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Flexing My Menopausal Muscle

Why, at mid-life, do we settle? Why do we expect to have to compromise? Why do we aim for less?

I’m talking about weight, health and wellbeing here. At this stage in life we very often start to talk about our ‘problem area’ (classically our mid-section, arms; maybe legs) and expect to have to live with it, settling into the inevitability of overweight, now that we are middle aged. We stop pushing ourselves physically, in the expectation of being less able and more prone to injury or aches and pains; we do not aim to fit our bikini, skinny -jeans or summer shorts any more. We tend, all too easily, to settle.

I like to challenge this, based on the science behind exercise as well as pure logic and good old-fashioned common sense!

Why have you suddenly, or more slowly, put on mid-section fat and begun to lose your once lovely curvy rear and hips? This is something, that if you are to be honest about, you are not too happy with. Why does this happen? Is menopausal fat-gain a given? Are you expecting too much to be an exception to this trend?

I say NO, it is not a given & NO you are not expecting too much.

Working with clients, I have seen, presented to me repeatedly, the story of why this happens. Generally, the trend tends to be that we stop our muscle-building activities as we get older and default to walking, jogging or other aerobic activities, if any, to keep us in shape. The thing is, these methods stop working, to the extent that you are, at menopause, fighting both gravity and hormonal changes.

Have you ever noticed how very slender runners can look worn out and drained by middle-age? I think of Barrack Obama on a bad day! He is a runner for sure; his face tells that story, handsome as he may be. Michelle, on the other hand (to me) looks like a woman who is happy to lift weights and does not overdo the running. If I compare and contrast these pictures (that you can see easily in your mind’s eye) you might get the point I’m making here. At mid-life and beyond; constant aerobic exercise, while very good for your heart and lungs, weight-management and wellbeing, can be costly on the body, if overdone. Yes, you can manage your weight; but your weight distribution might shift.

This is what I have seen so often.

The body weight might not dramatically increase over these years but you, inevitably, lose muscle and bone mass, due to hormone levels dropping. Then, as the bum flattens, any weight that is gained, lodges on the mid-section. Why does it choose this very unsightly location? Because of hormone changes. Oestrogen equals curves; lack of oestrogen equals reduced curves and more of an androgenous figure.

Let me reassure you here. Weight gain still only happens at this age if you eat too many calories. It doesn’t land on you from above! We tend to get a little kinder to ourselves at this stage in life – perhaps we are not as busy or broke as we use to be and so eat out more, buy nicer treat-foods, drink a little more than before. Either way; weight does not manifest – it comes from additional calories to requirement.

This is the real story.

Why do you as much as only look at a cake now and apparently balloon? Because your metabolic engine is in decline – it – and you – are losing power. Unless, that is, you are actively building it up. On purpose. This does not happen naturally. You need to choose this path. You need to work at it. But it’s fun and it’s worthwhile! As you lose muscle and bone mass (post age 35, sadly) your metabolism is on the decline, every decade, by a percent or two. Muscle-mass is the measure of your body’s engine power. The more muscle you are made of, the more expensive (calorie-wise) a machine you are to run. Even at rest! So while you laze on the sofa watching ‘Desperate Housewives of Wherever’ you need more energy – just being – to fuel your engine - if you are made of more muscle.

Now, running and walking don’t necessarily build muscle for us at this age. They are very good for fat-loss and heart and lung health, mental wellbeing as well as stress-relief and a whole plethora of good things. ALL EXERCISE IS GOOD. But with regards the muscle-story. We, at middle-age, need to lift something heavier than a pen, coffee mug or i-pad if we hope to retain muscle mass (& therefore metabolism) and most certainly to build it!

So why don’t I want to lift weights? Now that I know I should!

We grew up in the ‘diet’ era. The era of ‘thin’.

Was it Kate Moss who coined (long after Coco Chanel’s notion that you choose your ass or your face as you age) the notion that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. Poor us! This was our ‘norm’. No wonder we resist the more modern goals of fitness and strength (long may they last) of our daughters. We have had very confusing messages served up to us over the years. Remember Nancy Regan (a supposed style-icon of the eighties)? Remember Heroine chic? Remember Lady Di? On the flip-side we had the healthy beauty of Cindy Crawford; the curvaceous lusciousness of Nigella; the muscly Madonna. Where does health and beauty rest for us? I say, it resides in being your strong, youthful self. You can be strong now, even if you never felt you were. You start from where you currently are. You are still young.

Go to a gym; but not on your own!

Start by being taught, like any other skill, how to safely and effectively lift weights. Set yourself a target of twice per week (very achievable – one lunchtime and one weekend session work for me, for instance) such that any other session is a bonus! You feel and know that you achieved your target and the results will start coming within six weeks. I am not talking little 2kg pink and pretty weights here; I am talking about the stuff of grunt and sweat. This is why (if it is new territory for you) you need supervision, guidance, skill. In time, you may go it alone, but don’t be in a hurry!

Using your own body weight (push-ups, lunges, plank etc) is also phenomenally effective at building muscle. If you cannot frequent a gym you can do plenty at home. Get an App; follow a programme; get in some expertise. Enthusiasm and motivation only last so long. We need schedule and structure, in my experience, to stay the long haul here. The rewards are plenty.

You feel better instantly. Visible results tend to happen fast at the start (of course they trail off somewhat). Best of all; you feel powerful in your own skin. Zena Princess Warrior territory! That radiates as beauty then, because you feel so good. Do not worry about building up overnight and looking like a body-builder. That takes a seven-day-a week commitment to the job. We simply don’t have the testosterone levels floating around us to achieve anything like that result. And we certainly don’t have the time!

As I watch highlights of the Australian Open and see the strength of the younger ladies coming up (Aryna Sabalenka is amazing) I feel hope for the future of our next gen women, who will scoff at the idea of weakening at middle-age. They will come from a base of strength, as beauty, and they will be slow to let it go! Let’s start modelling that for them here and now.

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