How to Lose Weight with Exercise During Menopause

Feeling fluffy? Blame your hormones.

Getty Images/SilviaJansen

Hot flashes, irritability, fatigue, depression, insomnia, dry skin, feeling crazy, hating everyone and everything and last, but not least, weight gain. These are just some of the symptoms we experience when going through perimenopause or, as we usually call it, plain old menopause. The worst symptom of menopause, of course, is the weight gain. It's sudden, it's stubborn and it's all concentrated around the middle, giving us a new fluffiness some of us have never had to deal with before.

No matter how small or large, how active or lazy, it affects almost all women and it's making us crazy.

Just some of the experiences shared by my readers:

Posted by 'Frustrated': "I don't really know when the menopause started, but it know when I finished because of the massive weight gain, 30lbs in less than a year. "
'just beginning' wrote: "The weight gain is just beginning (3 lbs in 2 months)...I've always been thin, so gaining weight and not being able to take it off by exercising more and cutting back on portions is so strange to me and I admit to feeling depressed about it."

Depressed, pissed off, confused...however you feel, you're not alone and it's not your fault. It's a natural process that all of us go through.  Of course, that doesn't make it any easier especially when that 'natural process' causes weight loss to be slower than molasses in January. However, if you know what to expect and you commit to doing something about it, you can make a difference.

Your first point of attack is a good, quality exercise routine.

Exercise for Weight Loss During Menopause

How much exercise do you really need to lose weight? The short answer: More than you think. Most experts recommend at least 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate exercise  and that's a great place to start.

However, for weight loss during menopause, you may need to work up to exercise for 4 or more hours each week. It's a sad fact that the older you are, the more exercise you need to prevent weight gain and/or lose weight.

However, what you do when you exercise is more important than how long you do it. Creating a solid, comprehensive routine will help you get the most out of whatever time you have and your first order of business is your cardio program.

Cardio for Weight Loss

Why? Cardio is your first line of defense against gaining more weight and, of course, starting the weight loss process. Cardio helps you burn calories as well as protect you from other health issues that arise when we reach menopause, such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
How much? If you're new to exercise, learn the basics of setting up a cardio program for weight loss. It's best to ease into it to avoid injury and SIEL (Sudden Instant Exercise Loathing) by starting with something simple - say, 3-5 days of brisk walking for 20-30 minutes, or however long you can go.

If you're already doing cardio exercise and you're not losing weight, I totally know how frustrated you are. This is when you need to step back and make some changes to your program.

How do I get the most out of my cardio workouts?

  1. Break a Sweat - If you tend to stay in the low end of your heart rate zone, or what we call the often misnamed 'fat-burning zone,' you may find it hard to lose weight. This level of intensity is great for beginners and it's also great for just general activity during the day. But, working your way up to more intense cardio will put you in the calorie-burning zone you need to lose fat. Try adding shorter, high intensity workouts to help you burn more calories both during and after your workouts such as:
  1. Consider using a heart rate monitor - Many of my clients come to me without any real idea of how to monitor their exercise intensity, which makes doing these higher intensity workouts hard to measure. A heart rate monitor is one of the best ways to monitor your intensity, giving you instance access to your heart rate, which is a great way to figure out if you need to back it down or push it a little harder.  Learn how to find your own target heart rate zones and the best way to use a heart rate monitor to track your intensity.
  1. Focus on your F.I.T.T. - If you tend to do the same activities over and over, try changing one or more elements of your workouts using the F.I.T.T. principle. These elements include:
    1. Frequency - Could you add a day or more of cardio? It doesn't have to be an hour...just an extra 15 or 20 minute workout from time to time can make a difference.
    2. Intensity - This is one of the easiest elements to change. By simply adding a few sprints to your walk or powering up a long hill, you can burn more calories during your workout. Or consider trying one of the interval workouts above once or twice a week.
    3. Time - Could you add more time to your usual workouts? If you're maxed out, this may not be an option, but many of us could easily add 10 minutes to one or two workouts and that's 10 minutes you can be burning more calories.  Burn 100 calories in 10 minutes.
    4. Type - When was the last time you tried a new activity? We all have activities we like, but your body becomes more efficient when you do the same activity over and over, thus burning fewer calories. Any time you try something new, your body has to work harder at it, which will help you burn more calories.
  1. Consider hiring a trainer - If you feel like you're doing everything under the sun and your body is still being stubborn, consider working with a trainer. Sometimes you just need some outside help to figure out the best way to reach your goals.

Try this HIIT 40-20 Menopause Cardio Workout.  More cardio workouts for all fitness levels.

Strength Training for Weight Loss

Why? Strength training is the most powerful tool you have for changing your body composition, reducing belly fat and building lean muscle tissue which increases metabolism. Having muscle in your body is like having money in your savings account. It's the gift that keeps on giving long after your workout is over.
How Much? The general rule is at least twice a week for your entire body, but you can also incorporate it into your cardio workouts as well.

