAR driver, participating in resistance training won’t turn you into a body builder.
  • “My partner/cat/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend doesn’t like the look of muscles on me”. Have them join you! Reason with them that you will live longer. While your cat is likely plotting your death, the others will be happy that you plan on sticking around for the long run.

If you are new to strength training, I can completely understand how intimidating a weight room or CrossFit box or Boot Camp can be. Bring a friend with you. The two can learn/laugh/cry together. Most places have a beginner or introductory program that will help you learn the basics gradually, as your body gets used to its newfound strength. You are much stronger than you perceive yourself to be. And when you feel strong on the outside, you feel strong on the inside too!

As for aerobic activity, the good news is that it stimulates the heart and lungs to make them more efficient at utilizing oxygen. Walking, running, Zumba, skiing, cycling, are examples of aerobic activities. These can help you manage blood pressure as well, decreasing your risk of stroke. And it can help you recover from those strenuous weight training sessions too, allowing the muscles to warm up and remain mobile and pliable, so you don’t get stuck in a cycle of immobility. Which brings me to flexibility and balance training.

(“Please don’t tell me to do yoga, please don’t tell me to do yoga, please don’t tell me to do yoga)”. Yep. You should do yoga. Yoga helps you build that all important connection between brain, breath, and body. In a nutshell (because I sense another blog coming…) yoga helps you slow down and pay attention to YOU without the pesky day to day distraction, because let’s face it, you’re not going to start wondering whether you have eggs in the fridge while you are standing on one foot. In a culture that is filled with constant stimulation, it forces you to actually pay attention to the little things, and this translates to your time off the yoga mat as well. There are as many styles of yoga as there are days in the year. Start with a beginner or restorative class. Avoid classes with the words power, vinyasa, or advanced.

Before starting any new activity, please check with your physician if you have any medical conditions that could be aggravated.

In the meantime though, start walking. Walking is kind of the boiled potatoes of the exercise world. While not very glamourous, or particularly bad ass, it is accessible, gentle and free! (Unlike the potatoes). You can do it anytime, anywhere, for any distance, and you will still reap the benefits.

Because being active:

  1. Prevents weight gain as your metabolism slows down
  2. Reduces the risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes
  3. Prevents bone loss
  4. Promotes better sleep (more on that next month!)
  5. Boosts your mood
  6. Minimizes hot flashes (some studies show that women with a higher percentage of body fat may be prone to more hot flashes)

I was 18 when I purchased a gym membership on a whim, wanting to stay active after my stint in gymnastics. I first spotted her with her partner in the free weights area, an area usually dominated by men. They were helping each other lift heavy things – she was even wearing a WEIGHT BELT! Over her thong bodysuit (!991 was a sad time for fashion….). She had glorious shoulders, curvy biceps, ropey forearms, strong defined quadriceps, and a shock of grey hair cropped into a pixie cut. She must have been in her late forties, early fifties. And. She. Owned. Every. Single. Rep. With a smile on her face.

I remember thinking in that moment, “That is going to be me someday.”

I wasn’t inspired by some emaciated, undernourished, sullen fashion model who used smoking to stay thin (remember: 1991 – the waif look was huge!). I was inspired by the picture of health and vigor before me, some 30 odd years older than me and kicking some serious butt.

She showed me that anything was possible, that the words “age appropriate” was just a construct put into place to have women behave in ways that were deemed acceptable by a society that wanted to keep us enslaved by standards of beauty that were unattainable.

This woman was bucking the trend that “thin was in”. She was strong, and more importantly, she was RESILIENT. And to 18 year-old me, I thought she was the most beautiful person in that space. I made it my mission to walk the path of fitness and wellness because I saw that the results were worth it.

Fast forward 22 years, and I bumped into this lady at a local pool, and while she endorsed that she was getting older and her knees ached on rainy days, she was still my hero, and I had the privilege of letting her know how much she had inspired me to lead a healthy and active life.

Who knows? You may be THAT person that inspires a younger woman to look after herself and give her that same gift.