As a woman over 40, experiencing perimenopausal or menopausal weight gain have you increased your frequency and duration of exercise in an attempt to ‘out run’ your belly bulge?
Women between the ages of 40 and 60, your body is naturally, gradually aging and changing as are your hormones. These changes often include, muscle loss, weight gain, insatiable food cravings and a belly bulge or ‘muffin top’ that won’t go away.
Before you decide to throw in the towel and succumb to the aging process, there are many things you can do with regard to exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle changes that can help offset, slow down, and even reverse the metabolic slowdown associated with aging.
Today, we explore how exercise can help the hormonal balance and what cortisol’s role in weight gain is.
We know that exercise is good for us. It strengthens our major organs and our muscles. It helps to regulate blood sugars and fat storage. It improves bone density and stimulates the production of ‘feel good’ hormones. Exercise is essential for weight loss and weight maintenance.
The unfortunate thing is, exercise also creates stress on the body. Not just wear and tear on the joints and muscular stress, but metabolic stress as the adrenals increase their production of cortisol to keep energy levels high and the body’s various systems running effectively.
In general chronically high cortisol levels result in extreme fatigue, reduced immune response and low blood pressure and is bad for everyone. These high cortisol levels are even worse for the perimenopausal woman whose production of progesterone is at an all time low.
You may wonder why this happens? The adrenals cannot make cortisol without progesterone. The more cortisol they’re required to make to offset stress, the less progesterone will be available to balance estrogen and testosterone. Without the balancing effects of progesterone, excess estrogen often leads to weight gain, in particular, an increase in the body’s central fat stores – the Belly Bulge.
Women with high central fat also tend to secrete more cortisol than women with lower central fat in high stress situations. These can create a cycle that is difficult to break. In addition, cortisol prompts cravings for “comfort food,” which are typically high in carbs and saturated fat. Routinely acting on these cravings can also lead to weight gain.
Clearly we need to balance the benefits of exercise with the potential costs of elevated stress and cortisol levels. We need to exercise for hormonal balance.
- More cardio is NOT better. Short intense interval cardio workouts stimulate less cortisol production than longer endurance workouts.
- Efficient strength workouts. Compound, whole body movements incorporating high tension techniques involve more muscles and burns more calories during the workout and after your workout. This also reduces the duration of your workout. Monitoring intensity during strength training can enhance the benefits.
- Add more non-exercise movement to your day. Take the stairs, park farther from a store, and just incorporating more movement in your day will help to increase your metabolism without causing hormonal stress on your body or spiking appetite.
- Engage in formal exercise five days/week. Regular exercise a the right intensity is still key to losing weight. Alternate weight training with light intensity fat burn, high intensity cardio exercise, mobility exercises, and stress relief activities.
Sample Weekly Workout
Monday: Weight train – 25 to 30 minutes. Include a 10 minute high intensity fat burn
Tuesday: Light intensity fat burn – 30 to 120 minutes
Wednesday: Weight train – 25 to 30 minutes. Include a 10 minute high intensity fat burn
Thursday: Light intensity fat burn – 30 to 120 minutes
Friday: Weight train – 25 to 30 minutes. Include a 10 minute high intensity fat burn
Saturday: Mobility exercises – 20 minutes and an 8 minute high intensity fat burn
Sunday: Stress release activity – restorative yoga, tai chi, meditation
Cortisol’s Relationship to Sleep and Stress
We also need to focus on sleep and managing stress in order to keep chronic cortisol levels down.
- Sleep. Production of cortisol varies rhythmically throughout the day, being highest upon waking and declining to its lowest levels of the day at the time you typically go to sleep. Chronic, moderate sleep deprivation interrupts this diurnal cycle, causing end-of-the-day cortisol levels to remain high. Over time, elevated cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance, obesity and diabetes. Elevated cortisol levels are of particular concern to menopausal and perimenopausal women, as the combination of high cortisol and low estrogen contributes to middle-of-the-body weight gain. Try to get eight hours minimum of sleep and go to bed by 10:00pm.
- Reduce and manage stress: Participating in a regular “mindfulness-based stress reduction” program offers significant reductions in cortisol and stress-related symptoms. Deep breathing and meditation also help to reduce stress.
In short, as women we need to stop comparing our current body to that of our 20 year old body and we need to have compassion for ourselves as we age. Whether you are currently at a gym, in a group exercise program, working with a personal trainer, or managing your fitness routine on your own, understanding the role that stress and hormones play go a long way.
Our Personal Trainers have helped hundreds of people in Howard County and the surrounding areas lose weight, tone up, and become stronger. Our neighbors in Highland, Clarksville, Columbia, Burtonsville, Olney, Ashton and Silver Spring love their personalized training program. Unlike group fitness classes, each client receives a custom program. We’d love to help you too. Call us at 301-452-5547 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to see for yourself. Mention this article for a free session!