See the next section on Metabolic Conditioning and Circuit Training.

How do I get the most out of my strength training workouts?

  1. Lift heavy. If you lift weights regularly, you're on the right track, but are you lifting the right way? How many times do you get to the end of a set and stop lifting, even though you could do more reps? Most of us do that, robbing our bodies of that precious muscle we need to burn fat and calories. Does that mean you need to haul out the 40-lb dumbbells? Not necessarily. It just means you should lift as much as you possibly can for the number of reps that you've chosen. So if you're doing 12 reps, the 12th rep needs to be the very last rep you can accomplish. Learn more about how to choose your weight.
  2. Target your whole body - Too often women pick and choose the body parts they work based on where they want to lose weight. The trouble is, spot training doesn't work and you'll get much more out of your training when you involve your entire body in the process. Make sure you work all the muscles in your body - Chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, abs and lower body - at least twice a week.
  1. Focus on compound exercises - Just like the other mistakes above, another major one is doing exercises that only work one body part. For example, say you want to work the outer thigh. You'd probably get on the floor for some leg lifts which, yes, works the outer thigh but, unfortunately, is kind of a waste of time. Not only can you not spot reduce fat around the thighs, you're not burning very many calories with that exercise. On the other hand, if you did a side squat with a band, you'd work the outer thigh and most of the other muscles in your lower body. And, because you're standing up and involving more muscle groups, you're burning a lot more calories. Other examples include:
    1. Squats
    2. Pushups
    3. Lunges
    4. Tricep Dips
    5. Rows

    Find a variety of strength training workouts for all fitness levels.

    Okay, you've got your cardio and you've got your strength.  Know what else you need?  A new high intensity activity to really blast calories and get your metabolism going.

    Metabolic Conditioning and Circuit Training

    Why? Metabolic conditioning and high intensity circuit training target all of your energy systems, helping you burn more calories during your workout but, even better, giving you a greater afterburn.  Because you work so hard during this level of training, it takes your body a long time to get your body back into balance, which burns tons of extra calories free of charge.

    How Much? If you're a beginner, stick with beginner interval training and work your way up to this very high level of training. Otherwise, start with once a week and see how that goes. If your performance is fine and you feel good, you might want to do it more often. Just make sure you give yourself adequate recovery time to avoid injury and overtraining.

    How do I get the most out of my MetCon or Circuit Training Workouts?

    1. Choose 9-12 exercises that include a mix of high intensity cardio (either high impact or low impact) and compound strength exercises. This workout should be very short and very hard, around 10-20 minutes, so you want exercises that will really challenge you, such as the moves shown in this 10-Minute MetCon Workout.
    2. Alternate exercises so that one muscle group rests while another works. For example, do an upper body exercise, like pushups, followed by a lower body move, like plyo lunges.
    1. Do each exercise for as long as you can with good form, somewhere between 20-60 seconds or 15-20 reps. Go all out, if you can.
    2. Keep your rest between exercises very short, about 15 seconds or less. You may need a longer rest period the first time you try this type of training. Just shorten the rest periods by a few seconds each workout.
    1. Do this type of workout about 1-2 times a week (more if you're advanced) to avoid injury.

    More Circuit Training Workouts.

    Mind-Body Activities and Workouts

    Why? You need to relax. Going through menopause is a lot like going through hell and the stress only contributes to weight gain. That stress can also exacerbate the other symptoms of menopause, making everything even worse than it has to be. Mind-body activities can teach you how to slow down, breathe, let go of stress and focus on the present. All of this can help you get your stress hormones under control and make you feel more in control of what's happening to your body.

    How Much? As much as you possibly can, whenever you can.

    How do I get the most out of these workouts?

    1. Make time for a relaxing stretch after every workout. Think of it as a reward for both your mind and body.
    2. Schedule at least one mindful workout each week. This can be yoga or Pilates, but it doesn't have to be if you're not into that kind of workout. You can also simply focus on being mindful during your normal workout or you can use walking as a way to relax, sort of a moving meditation.
    3. Focus on balance. We get so crazy about losing weight, we tend to focus on burning calories. However, the body needs more than just cardio and strength training. It needs flexibility, balance, stability and rest. When setting up your routine for the week, make sure you include some of that quiet time for your mind and body to relax and rejuvenate.

    Clark-Young, Janice, ACSM. "Strength training during menopause offers multiple benefits " Excerpt from Action Plan for Menopause. Retrieved July 2, 2014.

    Jull J, Stacey D, et al. Lifestyle Interventions Targeting Body Weight Changes during the Menopause Transition: A Systematic Review. J Obes. 2014;2014:824310. Epub 2014 May 26.

    Mishra N, Mishra V, et al. Exercise beyond menopause: Dos and Don’ts. J Midlife Health. 2011 Jul-Dec; 2(2): 51–56.

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