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Why Women Gain Belly Fat in Our 40s and Why It’s So Hard to Lose

Nothing they do seems to work to help them lose weight. They don’t feel like they’ve changed their exercise or nutrition significantly, so they can’t figure out why, all the sudden, they seem to be gaining weight and packing on the pounds around their midsections.

As if being a woman in the modern world wasn’t tough enough, now we gotta adjust to another round of undesirable changes that leave us feeling uncomfortable in our own skin thanks to menopausal weight gain.

For many of us, it felt like we reached a certain age and just sort of lost control of our bodies.

And that leaves us spending our time and money on “solutions” that don’t work, only to end up even more frustrated with our bodies, cursing our age, and feeling like we might just have to accept that we will forever be disgusted with our bodies and never be a healthy weight again.

And sadly, the lack of good information for women in middle age and beyond is frankly appalling. Most women feel they don’t have someone compassionate and knowledgeable to talk to about what to expect and what they are experiencing in perimenopause and menopause. So they feel they just have to “deal with it” because that’s just “what happens when you get old.”

While it’s true that we can’t stop time or aging — those things are out of our control — there’s actually plenty we do control. There are ways we can positively influence how our lives and our bodies look and feel at any age.

There are ways to minimize menopause weight gain.

It all comes down to managing a few key lifestyle factors, like:

  • eating a healthy diet with the right approach to nutrition
  • exercising regularly and staying strong by choosing the right types of physical activity
  • getting enough sleep
  • reducing unnecessary stress

Why is weight gain and increased belly fat so common in middle age?

Weight gain and feeling like you can’t lose weight anymore are really common as we get older in BOTH men and women.

For a long time, we thought human metabolism slows in middle age and that’s why so many people gain weight in their 40s and 50s. However, a 2021 study published in Science looked at data collected from 6,421 people (64% female) of ages ranging between 8 days and 95 years old and found that our metabolism actually remains stable between the ages of 20-60.

So age doesn’t cause a slower metabolism until you’re in your 60s.

But if age isn’t the reason your metabolism is slowing and making you gain weight, then WTF is up??

More studies are needed but it’s probably a combination of shifts in lifestyle factors and other factors that commonly occur in middle age which reduce our metabolism, like:

  • You’re less active For many of us, our work days, family commitments, and overbooked calendars really take it out of us. So there’s little energy left over in the evenings and weekends to be active and exercise. And when we do have a few minutes, we sit and stare at screens.

    Most people are simply “too busy” to hit the gym more often, go for more runs, or even take our dogs for a longer walk. We have crowded activity and exercise out of our lives and we mistake our busyness for activity.

  • You’re just “winging it” with foodMost convenience or grab-and-go food options are highly-processed and much higher in calories and lower in protein than the meals we cook for ourselves.

    Without a plan, we’re less aware of what and how much we’re actually eating. Also, many women “forget to eat”, go too long without food, and then can’t control the cravings for high-calorie foods later in the day as their bodies try to “catch up”.

  • You’re losing muscle massWhile both men and women tend to lose muscle mass through middle age due to not getting enough (1) strength training and/or (2) protein, women are far more likely to miss the mark on both counts.

    Also, the reduction of estrogen through peri- and post- menopause makes our bodies less able to build muscle in response to exercise and protein consumption (more on this below).

  • You’re not sleeping enough – Insufficient sleep reduces your metabolism, messes with your hunger and appetite hormones, stimulates your brain to choose high-calorie “comfort” foods, and makes you too tired to exercise.

    Sleep loss is also linked with insulin resistance, increased cortisol levels, and an increased risk for type 2 diabetes — all things that will also negatively affect your body composition.

  • You’re trying to do it allBeing a modern woman carries with it the expectation that we’ll have a high-power career, take care of our families/communities/parents/everyone, and still look the part while doing things that bring us joy and fill us with purpose. And we must do them all better than anyone else or we’ll feel like a failure. Because that’s what “good girls” do. And as a result, our nervous systems are overloaded and we’re tired and wired all the time.

All of the above lifestyle factors combine and it’s a recipe for packing on excess pounds and gain weight.

What makes women gain weight around menopause? And why does that extra weight gain tend to happen around the belly?

In other words, what causes “menopause belly”?

First, let’s talk terms — because I find that there’s a lot of confusion around them.

Women who experience their normal, regular menstrual cycles are premenopausal.

The point at which a woman has gone 12 consecutive months without a period, is called menopause. Menopause is a single date on a calendar, one particular moment in time. The median age for menopause is 48-52 years old.

Once a woman has gone 12 consecutive months without a period, she is considered postmenopausal.

Between the premenopausal phase and menopause is a phase called perimenopause. This is a transitional phase that typically lasts between 4-6 years, although symptoms can begin 10 years before menopause. Therefore, women commonly experience symptoms of perimenopause between the ages of 39-51.

During perimenopause and up to a few years after menopause, normal hormonal fluctuations (specifically estrogen and progesterone) occur leading up to the menopause transition and out of our reproductive years.

One of the key hormonal shifts that occurs leading up to menopause is that both our estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate, then decrease, and then ultimately permanently flatline at menopause. These changes are the driver of menopausal symptoms.

