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It’s the dreaded “M” word! For many years, menopause has been a taboo subject, often referred to in quiet whispers as “the change.” Women didn’t talk publicly about it, despite the fact that menopause is a perfectly normal — and unavoidable — part of a woman’s life.
Your body is going through some drastic changes at this point that will probably affect your training and nutrition — and unfortunately not the ones you want. Luckily, some advanced research studies show how you can combat the hormonal alterations that negatively impact your body and still reach your goals.
Here’s everything you need to know about menopause and, more important, how to use advanced dietary and training techniques to conquer it.
Hormones and Menopause
Biologically speaking, menopause is simply the cessation of your period. As you age, your ovaries produce less estrogen and progesterone — the hormones that regulate menstruation — and your fertility declines.
Throughout a woman’s life, estrogen levels will fluctuate and change, noticeably impacting mood, energy levels, sleep, physique, performance and overall quality of life. During menopause, the decline in estrogen levels can cause an increase in body fat. In women, estrogen is the main hormone responsible for fat mobilization and usage; therefore, as levels decline, storing excess fat in the fat cells is more likely. The fat around the stomach is known as visceral fat and surrounds our internal organs. Fat accumulation in this area has been repeatedly proven to increase the risk of health issues such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Declining estrogen also can reduce bone density, weakening the structure of your bones, putting you at greater risk of injuries like stress fractures or even breaks.
Finally, another key hormone that can decline during menopause is sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which impacts numerous aspects within the body, such as transporting other key hormones (e.g., estrogen and testosterone) to their receptor sites. Additionally, SHBG can affect carbohydrate tolerance and digestion, allowing an individual to use carbs for energy more efficiently. In a similar fashion to estrogen, SHBG also plays a role in how our bodies store and use fat. In other words, healthy and high SHBG levels will allow other key hormones to function more efficiently and help you metabolize the food you consume in a more effective manner, thereby storing less fat. As you can see, the reduction of SHBG levels can lead to further issues and barriers.
But not everything is doom and gloom — you can tailor your diet and exercise regime to combat most of these alterations and get your body back on a level playing field with your younger self.
What Changes Occur During Menopause?
Based on research, weight gain can normally be expected during menopause — anything from 2 to 10 pounds per year during menopause or shortly after. Of course, some individuals will not gain any weight, and the total amount will obviously depend on a number of factors such as diet, calorie intake, exercise levels and hormones.
There are several key metabolic and hormonal adaptations that explain this. Research has shown that you are likely to experience increased food cravings and the desire to snack. This can be explained by changes in your hunger hormones, in particular key hunger-regulating hormones such as leptin and ghrelin. When this occurs, you will obviously have a much harder time trying to lose weight or reduce your total daily calorie intake. This is linked to increased binge eating and yo-yo dieting, especially as the weight accumulation after a diet tends to pile back on at a rapid rate. Interestingly, leptin and ghrelin are also strongly connected to sleep. When people aren’t sleeping well, they tend to overeat and crave processed foods and sugars.
Along with the desire to eat more calories, studies have shown that postmenopausal women also have a reduction in daily energy expenditure (known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT) or calorie burn. This can be partly explained by a decrease in metabolic rate, which dictates how many calories you burn per day for basic activities such as walking, fidgeting or even just when sleeping. This also can be linked to a decrease in hormones, including estrogen, thyroid, leptin and ghrelin. It may be partially explained by lifestyle alterations, activity levels and a reduction in structured exercise.
Finally, another key factor that should be considered is sleep. Research shows that sleep duration and sleep quality suffer following menopause with the most common issues including hot flashes, sleep-disordered breathing and insomnia. Although you may not think your sleep is closely correlated to fitness or your physique, dozens of studies have proven that those who get seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night are less likely to store fat, are more likely to metabolize their food more efficiently and have better overall health. For example, improved sleep has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, which is the ability to use carbs for fuel. It’s also been shown to increase how many calories you burn per day, increase muscle growth, improve hormone levels such as testosterone, and help you maintain healthy levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
As you can clearly see, these alterations basically mean you are burning less but are also predisposed to eat more. Remember, total calorie intake is the key factor in weight loss; therefore, you ideally want to do the opposite: Eat less and burn more.
Working It Out
There are several ways to maximize your gym time to combat the negative effects of menopause and keep your physique from becoming a statistic.
Metabolic Resistance Training
Metabolic resistance training (MRT) is similar to circuit training, in which you perform several exercises back-to-back without rest. The beauty of this advanced method is that it provides all the benefits of normal or conventional strength training but also puts your metabolism into overdrive, reduces hunger, improves carbohydrate tolerance and helps you burn dangerous belly fat.
Although it’s fairly simple to perform, it does require a lot of hard work and will challenge both your cardiovascular and anaerobic energy system. In short, it’s like a full-body weight-training session combined with a high-intensity aerobic session.
To perform MRT, simply take two to four exercises and perform them all back-to-back without rest. After the two to four exercises, rest 60 to 120 seconds and repeat for two more sets before moving on to your next block of exercises. This type of training has been proven to increase key fat-burning hormones such as growth hormone by up to 200 percent because of the large spike in lactic-acid levels. To add further benefit, research has shown that MRT also causes a large spike in excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which is your body’s increased need for fuel and energy, boosting your metabolism and the amount of calories you burn for up to 48 hours after the actual workout. Finally, this type of training provides the perfect amount of volume, frequency and intensity for you to lay down new lean muscle, which can add slight increases to your metabolism in the long term, but in the short term (within 48 hours), it also improves insulin sensitivity and carbohydrate tolerance.
