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4 Tips for Building Muscle and Burning Fat After Menopause

In her book, Next Level, female physiology expert Stacy Sims, Ph.D. reveals how women can work with their hormonal changes to achieve their goals.

Older woman exercising outside; learn about losing weight after menopause.

Even though women live nearly 40 percent of their lives post-menopause—female life expectancy is around 81 years and the average age of hitting menopause is 51—it’s surprisingly difficult to find guidance on maximizing your fitness during these decades. 

“Every woman’s going to go through it and we don’t talk about it enough,” said female physiology expert and Tonal advisory board member Stacy Sims, Ph.D. in an interview with Tonal. “It can be overwhelming, but if you know what your body’s doing and understand the physiological changes, then you can take steps to navigate it.”

To make up for the lack of available information about exercise, nutrition, and health during and after menopause, Sims combed through the research to write her new book, Next Level: Your Guide to Kicking Ass, Feeling Great, and Crushing Goals Through Menopause and Beyond, the October pick for Tonal’s book club, Read Between the Reps

Although we primarily think of menopause as a time of hormonal change when women begin producing less estrogen and progesterone, the effects of these changes go far beyond the reproductive system. 

“When we look at all the systems in the body, they have estrogen and/or progesterone receptor sites,” said Sims, explaining why hormonal changes during menopause lead to a wide array of symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats, and fatigue. Gaining weight after menopause is also common due to hormonal shifts, and maintaining or losing weight after menopause may be challenging.

The key to managing these symptoms and continuing to make fitness gains is to work with, not against, these hormonal shifts, Sims said. This often involves switching up your exercise and nutrition routine to accommodate your physiological changes. Here are some of Sims’s key takeaways from the book that’ll help you keep feeling and performing your best as you age. 

Next Level by Stacy Sims on a Tonal shelf with Tonal accessories; learn about losing weight after menopause

4 Tips for Maintaining Muscle and Losing Weight After Menopause

1. Lift Heavy to Preserve Lean Muscle Mass

One of the major changes you’ll notice as you transition through menopause is that it’s much more difficult to gain and maintain lean muscle mass. Before menopause, estrogen is the main driver of muscle mass development and strength in women. It’s also essential for strong muscle contractions that generate power and force. “When you start having a misstep in how much estrogen and progesterone are available in those ratios, you lose that impetus. So you’re losing strength, and you’re also losing the stimulus for lean mass development.” 

Lifting heavy weights creates a new demand on your muscles that forces them to continue getting stronger without estrogen. “Regardless of estrogen, we’re having this external stressor that creates these adaptive responses,” says Sims, explaining how your muscles respond to resistance training. 

By lifting heavy, which Sims defines as performing 6 reps or less with as much weight as possible, in compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, she says you’ll maintain lean muscle and promote stronger bones. You’ll also increase your metabolic rate as the more lean muscle you have in your body, the more calories you burn—even at rest. Therefore, improving your body composition by building lean mass is essential to losing weight after menopause.

Try these muscle-building Tonal programs:

Beginner Push-Pull – Coach Tim Landicho (Beginner)
Mastering Major Lifts – Coach Nicolette Amarillas (Intermediate)
Power Build – Coach Joe Rodonis (Advanced)

2. Sprint to Burn Fat

Women who’ve successfully lost fat or improved body composition through steady-state cardiovascular exercise in the past might find their bodies aren’t responding the same way as they approach and hit menopause. “The aerobic stress isn’t a strong enough stress to create an adaptive response,” says Sims, “so we have to look at really super high-intensity work.” 

While you don’t have to give up your favorite endurance exercise like running or cycling, Sims recommends replacing some steady-state workouts with sprint interval training in which you go all-out for 10 to 30 seconds to aid in losing weight after menopause.

“If we look at decreasing volume but increasing intensity, we see body composition change, better glucose homeostasis, better cardiovascular responses, and a significant reduction in visceral fat, that deep abdominal fat,” she says.

Try these high-intensity Tonal programs:

Foundations of HIIT – Coach Liz Letchford (Beginner)
20-in-20: Metabolic Burn – Coach Ash Wilking (Intermediate)
Power Packed Power HIIT – Multiple Coaches (Advanced)

3. Don’t Cut Too Many Calories

When women hit perimenopause and begin seeing body composition changes, many think reducing calories is the solution to losing weight after menopause. 

Unfortunately, as Sims explains, this often has the opposite effect. As she writes in Next Level, “One of the first things that happens when the body isn’t getting the energy it needs is that it starts increasing body fat.” 

You especially don’t want to deprive your body of energy when you’re trying to lift heavy and nail your sprint workouts. “You do not want to go into your workouts underfueled,” Sims writes in the book. “Doing that creates more stress and undermines your exercise progress.” 

Along with eating enough throughout the day, Sims stresses the importance of eating a meal or snack with protein and carbohydrates pre-workout and refueling with the same macronutrients within 30 minutes after exercise. 

Are you getting enough protein? Learn more.

4. Feed Your Microbiome

According to Sims, there’s a growing body of research that suggests women going through menopause experience a reduction in the diversity of microorganisms in the intestinal tract, known as the gut microbiome. An unbalanced microbiome is linked to many menopausal symptoms including weight gain, poor sleep quality, and brain fog. 

Dropping estrogen levels have been shown to increase the prevalence of a type of microbiota called Firmicutes, which generate inflammation, slow metabolism, and are tied to obesity. 

Fortunately, eating a diet rich in fibrous fruits and vegetables can improve gut microbiome balance. In the book, Sims recommends eating at least 25 grams of fiber from plant foods daily for optimal microbiome health. 

Try these plant-based, high-protein recipes.

About the Book

In Next Level: Your Guide to Kicking Ass, Feeling Great, and Crushing Goals Through Menopause and Beyond, female physiology expert Stacy Sims, Ph.D., breaks down the biological changes women experience during and after menopause and explains how to optimize your training and nutrition to continue achieving peak performance throughout these decades. 

About the Author

Stacy Sims, Ph.D., is a leading female health and performance specialist and a Tonal advisory board member. She is passionate about challenging the conventional wisdom on women and health and pursuing new research on female performance. Sims is also the author of Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness To Your Female Physiology For Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body For Life, in which she breaks down the science behind optimizing nutrition and training for the unique needs of female athletes. 

The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. Individuals with pre-existing health conditions, injuries, or concerns should consult with their healthcare provider before trying a new exercise or nutrition regimen.

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