Everyone tends to lose a bit of muscle and gain a bit of fat as they age. It’s a natural side effect of our metabolism slowing down and our hormones changing. This is the age when many women, especially those who have had kids, start getting worried about their belly flab. Their doctors are urging them to do cardio to ward off heart disease. And all sorts of companies are peddling snake-oil supplements to “get your body back.”
The truth is, fitness is different for women over 50. That’s clear from the science. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy exercise at any age! I recently chatted with wellness coach Deborah Atkinson, founder of Flipping Fifty, and learned some fascinating information about fitness for pre- and post-menopausal women.
Declining Estrogen Means Higher Cortisol
Once we enter our perimenopause (the months or years leading up to our last period), our estrogen levels fluctuate widely before starting to drop. As estrogen is responsible for not only reproduction but also our metabolism, cardiovascular system, and bone health, its decline upsets our body’s balance. To counteract this, we produce more cortisol — the stress hormone.
As you likely know, chronic stress can have serious health effects. It raises your blood pressure, impairs your immunity, and contributes to sarcopenia (muscle loss). All these effects are reasons why peri- and post-menopausal women are more susceptible to heart disease, stress disorders, and osteoporosis — and of course, weight gain.
Naturally, we want to work off those extra pounds. And because we’ve always been taught that regular cardio is the only way to lose weight, we join a spin class or start a daily jogging habit.
Unfortunately, exercise is yet another source of stress. According to Deborah, it may be doing more harm than good. All that popular wisdom about cardio and weight loss is largely based on studies involving men!
Inflammation Triggers Fat Retention
On her website, Deborah shares that only 39% of sports medicine research is done on women. (For shame!) As our bodies are soaked in cortisol once we reach middle age, we experience chronic inflammation. This is already a major risk factor for weight gain. The more inflammation we experience, the greater our resistance to insulin and leptin, which regulates appetite.
Also, cortisol stimulates your body to convert more protein into glucose. This evolved as part of our “fight or flight response,” giving us the energy to flee a predator in case of danger. Unfortunately, that extra glucose gets stored as fat if we don’t use it. And meanwhile, we’ve deprived our muscles of necessary protein.
Aerobic exercise is famous for converting glucose into energy. That’s why it’s often hailed as a weight-loss situation. Unfortunately, for older women, the excess cortisol combined with the stress of exercise can trigger the body’s fat retention. This means the calories burned in low- to moderate-intensity cardio don’t do much to actually curb weight gain.
Higher Cortisol Disrupts Our Blood Sugar
As I mentioned, chronic stress is linked to insulin resistance. This is partly because **Cortisol impairs insulin production so that it can prevent glucose from being stored. That way, it can use it for that fight or flight response. But with lower insulin sensitivity, we react more quickly to an influx of glucose.
We’ve all heard that carbs are bad for weight gain. But Deborah notes that complex carbs are a great source of energy and fiber. As with any part of your diet, balance is key! Deborah recommends avoiding simple carbs that immediately convert to sugar and instead fueling your workouts with whole grains and fruits. She also notes that yo-yo dieting and skipping meals are rarely ideal: those further encourage your body to desperately hang onto its energy reserves (read: fatty tissue!)
Strength Training is Ideal for Older Women
Somehow, lifting weights has become a “male” fitness activity. Deborah was eager to bust that myth in our chat. A lot of women avoid strength training because they believe it’s bad for their joints or it will cause them to “bulk up” or gain weight.
In fact, it’s less stressful on your body than long cardio sessions. Your body switches from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism, meaning it’s encouraged to use those carbohydrates and make more protein cells. This process actually continues burning fat cells hours after you’re done! By contrast, your jog around the block leaves you exhausted and inflamed — and that can actually lead your body to pack on the pounds while you’re recovering on the couch.
So no, weightlifting isn’t just for the boys. Deborah is all about teaching women to embrace strength training. It not only boosts your metabolism but also keeps your joints stronger as you age. If you look at any older woman with an athletic background, you can definitely see the results!
I truly admire Deborah’s science-backed fitness advice that acknowledges our particular needs as women. Here at Green Living Gurus, we’re eager to bust the myths that keep us feeling sick and weak. The ideas that women can’t lift and that frequent cardio will trim the belly fat are both toxic ideas — and we’re all about cutting out toxins here.
If you’d like to improve your lifestyle and get fit in a better way, I highly encourage you to check out Deborah’s website, Flipping Fifty!