You spent your younger years worried about your hips, your thighs, your derriere – but your belly probably wasn’t topping the list of things you kept a wary eye on. Then you entered perimenopause, and suddenly the weight went to your midsection and settled there, turning your shape from a pear into an apple seemingly overnight. What happened when you weren’t looking?
As you age, your metabolism slows, and the amount of fat in your body creeps up. This is true of men as well as women, but it’s women who experience the greater fat percentage increase. Simply getting older can do this, as some women are tapped by heredity and their genes to gain weight as they age. But hormonal changes after menopause may change the way that your body breaks down and stores fat. When you hit menopause, weight gain tends to be less in your arms, legs and hips and more in your abdomen – the worst place for it to be.
You see, it’s not just the flab you can grab that is worrisome. As unpleasant as the subcutaneous fat between your skin and abdominal wall may be to your self image, it’s the fat you can’t see that’s going to give you the most grief. Visceral fat, the kind that’s deep inside surrounding your abdominal organs, is the real cause for your increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gallbladder problems, and even certain types of cancer. The fat cells in your abdomen aren’t like other fat cells, just sitting there waiting to be burned off. They are actively producing hormones that can adversely affect your health. You need to target them and get rid of them.
But there’s good news. A few simple lifestyle changes, including some targeted ab exercises, and you can beat that ballooning belly back into shape.
How much is too much?
You know your pants fit tighter, but have you really gained enough extra weight to be in trouble? You can use a body mass index (BMI) calculation or a waist-hip ratio, but research has found that you get an accurate idea of whether you have an unhealthy amount of belly fat simply by measuring your waist. In fact, BMI is considered an inaccurate measure of body fat percentage or distribution when applied to the circumstances of menopause.
Run a tape measure around your midsection at about navel level. Breathe normally, don’t suck in your gut, and don’t squeeze the tape so hard it pushes your skin down. A woman of healthy weight should have a waist measurement of no more than 35 inches. Some research indicates that even a measurement of 33 inches will increase your health risks, so make it your goal to aim for numbers lower than that.
The battle plan
It might seem like fat that’s buried deep inside would be difficult to get rid of. The good news is that it responds very well to a regular exercise routine and a healthy diet. Targeted tummy exercises can also go a long way toward flattening your abs.
Exercise. Daily, moderate-intensity exercise is the best way to lose belly fat – when you lose weight and gain muscle tone, your belly fat begins shrinking as well. In fact, you may notice that your tummy bulge is the first area to shrink when you start exercising. The amount and type of exercise you should get depends on your current activity level and your health goals. Check with your doctor about the right exercise program for you to promote good health and particularly combat abdominal fat.
Strength training. Research has shown that exercising with weights is effective in trimming tummy fat. Again, check with your doctor about how to incorporate strength training into your exercise routine.
Healthy diet. Altering poor eating habits can help fight belly fat. Read nutrition labels, and replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats. Increase portions of complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables, and decrease simple carbohydrates like white bread and refined pasta. Reducing your portion sizes and daily calorie intake will also result in pounds lost.
Tone your tummy. While you can’t “spot-burn” belly fat, you can firm up your abdominal muscles and get a flatter stomach as a result. Traditional sit-ups aren’t the most effective way to do this, however. Instead, use these exercises to target both deeper and lower abdominal muscles:
Deeper abdominal muscles. Target deeper abdominal muscles by doing “abdominal hollowing” or “drawing in the bellybutton.” Begin by getting down on all fours. Let your tummy hang down as you inhale deeply. Let your breath out, and at the end of your exhalation, gently draw your bellybutton inward and upward toward your spine. You should feel a slight tightening around your waist – think of it as trying to squeeze through a partially closed door. Hold for 10 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Work up to 10 repetitions. During each effort, your spine position shouldn’t change and you should continue to breathe freely. Eventually, you’ll be able to do this exercise standing up. It’s very subtle, and no one will be able to tell you’re doing it.
Lower abdominal muscles. Tone your lower abdomen by doing pelvic tilts and lifts. Pelvic tilt: lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent. Flatten your back against the floor by tightening your abdominal muscles and bending your pelvis up slightly. Hold for five to 10 seconds. Repeat five times and work up to 10 to 20 repetitions. Pelvic lift: lie on your back with your knees bent up toward your chest and your arms relaxed by your sides. Tighten your lower abdomen and lift your buttocks up off the floor, with your knees pointed toward the ceiling. Hold for five to 10 seconds. Repeat five times and work up to 10 to 20 repetitions.
Hormone therapy. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has its place, but as an aid in fending off menopause weight gain, it’s pretty much useless. Some studies have shown that postmenopausal women who take HRT are less likely to accumulate abdominal fat than are postmenopausal women who don’t. Other studies, however, found no difference. Meanwhile, concerns about the risks and benefits of HRT continue. Talk to your doctor in detail about the any risks and potential benefits of hormone therapy before trying it.
Menopause doesn’t get to have the last word in how your body looks and feels. You can be in menopause and still lose weight by following the suggestions we outline here. A healthy diet and exercise program was a good idea when you were younger, and it’s only gotten to be a better idea as you move into the next phase of your life.