Dr Danie Schneider
Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Somerset West

Weight control and exercise

Why do I pick up weight as I get older?

We all lose muscle mass as we age and this lowers the body’s resting metabolism, therefore increasing the risk of weight gain and accumulating body fat around the waist.

Many women also become less physically active during their 40s and 50s because life is busy; it’s a challenge to find time to schedule exercise. Less activity means less muscle mass, which means weight gain. On top of this, genetic factors also play a role and if your relatives are more likely to carry weight around their waist, you are likely to do the same.

Hormonal levels can also play a role. Declining estrogen levels wreak hormonal havoc that can cause night sweats and that is a formula for sleepless nights. Sleep deprivation produces increased levels of ghrelin – the hunger hormone – and decreased levels of leptin – the “stop eating” hormone. This can equal weight gain. The declining estrogen levels may lower the rate of energy used during exercise. It is common for women to experience that weight loss habits and exercise routines used in younger years often aren’t as effective as before. It simply takes more work to lose weight. As you get older, women burn less fat than they did in their pre-menopausal years. Cells now not only store more fat but are less willing to part with it…

Why is weight management important as I get older?

Weight management as you get older is important because weight gain increases the risk of many diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and gallbladder disease. The risk of some types of cancer e.g. breast, endometrium and colon cancer is also increased.

What conditions can contribute to weight gain?

Medical conditions such as insulin resistance (when your body becomes resistant to the insulin it produces) or suffering from an under active thyroid can contribute to weight gain and should be excluded. Certain medications can trigger appetite, slow metabolism, increase fluid retention and cause muscle cramps that could negatively impact on exercise. These include antidepressants, antihistamines, beta-blockers, corticosteroids, insulin, statins and tamoxifen.

What are the principles of a successful weight loss diet?

The goal of a weight loss diet is to reduce the total number of calories consumed. Dietary adherence is an important predictor of weight loss, irrespective of the type of diet. Behavior modification strategies are important to improve dietary compliance with any type of diet.

The aim is to make long-term changes in your eating behavior by modifying and monitoring your food intake, increasing your physical activity and controlling cues and stimuli in the environment that trigger eating. Physical activity and self-monitoring are particularly important components for success.

Weight loss appears to be determined by the degree of adherence to the diet, rather than on the particular macronutrient composition. A basic principle is to choose a balanced dietary pattern of healthy foods, rather than focus on a specific nutrient. Examples include the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) or Mediterranean-style diet. Cut down on refined carbohydrates, processed meats and foods high in sodium and trans fat. Eat healthy fats and be aware of the Glycemic index of foods and aim for low to medium glycemic foods.

I diet, but cannot maintain my weight!

Research have demonstrated that compared with a weight loss diet alone, diet coupled with either exercise or exercise and resistance training, is associated with a greater reduction in body fat and enhanced preservation of body lean mass, compared with weight loss diet alone.

Caloric restriction without exercise leads to loss of muscle (with a loss of resting metabolic rate),
but with no toning effect. Caloric restriction diets also have a greater likelihood of regaining weight.
Exercise is a predictor of long-term weight maintenance.

Why do I struggle to lose weight in spite of exercising?

This is a complex question and only generalizations can be made. It is important to understand that you need to create a calorie deficit by eating less food and this has been shown with research to be more effective than simply adding on exercise to try and lose weight. You should therefore eat according to your whole day’s activity level, not according to how hard you trained that day. Instead of focusing on exercise as the key to fat loss, pay more attention to your calorie intake. You should exercise for health, fitness, stress relief and most importantly, for enjoyment!

When one examines the type of exercise and its effect on weight loss, it is crucial to understand that aerobic exercise burns fat during exercise, but has little effect on calorie expenditure after exercise. Intense anaerobic exercise on the other hand increases the metabolism hours after exercise. Examples like weight training, high intensity training, plyometrics and sprints increase metabolic rate for hours following an intense workout.

Note also that increases in muscle in specific body areas can change the appearance of those
areas, but will not result in specific loss of body fat. If the muscle mass improvements outpace fat
loss in a specific area, girth can be greater.

Pill effect

Many women, as well as certain clinicians, believe that the oral contraceptive pill cause weight gain. The available research data does suggest that this is not the case. A review in 2014 of 49 trials on this subject did not find evidence supporting a causal relationship between use of combination oral contraceptive (or contraceptive patch) and weight gain. The majority of trials that compared pills of variable types and doses showed no significant difference in weight between groups.

HRT effect

Although women are often concerned that taking hormonal therapy will exacerbate the weight gain that occurs in midlife, a meta-analysis of 28 trials in 28 559 women found no evidence of an effect of unopposed estrogen or combined estrogen-progestin on body weight or body mass index.

Estrogen therapy on the other hand does not prevent weight gain in postmenopausal women, although it may minimize fat redistribution. In the early postmenopausal years, women who do not take estrogen therapy typically gain fat mass and lose lean mass. Some studies do suggest that postmenopausal hormone therapy is associated with a decrease in central fat distribution.

Can external factors contribute to weight gain?

There are lifestyle and other dietary factors that could contribute to weight gain. Some believe that these factors increase the amount of estrogen in the body and lead to “estrogen dominance” and weight gain. These factors include certain pesticides and herbicides, poultry and beef raised on hormones, chemicals found in some consumer products (creams, lotions, soaps) as well industrial solvents. Stress, lack of sleep, poor liver function due to alcohol intake and magnesium deficiency can also contribute to weight gain.

Bottom line

Weight control has tremendous long-term health benefits. Cut calories and become active. Adapt your exercise program and do not stagnate. Aim to control weight with your diet and monitor this so that you can adapt behavior over time as needed. Adding resistance training to an exercise regime is key as we get older. Exercise to complement your diet and to be happy and enjoy it!