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woman maintaining a healthy weight by staying active and speeding up her metabolism

Speed Up Your Metabolism at Midlife

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Have you noticed your clothes feeling a little, ahem, tight these days? You haven't changed the way you're eating, and you're still getting in your daily walks. So why should you be gaining weight?

Blame middle age.

As we age, our metabolism—that calorie-burning engine we rely on to keep extra pounds off—slows. Suddenly that extra bowl of ice cream you're used to eating every night before bed starts showing up on your hips and thighs.

Don't despair—you just need to turn the thermostat up a bit even as you cut back on the fuel. That becomes particularly important in the years just after menopause, when studies find women tend to gain weight somewhat faster than later in life or before menopause. Why?

Researchers aren't quite sure, but it seems that menopause itself is associated with changes in body composition (less muscle, more fat) and in the way fat is distributed in your body. The less muscle you have, the slower your metabolism, since muscle cells burn more fuel than fat cells.

As for that fat distribution...well, after menopause, fat is more likely to build up around your abdomen instead of on your thighs and hips. This abdominal, or "visceral" fat, is a dangerous form of fat that increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. It seems that estrogen is somehow associated with this change, because women taking estrogen therapy after menopause tend to have less abdominal fat.

We're not suggesting turning to estrogen therapy to manage your fat distribution, however. While there are several reasons to take estrogen therapy, minimizing abdominal fat is not one of them.

Instead, your best bet is to turn to those two old standbys—diet and exercise, particularly exercise. When researchers compared total body fat and abdominal body fat amounts in middle-aged female twins, they found physical activity—not age or diet—had the greatest effect.

But who has time for physical activity when you're running kids all over town, holding down a challenging career, exploring new life opportunities, maintaining a relationship, caring for aging parents...you get the picture. Small wonder only half of women aged 50 to 64 report any regular physical activity, while only one-fourth report any high-intensity (think aerobics class or running) exercise.

Why is physical activity so important? Because unlike dieting, which only affects the amount of calories you take in, physical activity helps your body burn more calories, not only while you're working out, but afterward. As you build more muscle, you're also increasing your metabolism. The faster your metabolism, the more calories you burn per hour. The more calories you burn per hour, the more weight you'll lose (or at least not gain).

Even if you're happy with your weight, there are numerous reasons to get regular physical activity. Here are just a few to consider:

  • Living longer. One large study found that exercise reduced risk factors for all causes of death in postmenopausal women.
  • Getting into the habit of exercise. Studies find that the perimenopausal period—i.e., mid-30s through your 40s—is critical in determining whether you'll remain physically active after menopause.
  • Reducing blood pressure level and levels of "bad" cholesterol while raising levels of "good" cholesterol.
  • Slowing your resting heart rate, enabling your heart to work more efficiently.
  • Reducing your risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, gallstone surgery and diverticular disease.
  • Increasing bone density and preventing osteoporosis.
  • Reducing your risk of breast cancer.
  • Helping you sleep better, faster and longer.
  • Improving your emotional state, whether relieving depression or simply making you feel better overall.
  • Helping you cope with stress.

No one is suggesting you head out for a five-mile run. Just add some movement to your everyday life. For instance, did you know that simply walking at a pace fast enough to get you out of breath for about half an hour a day can cut your risk of heart disease by more than a third?

So how about:

  • Giving up the power tools. Toss that riding mower and leaf blower back in the garage, and cancel the lawn service. Get into the garden and do your own yard work. One of the best ways to maintain your bone strength after menopause is with gardening.
  • Walking first, driving second. Park at the far end of the parking lot, walk into restaurants to get your food, take an extra lap around the grocery store during the weekly shopping.
  • Partnering with another woman. You're much more likely to get up at 6 a.m. on a cold morning to walk 45 minutes if you know your neighbor is waiting for you.
  • Turning your house into a gym. Run up and down the stairs for 20 minutes a day, using gallon jugs of milk as weights, pace around the house while you're on the phone, and carry your own heavy parcels into the house—twice.
  • Breaking up your exercise into shorter bouts. Can't find a 30-minute chunk of time for that two-mile walk? Take the dog out three times a day for a 10-minute walk. You'll get the same benefits.

One caveat: Aim for an hour or two a week of resistance training—lifting weights, Pilates or yoga classes, even calisthenics (knee bends, lunges, pull-ups, push-ups, etc.). These exercises are essential to improving and maintaining muscle tone—and to burning calories. Muscle tone is critical to maintaining our balance and staying steady on our feet as we age.

Make a chart and track the days on which you get at least 30 minutes of exercise. Like any new habit, it will take about two or three weeks before it becomes routine. And then, just like putting on your seatbelt when you get in the car or flossing your teeth before bed, it will become such a regular part of your life you'll feel strange on the days you miss it.