You can pick any combination of exercises and get creative. I recommend rep ranges of 10 to 20 to maximize fat loss and keep the rest periods to a minimum to burn as many calories as possible.
High-Intensity Interval Training
Along with metabolic resistance training, another popular technique is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which can provide all the benefits of typical exercise sessions in about 10 to 20 percent of the time.
While other workouts require an hour or more, HIIT can be performed, start to finish, in just 10 to 20 minutes max while still providing all the benefits of a normal 60-minute workout, such as boosting your metabolism, reducing hunger levels, burning visceral fat, increasing carbohydrate tolerance, improving your health and reducing disease risk.
Rather than imagining it as cardio exercise, picture each and every interval as a single workout in which you give 100 percent effort and intensity. To start, pick any machine or activity — treadmill, bike, elliptical, Prowler sled, tire flips, battle rope or rower. After a brief warm-up, perform one sprint at a flat-out intensity, lasting 20 to 40 seconds. Rest for double or triple that time, i.e., 60 to 120 seconds, then perform another four to nine sprints, depending on your current level of fitness and time limitations.
Optimize Your Training Regime
These two training methods should now become the staple of your workouts, along with any other form of exercise you may do more for enjoyment. Combined, they are going to counter most of the issues you may face during menopause and cover every aspect of health and fitness, from developing strength and bone density to increasing your aerobic fitness and heart health.
Because of the negative adaptations during menopause, you also may need to increase your training frequency. As long as you can recover well, this is recommended because it will keep your metabolism fired up and help you burn more calories per day. If time permits, aim for four to six workouts per week.
Here’s how a standard seven-day workout split may look using mainly high-intensity interval training and metabolic resistance training.
Sample MRT Workout
|Bench Press / Barbell Back Squat||1 a / 1 b||3 / 3||12 / 12||2:0:1:0 / 2:2:10||60 seconds|
|Dumbbell Stiff-Legged Romanian Deadlift / Lat Pulldown||2 a / 2 b||3 / 3||10 / 12||2:1:1:0 / 2:0:1:0||60 seconds|
|Lying or Seated Leg Curl / Bent-Over Row||3 a / 3 b||3 / 3||12 / 10-12||3:1:2:2 / 2:0:1:0||60 seconds|
|Overhead Shoulder Press / Dumbbell Front Squat||4 a / 4 b||3 / 3||12-15 / 10-12||3:1:2:2 / 4:1:1:0||60 seconds|
|Standing Dumbbell Curl / Cable Triceps Extension||5 a / 5 b||3 / 3||12 / 12||2:0:1:0 / 2:0:1:0||60 seconds|
Nutritional Considerations During Menopause
Nutrition is key for women in menopause because there are several metabolic adaptations that make it even more vital that you optimize your nutrition. Here’s an overview and key principles you should follow:
High Protein: High-protein diets have been shown to increase fat loss, support your training, improve hunger hormones such as leptin and ghrelin, and help you maintain stable energy levels. Focus on protein sources from meat, fish, eggs, beans/legumes, yogurts and supplements such as whey protein powder. Avoid poorer quality sources of protein such as soy, which, in excess, can negatively impact estrogen levels.
Monitor Portion Sizes: Because there are numerous factors that can lower your metabolic rate and energy expenditure, it’s very important to monitor how much you eat. Although you may be eating healthfully or focusing on single-ingredient foods, these can still take you over your daily calorie needs if you aren’t careful. If your main goal is fat loss, specific attention to portion sizes can help. For example, if you eat three to four meals per day, try to have a palm-size portion of protein such as meat or fish and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables. Limit fats or starchy carbs to just one portion per meal.
Focus on Fiber: A higher fiber intake also may be key during menopause to help control calorie intake and facilitate long-term and sustainable weight loss. Focus on higher fiber foods that will reduce your desire to snack or binge-eat. High-fiber foods are incredibly healthy for your heart, gut health and metabolism. They also tend to be nutrient dense and high in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. Try to get a mix of vegetables, fruits, beans/legumes and healthy mixed whole grains.
Other Key Points: Along with eating more protein, monitoring your daily intake/portions and being consistent with the basics such as vegetable and water intake, there are a few more advanced methods that may provide extra benefits when you are ready to take things a step further. For example, adding collagen supplementation at about 10 grams per day can improve joint and bone health (which may decline during menopause) and improve skin quality. Other supplements such as vitamin D3 at 3,000 IU per day, vitamin K at 1,000 IU, vitamin E at 1,000 IU and magnesium at 400 to 500 milligrams also can support bone density and provide other health benefits like aiding sleep. Aside from possibly adding in extra supplements, it’s important to remember that strength training or MRT will improve bone density to a greater extent than any single supplement.
Now that you have all the advanced and proven tools to conquer your physique and any adaptations that may occur, it’s time to get to work and apply the content of this article into a long-term sustainable plan.
While it may seem that the world is against you, preventing you from achieving the body of your dreams, these advanced methods are extremely powerful and have already worked for thousands of women going through a similar battle to your own.