As women, our bodies undergo a lot of changes from the time we hit puberty till we approach the midlife milestone known as menopause. While no amount of money or magic will prevent this from happening, we can cushion these changes by altering our food and exercise habits. To be clear, we’re not talking about the secret sauce to end the mother of all hot flashes. Instead, we’ll discuss slow, steady and timeless habits that can help — and the sooner you start, the better!
What Changes in Middle Age?
For women, the chapter in aging known as menopause is defined as one year after your last period. The average age for menopause is 51 in the United States, with most women hit this momentous occasion in their 40s and 50s. During this time, many women experience a hormonal roller coaster as the sex hormones recalibrate. Once this happens, a notable decline in estrogen, often coupled with decades of sedentary habits, kick off the following changes:
You round out in the middle.
For most women, fat gathers on the hips and thighs leading to a “pear shape.” This type of fat, known as subcutaneous fat, carries a lower risk for disease compared with the more dangerous visceral fat, which accumulates in and around organs. Post-menopause, the decline in estrogen causes more fat to be stored in the belly region as visceral fat. Sadly, our calorie-abundant environment and sedentary lifestyles make it easy to store visceral fat. As women age, this shift toward added visceral fat is partly responsible for increased risks for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and breast cancer.
Your bones just aren’t what they used to be.
In the 5–7 years after menopause, it’s possible for women to lose as much as 20% of their bone density. How? Bones are living tissue that constantly remodels itself. In women, estrogen protects our bones through two key functions: 1. it increases our absorption of calcium from the diet, and 2. it decreases the rate of bone breakdown. Declining estrogen after menopause removes this protective factor, and it increases your risk for osteoporosis (think: brittle, porous bones).
You lose muscle mass.
OK, so this change happens to men as well. Aging is often accompanied by loss of muscle mass and strength because it brings about changes that favor muscle breakdown versus growth. This trend is worsened by lack of activity — especially strength-building exercises — and can start as early as the 30s and 40s.
You can add hot flashes to the list of reasons why you can’t sleep. Decreased estrogen during menopause can lead to hot flashes in 75–85% of women. This uncomfortable phenomena lasts an average of 3 minutes and can really tank your sleep quality. As we know, chronic sleep deprivation is tied to higher body mass index, poor food choices, more cravings and higher caloric intake.
5 Strategies to Win at Aging
Aging is inevitable. While you may feel that some of these changes are conspiring against you, take heart in knowing that there are quite a few factors you can control. No matter your age, it’s never too late to start thinking about these five sensible strategies:
1. Eat protein regularly, and spread it throughout your meals.
Protein is not just for bulkers, and you don’t need to go overboard to see results. Eating a higher-protein diet is important in the context of aging and weight loss because it helps spare lean tissue that can further stimulate fat loss. Distribute about 25–30 grams of protein per meal or snack to optimize your body’s ability to digest, absorb and use this macronutrient. Learn more in our beginner’s guide to protein.
2. Make strength training your friend.
If you’re a cardio junkie, make strength training your new buddy at least two days per week. When it comes to graceful aging, it’s a twofer: You build stronger muscles and better bone density. Rest assured, you don’t need to overcome your fear of the weight room right away, because weight-bearing exercises are only one category of strength training. You can also engage in resistance-band and body-weight exercise (think: push-ups, dips, yoga).
3. Keep up the cardio.
Continue with your cardio routine (think: brisk walking, biking, jogging and dancing), and try to meet the CDC’s recommendation for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. Strength training will help build strong legs, arms and back, but cardio exercises keep your heart, lungs and brain happy. Additionally, a 30-60 minute sweat session is more effective than sit-ups for reducing the visceral fat around the belly region.
4. Prioritize calcium and vitamin D in the diet.
As we age, both nutrients are increasingly important since they play vital roles in bone health. Calcium is an important mineral for laying down strong bones while Vitamin D activates the cells that build up the foundation. This is why calcium recommendations jump from 1,000 mg/day to 1,200 mg/day after age 50. Sadly, about 42% of Americans don’t meet their daily calcium recommendations with women in their 40s and 50s averaging about 882 mg/day.
To date milk and dairy are important sources of calcium in the American diet; however, you can also turn to non-milk sources especially if you have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance. To learn more, check out these calcium-rich alternatives to milk.
The picture is just as bleak for vitamin D: Experts recommend 600 IUs/day, but there are limited foods that contain it. A few sources for this vitamin include fatty fish (think: swordfish, salmon, tuna), fortified foods (think: milk, yogurt, orange juice, cereal) and eggs. Some experts recommend vitamin D supplements if the blood levels for this vitamin dips below a certain amount. You can always find out more by consulting your doctor or health provider.
5. Reduce added sugar.
We have roughly 9,000 taste buds allowing us to enjoy a variety of flavors: sweet, salty, sour, umami and bitter. These taste buds are constantly replaced; however, we gradually lose this ability requiring more stimulation to enjoy the same sensation. As we age our threshold for sweetness diminishes so we have to be more vigilant with the amount of sugar we shake into our coffee. Cutting added sugar is beneficial for keeping the steady weight gain in check and reducing chronic illness. If you want to learn more check out so you want to stop…eating added sugar.