Speed Up Your Metabolism at Midlife

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