During every lecture, seminar and workshop I’ve ever given for women at least one raises her hand to ask about belly fat. The typical conversation flows as follows:
Woman: “How do I get rid of this?” (While pointing to her midsection)
Me: “With exercise and healthy eating habits.”
Woman: “But, I do that.”
Me: “Are you over 40?”
It is this type of correspondence that kicks off a very lively conversation on why the belly fat appears and why it’s so hard to get it off. Eyes and ears open when I emphasize this simple fact: If you’re over 40 you will naturally develop body fat in your midsection. This increase in belly fat is linked to 3 changes that we as women will all experience as we approach menopause:
1. Shifts in our ratio of estrogen to testosterone
2. Reductions in our metabolic rate
3. Reductions in our lean body mass
Changes in the Estrogen to Testosterone Ratio
In our early childbearing years, the female sex hormone estrogen predominates. This hormone promotes body fat accumulation in the lower half, particularly around the hips making us appear more pear-shaped, compared to our male counterparts (some women may appear more pear-shaped than others). Now, as we age and approach menopause, our estrogen levels begin to decline causing a predominance of testosterone, the male sex hormone. It is this hormone that allows men to develop typical masculine characteristics including enhanced muscle mass, facial hair, body hair, and erection capabilities. In lieu of this change in your hormonal status, there is no wonder that you start to see miscellaneous facial and body hair while also developing an enhanced sex drive at or around the age of 40.
This menopause-related testosterone predominance is highly associated with increases in the accumulation of visceral fat (fat deep in the belly behind the abdominal muscles) meaning that as we age, we’ll notice that our excess body fat starts to shift away from the hips and around the belly (click here to learn more about visceral fat). This process usually occurs around the age of 40 but can actually start as early as 30. As a result women begin to appear more apple-shaped tending to carry excess body fat in the midsection. But, of course, it doesn’t stop there as changes in our metabolic rates begin to occur simultaneously.
Changes in Metabolic Rate
The resting metabolic rate is the rate at which people burn calories on a daily basis. This rate is influenced by such factors as height, weight, and physical activity level. The metabolic rate is naturally lower in women when compared to men and, making matters worse, as women approach the age of 40 (for some as early as 30), our metabolic rates start to decrease which makes it that much more difficult to burn calories efficiently. As such, this is the time during which many women who were thin during childhood and early adulthood (up to 29) begin to notice that they’re gaining a significant amount of body fat between the ages of 30 and 35, especially if they are physically inactive (click here for “The Skinny on Being Fat”). This decline in metabolic rate during aging is closely linked to declines in lean body mass that also occur as we approach menopause.
Changes in Lean Body Mass
Lean body mass includes all “non-fat” tissues in the body including, muscle, bone, organs, blood, and water. The component of lean body mass that is the most adaptable to change is muscle. Declines in muscle mass start in the thirties, as such, it is much easier for a woman to become fat, even if she was lean all her life (click here to learn why). This decline in muscle mass with aging is inevitable; however, the rate at which it occurs is absolutely amenable to exercise, specifically resistance training. This is especially important for you to understand if you are one many women who tend to shy away from this type of training out of a fear of becoming too bulky.
What Can You Do About This Belly Fat Dilemma?
Although shifts in our ratio of estrogen to testosterone, reductions in our metabolic rate, and reductions in our lean body mass are an inevitable part of aging there is light at the end of the tunnel. With the right combination of exercise and sensible eating habits before, during, and after menopause, we can really slow the rate at which these processes occur and, as a result, reduce the amount of belly fat that we accumulate.
So what is the right combination of exercise? The best combination involves cardiovascular (cardio) exercise along with resistance training (click here for cardio exercise and resistance training program ideas). Exercises like brisk walking, jogging, running, biking, stair climbing, and group exercise are necessary to burn excess calories that lead to body fat accumulation in the first place. Although you can’t selectively choose where you lose body fat, you can choose cardio exercises that engage your midsection (i.e. jogging, running, swimming, cardio kickboxing, etc.) in order to promote reductions in belly fat. I must emphasize too that high-intensity exercises become increasingly important with age; in other words, you need to put in some real work for some real results. Women over 40 often find it difficult to control their belly fat, and body fat in general, because they aren’t exercising hard enough (click here to find out if you’re exercising hard enough).
When it comes to resistance training (i.e. lifting weights) you will not burn a significant amount of calories during a typical session. However, this type of training will greatly increase your muscle mass and tone while boosting your metabolic rate which ultimately leads to increases in calorie burning potential and weight loss overtime (click here for “8 Reasons Why Women Should Weight Train”). Another plus with resistance training over 40 is that the shift to testosterone predominance works to your advantage. As I mentioned before, testosterone is the dominant hormone in men that allows them to develop muscle. During and after menopause, you can greatly maximize your muscle mass when lifting weights, due to your elevated levels of testosterone, giving way to an ability to enhance your muscle tone and overall appearance. If you don’t believe me, check out the fabulous Ernestine Shepherd, the world’s oldest bodybuilder.
The final key to controlling excess belly fat during aging involves sensible eating habits. A healthy, balanced diet coupled with calorie control is key. An adequate amount of calories in ALL forms (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) should be consumed in order to maintain adequate metabolic processes within the body. Consume complex carbohydrates (fresh vegetables, beans, whole-grain products) and fresh fruits daily and be sure that you’re also consuming an adequate amount of proteins that are low in fat (fish, lean poultry/meat, milk products) (click here to view guidelines for determining your individual protein needs). Now for weight loss, in general, and fat loss in your midsection, you must always burn more calories than you consume, no matter what. So don’t forget to continuously track your daily calorie consumption and expenditure to avoid accumulating excess fat (click here for information on tracking your calories). This is especially important if you are genetically predisposed to having an apple-shape (click here to learn why).
If you follow the recommendations that I’ve provided here, I guarantee that you’ll be able to reduce the amount of belly fat you accumulate before, during, and after menopause.
Disclaimer: The information provided is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a physician for advice.
Before starting an exercise training program you should first make sure that exercise is safe for you. If you are under the age of 55 years and generally in good health, it is probably safe for you to exercise. However, if you are over 55 years of age and/or have any health problems, be sure to consult with your physician before starting an exercise training program.
Written by Nina Cherie Franklin