Through our premenopausal years, estrogen does a couple of key things that help us maintain our body composition:

  • estrogen helps our bodies respond and adapt to exercise by driving the process of building and maintenance of muscle mass; and
  • estrogen plays a major role in where premenopausal women store extra energy and how our body fat is distributed throughout our bodies — which in premenopause is largely right under this skin (subcutaneous fat) around our hips and thighs.

So while it’s common to hear “experts” in the media talk about how female hormones are main the driver of weight gain and abdominal fat for women as they age, that simply isn’t true based on the scientific research. It’s really a gross oversimplification of what’s really happening in our bodies.

Declining estrogen and progesterone are not the reason for women’s belly fat gain — BUT they do contribute. Here’s what does seem to be happening is that:

  1. As mentioned above, as both men and women age, we tend to do less physical activity and participate in far fewer muscle strengthening activities.
  2. As mentioned above, as both men and women age, our sleep tends to decline, affecting our energy levels and leading us to more sedentary behavior so we’re less physically active throughout the day and that fatigue can alter our food choices in favor of more higher-calorie, comfort and convenience foods (AND less protein which we need to build or maintain muscle) — the less active we are + the more calories we eat = the more fat mass we gain.
  3. For women, as our estrogen declines, our bodies are not as capable of building muscle tissue and are less sensitive to our exercise routines and protein consumption — less muscle mass = lower metabolism.
  4. As our estrogen declines in women, there is a change to where we see the weight gain happening on our bodies — there’s a shift away from fat gain under the skin at our hips and thighs in premenopausal women to more visceral fat or abdominal fat or as many women call it “belly fat” in peri- and post- menopausal women.
  5. For women their 40s, estrogen and progesterone levels change, while cortisol (the main stress hormone) increases — this can disrupt your blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity which can lead to metabolic syndrome.

These 5 things combine to create a situation where we’re less active and burning fewer calories …

AND we’re eating more calories …

AND we start to lose muscle mass from doing less strength training and eating less protein …

AND, as women, we’re less sensitive to efforts to maintain muscle mass due to hormonal fluctuations.

It’s a quintuple whammy.

But, when we understand what’s really happening, we can make changes.

Sit tight, friends, hope is not lost.

So can we minimize weight gain?

YES! It requires:

  1. optimizing your nutrition by eating the right foods and the right amount of calories
  2. staying physically active by:
    • doubling down on your efforts to improve or maintain your muscle mass with strength training; and
    • including some specific forms of aerobic exercises and metabolic conditioning
  3. getting enough sleep and prioritizing stress management.

Additionally, you should talk to your doctor about menopausal hormone therapy (MRT) or hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which can not only help with weight management but may also help manage other menopause symptoms. But it’s not a cure-all and there are risks, so talk through your options with your doctor.

Tips to maintain a healthy weight and minimize excess weight gain as you age

It can be incredibly frustrating to know that there are so many factors working against us when it comes to trying to lose weight. But the good news is that with some knowledge and the right plan, you can still make progress.

The key to limiting menopausal weight gain is focusing on:

  1. Aim for at least 1.8-2.3 grams of lean protein per kilogram of your bodyweight in middle age spread out throughout your day each day.
  2. Eating MOSTLY a balanced, healthy diet that is full of nutrient-dense foods like fruits, veggies, and complex whole grain carbs. (Grab our free no-brainer habits guide here.)
  3. At least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week which should include some:
    • Sprint interval training (SIT)
    • High intensity interval training (HIIT)
  4. Total body strength training with weights at least 2 times per week. (Grab our free guide to getting stronger here.)
  5. Prioritize getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night and implementing strategies and systems that make getting sleep easier, like regulating the temperature and amount of light in your bedroom, eliminating screen time close to bed, and having a shutdown routine each night.
  6. Managing your stress levels through unplugged time, meditation, mindful breathing, or any activities that activate your parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” mode of your body).

If you wanna go deeper, I’m sharing lots more info about how to implement and use these strategies to prevent weight gain, manage your menopausal symptoms, lower high blood pressure, and minimize your risk for cardiovascular disease (the number 1 killer of women) in this webinar.

Learn how to manage belly fat and weight gain through middle age and menopause

And if you’re looking for a 6-month, step-by-step approach to implementing these tips led by an expert coach (me) with a supportive community by your side, check out StrongHer in 6 here.

With the right plan in place, it is possible to prevent weight gain, improve fat distribution, and start feeling more comfortable in your own skin again!

So don’t give up—with the right combination of diet, regular exercise, strength training, and lifestyle changes, you’ll be able to tackle that stubborn menopause weight gain.

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Hi, I'm Alison

I’m the Founder + CEO of Miles To Go Athletics.

My own journey has taken me from always-injured-and-in-pain-farthest-thing-from-an-athlete in my 30s to ultramarathoner + competitive weightlifter in my 40s and beyond. So I firmly believe that athleticism is accessible to EVERYONE and is actually the key to better quality of life.

My team + I are here to help you stop putting your life on hold due to pain, injuries, and “getting old” and instead get back to the things you really want to be doing – like being active with friends & family, chasing bucket list goals, and feeling badass at any age.

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