Is strength training the answer to menopause weight gain?

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As I delve more into menopause, I see weight gain as a common thread to some of the menopause symptoms, with many women asking how to lose menopause weight or how to lose menopause belly fat. At a time when a lot of women already feel quite self conscious about changes to their appearance the prospect of weight gain isn’t too thrilling. 

If, like me, you are peri-menopausal you might find you aren’t able to eat and exercise like you did in your 20’s and 30’s.  The thought of HIIT workouts and pounding the pavements fills me with intense dread. While I’ve never been a huge drinker I now find even a glass or two of wine in an evening or an indulgent meal leaves me feeling completely wiped out the following day. 

And it seems these are just a few of the common symptoms associated with menopause because all those fluctuating hormones can also cause:

  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced tolerance for certain exercises, particularly high intensity workouts
  • Disturbed sleep may leave you feeling tired and not really wanting to do your usual activities
  • Increased anxiety and heightened stress levels

The current advice seems to be that hitting your 40’s is an opportunity to reassess your health and fitness, to use this as a time to be kinder to yourself and to find activities you enjoy and which can support you through the menopause transition and beyond.

The most common piece of advice that comes up time and time again is that strength training  either through lifting weights, resistance bands or using your own bodyweight as a form of resistance training. Aside from the physical benefits there are a lot of other reasons to reach for the dumbbells including: 

  • Improved mood and energy levels
  • Some women find it reduces their hot flushes
  • Improved sleep
  • Help to strengthen your bones and combat the effects of osteoporosis (a condition which causes your bones to become weaker).
  • Body confidence

My success with weight training

I’ll be clear by saying that I’m not a fitness professional or a trained nutritionist so my advice can only be taken as anecdotal. However, I will say that I’ve been training consistently for around 3 years now and no other exercise I’ve ever tried has changed my body in the way weight training combined with good nutrition has.

Like many women, I have spent years trying different types of exercise, running, classes, cycling, yoga and pilates. However, now I’m in my mid-40s nothing has changed my body composition in the way that strength training has.

After having my daughter my body confidence was pretty low and I didn’t have the time or budget to pay out for a gym membership. Besides, the thought of trying weights out in a gym was just too daunting. 

Pre-pandemic online fitness wasn’t what it is now and there weren’t there weren’t many online fitness resources to support weight training from home. I found the Nike training app brilliant and, with a few books and a set of adjustable dumbbells, I managed to get started with a really simple routine.

I was aware early on that although I could follow exercises from books and online tutorials, I wasn’t sure my form wasn’t quite right. I worried I was going to do more harm than good. I decided to pay for a personal trainer to come to my house for a one-off session to assess me and write me a programme that I could follow myself at home. An hour-long  session cost me around £40 and really was well worth the money as I got some tips on correct form and a programme that I could follow for the first month or so.

I have quite a slim build and I’ve never been very strong in my upper body so building up even a small amount of muscle has taken me a really long time of consistent work! My body may never look the way I’d ideally like, and to be honest I’m ok with that now, but there’s no question that resistance training has helped me tone up some of my most hated areas hugely – I’ll even wear shorts in the summer now (something I would never have dreamed of doing in the past!). At 45 I feel much stronger and more flexible than I ever have before.

I’ll be honest, when I first started strength training it was purely for vanity but the more I’ve progressed the more it’s become less about my physical appearance and more about the mental boost it gives me. 

How to start strength training in menopause

The best advice I can give is that a simple routine featuring compound movements is usually the best place to start. There’s enough information available online (and much of the genuine stuff is usually free) for you to take control of your own health and fitness. It’s really empowering to do so too. The more you know the less you’re likely to be lured into exercise fads or fancy complicated programmes.  The following are the key things that have worked for me:

Find something you enjoy

Lifting weights at the gym, strength classes, bodyweight exercises at home or a combination. If you don’t enjoy it you won’t stick to it.

Be consistent

One of the key aspects of working out is that you’ve got to be consistent if you want to see changes. Yes something is better than nothing but an hour or so every once in a while won’t yield results. Find something you can stick to at least 3 times a week so you start to build up the habit of regular exercise.

One of the biggest challenges I found with exercise  routines I’d tried in the past was finding a routine I could be consistent with. When I’d go to the gym after work I would find other things would come up during the week, I’d be too tired or I just couldn’t face driving to the gym, the hassle of  getting changed and waiting for machines etc. That works for some people but I just found it all too easy to make excuses not to go and as a result my gym visits were really sporadic.

Working out from home really suits me as I can work out when it fits in with my other life commitments, be that first thing in the morning or alongside my daughter when she comes home from school. There’s no commute, I can wear what I like, no need to wait for machines, and I can do a routine that suits my body (and mood) without any distractions and no membership fees.

I realise that working out from home isn’t for everyone but the point is you need to find a routine that fits in with your life that you can stick to regularly, whether that;s going to the gym, doing a class, or having a personal trainer to motivate you.  I started to make real progress in changing my body once I became consistent with my workout routine. 

Challenge yourself

You don’t need to be a powerlifter but you will need to challenge your body in order to stimulate change. Get familiar with the principles of Progressive Overload to give yourself a better understanding of what your muscles need to grow and change.

  • The ‘toned’ look a lot of women want is achieved through resistance training.
  • You can’t spot reduce fat – if you’re specifically trying to lose menopause belly fat you need reduce your overall body fat.
  • You won’t get bulky – it takes a lot of time and hard work to build muscle.
  • You need to be eating properly to fuel your workout.  Base your diet around nutritious wholefoods and cut back on alcohol. Forget following advice from bloggers and influencers trying to sell you their protein shakes or supplements and read up on the basics of nutrition for yourself from well-researched credible sources. If you want to read up on the basics of good nutrition then this is a good place to start.