Why perimenopause is the perfect time to lose weight
Feel like you’ve hit your mid or late 40s and suddenly, it seems like weight creeps on easier than ever? And in different places, too? There’s a good chance you’re not imagining it and and are instead experiencing a recently recognised perimenopause symptom.
While the fact that menopause bumps up the possibility of weight gain isn’t new news, the link between perimenopause and changes in weight is less well known – until now. On the back of a 2019 study that found that perimenopause can speed up both fat mass gains and muscle mass losses, research published in April 2022 doubles down and expands on this.
Three facts about perimenopause
1. Perimenopause is when women start to lose what’s known as ‘metabolic flexibility’. Described as the body’s ability to transform whatever fuel’s available into energy, the research not only found that metabolic flexibility starts to drop off during perimenopause, it’s the body’s ability to use fat for fuel that specifically takes a hit.
2. Weight gain that happens post menopause is a knock-on effect of changes that occur during perimenopause. In fact, when researchers investigated which life stage caused the biggest changes to things like body composition, they discovered that perimenopause delivered larger shifts in body fat and muscle loss, than menopause itself.
3. Perimenopause is the best ‘window’ to make lifestyle changes. Due to the way perimenopausal weight gain and changes in body composition influence what happens post menopause, the researchers say perimenopause provides women with a unique opportunity to make some significant, impactful changes that will protect their future health and wellbeing.
What is perimenopause and what are the symptoms?
In a nutshell, perimenopause is the lead-up to menopause. Typically lasting for between four to six years, perimenopause can be as short as one year or as long as 10. Given that the average age women in Australia reach menopause is 51, it means perimenopause commonly starts in the mid 40s, but for some women it’ll be earlier or later.
WeightWatchers member Lyndal is one of them. Twelve years ago, when she’d just turned 35, she had her first hot flush. “And it kind of started from there,” she says. “Little did I know that for me, perimenopause would last for 10 years.”
If it sounds like knowing when you’ll enter perimenopause or whether you already have, isn’t an exact science, you’re right – it’s not. And there’s no test available to diagnose perimenopause, either.
Instead, experts say the best way of identifying perimenopause is to consider whether your periods have changed. And while this can mean changes to their frequency—so that your cycle is now less regular than it was—it can also mean periods that have changed in length, or in how light or heavy they are.
The hormonal swings that go hand in hand with perimenopause can also cause symptoms like:
- Mood swings
- Hot flushes
- Brain fog and trouble concentrating
- Aches and pains
- Decreased ability to cope with everyday activities
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Loss of libido
- Feeling exhausted
Lyndal can relate. “My experience with perimenopause was probably quite common,” she says. “I was very tired, but then couldn’t sleep at night. I also had stereotypical hot flushes and night sweats and everyone at home had to walk on eggshells, not knowing when I was going to explode over the littlest things. As a result, I began emotional eating as that’s what made me feel happy. And at the same time, I felt like I gained weight just by looking at food!”
Why does weight gain during perimenopause matter?
On top of the fact that weight gain during perimenopause is often the precursor to menopausal weight gain, the main reason it pays to know about perimenopausal weight gain is due to where the body tends to store it.
The short story is that, during perimenopause, weight is more likely to start gathering around the stomach. It’s this area-specific weight gain that’s one reason why women’s risk of heart disease increases quite significantly post-menopause. Research has also linked experiencing an increase in waist circumference during perimenopause to a higher risk of breast cancer in later life.
“My stomach and my face were definitely most affected by the weight I gained during perimenopause,” says Lyndal. “When I sat down, my stomach would sit over my lap and I always felt like I was so bloated.”
What you can do to stop perimenopause weight gain
The good news is that perimenopause doesn’t have to mean weight gain – and it’s possible to lose weight at this life stage, too.
It’s important to remember that weight gain during perimenopause is driven by a number of things, including declining oestrogen levels, but also age-related muscle loss and lifestyle factors like diet and cutting back on physical activity. And when you consider that perimenopause can deliver aches and pains as well as disrupted sleep and feeling constantly tired, it’s only natural if making the effort to be physically active gets put on the back burner.
Menopausal hormone therapy (MHT), previously known as hormone replacement therapy or HRT, may help to prevent the accumulation of body fat around the abdomen for some women, but there are many other things that you can do, too including:
Eat a healthy diet
Research shows that perimenopause – and menopause – reduces the number of calories (kilojoules) you need to eat to maintain your body weight. This change in energy requirements makes eating to lose weight a slightly different scenario, too.
The WeightWatchers program takes the guesswork out of the equation – it’s completely tailored to you based on your age, height and sex. Maintaining or losing weight has never been simpler.
Thanks to WW, Lyndal has lost 40kg. “I actually joined when my perimenopause symptoms were at their worst and I reached my goal weight a year later. I thought losing weight at this life stage was going to be really difficult, but by following the WW program, I completely debunked that theory. As well as feeling comfortable in my body now, the icing on the cake is knowing that, by maintaining my new, healthy lifestyle, I’ll improve my health and my quality of life for the future.”
Be mindful about moving more
Even though you might not always feel like it, it is important to aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days. The good thing is that even ‘relaxing’ activities like yoga count – which is perfect for those days when you might feel tired or a bit achy.
Build your muscle mass
This means doing strength training workouts – something else you’ll get help with as a WW member. Why is this so important? In addition to the fact that muscle mass naturally declines during perimenopause, which on its own means it’s important to take steps to maintain it, unlike fat, muscle burns calories. So, doing what you can to maintain and build muscle will only make maintaining a healthy weight during perimenopause, easier.
"I thought losing weight at this life stage was going to be really difficult, but by following the WW program, I completely debunked that theory."— Member Lyndal