When Workouts Cause Midlife Weight Gain | Women Over 50

Experiencing midlife weight gain? It could be your workouts aren’t helping you, in fact, are hurting your goals.

I’m not addressing the minor gain of a couple pounds that’s possible for any new exerciser. That’s true due to micro tears in muscle that occurs during exercise that causes some inflammation. It’s generally minor and happens as a normal process of exercise. You must keep in mind exercise is a breakdown activity. It’s the recovery process after exercise that allows the repair of muscle when you get “fit.”

I’m talking here about the midlife weight gain that includes gains of 10 and 20 or more pounds. Even while you’re exercising and (doing what you think is) eating right.

The Cliff Notes

Short on time? Then here’s the spoiler alert. (Skip this if you want to read the full article!) Look, exercise is stress. Women in midlife are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress (cortisol). That’s due to changes in your sex hormones. Cortisol breaks down muscle. Muscle should be where you store glycogen and blood sugar. But you have less of it, you don’t. So, your body has to release more and more insulin to get the blood sugar out of your blood stream. Insulin means your body is storing fat. It can’t both store and burn fat at the same time.

When your sex hormones are reduced your adrenal glands experience more stress and it’s the first next place to produce more hormones. Say you’ve got some bad habits not serving you (and you’ve gotten away with them in the past), your adrenals can’t handle it all at once.

Your body is prone to generate more fat where it can produce more hormones if your adrenals are stressed.

So, the bottom line is, you’ve got to reduce the stress. First. The number one tenet of Flipping50 is “Restore Before More.” Because no woman under duress adding more stress is going to lose weight. The body will protect at all costs.

So now that you know why it’s happening, let’s look at what you’re doing and why your workouts actually could be a cause of midlife weight gain. I’ll share what to do instead of these mistakes.

You’re already stressed before you begin to exercise. 

Stress may have caused you to lose your appetite, lose sleep, and even lose weight in the past. But now in midlife, my reader friend, it’s probably not going to bode well for you. Stress in itself is endocrine disruption. That is, your hormones are disrupted.

Emotional or physical stress either one, and definitely both combined will throw your body into protect and preserve mode. You’ll stop burning fat because a perception of threat means it must save energy for you to have if you need it.

It’s evolution and though we have evolved to a culture where we don’t have to run from being eaten, we are in chronic stress. At least if you haven’t adopted ways to cope.

So, it’s a question. Are you stressed? Are you eating poorly? Are you eating too little? Are you sleeping poorly or too little? Are you in a job, relationship, or living conditions you dislike? And.. on top of any of those.. are you exercising thinking that you will lose weight doing so?

Your body is going to store not burn fat. It’s time to match your exercise to your stress burden. Don’t follow an exercise plan to the “T” if life isn’t going smoothly.

Your workouts are too long.

Two kinds of hormones related to your ability to increase muscle. Anabolic and catabolic. The more your exercise, recovery, and lifestyle habits favor anabolic hormones the better results you’re going to get.

Anabolic: testosterone, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, estradiol amd DHEA.

The more your exercise, recovery, and lifestyle habit cocktail increases catabolic hormones the worse results you’re going to get, so far as the opposite that you want. That is, yes your exercise can cause midlife weight gain.

Growth hormone, testosterone, and estrogen are anabolic hormones. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone.

What kinds of exercise cause increases in cortisol? A lot of moderate level endurance training. Those 60 minute (or more) runs or cycling sessions too often may just be killing your chance to increase metabolism through lean muscle tissue. Even Strength training without thoughtful planning COULD also increase cortisol. Doing a frenzied pace? Doing crazy moves with no recovery between? The use of longer rest periods (during sessions and between sessions) deems cortisol rises after resistance training insignificant. The resulting increase in anabolic hormones makes much more favorable body composition changes.

Bottomline: resistance training is a yes. “Moderate” intensity exercise for more than 60 minutes is a no. I favor Highs and Lows… staying out of middle zone for myself and my clients.

You HIIT too often.

High intensity exercise is a good way to reduce your overall exercise time and not just “still” get benefits, get better benefits. AND… if you do it too much you’re causing more and more microtears, allowing less and less time for recovery, and that all adds up to more stress, and likely more injury.

A few years before the pandemic, studies came out drawing a direct correlation between the rise of High Intensity Interval Training and the rise of injury. It wasn’t slightly related, it was strongly correlated. For midlife women who are more prone to injury (Just ask 5 of your midlife friends if they have any plantar fasciitis, carpel tunnel, tendinitis or bursitis, or IT band issues), too much anything is asking for an injury. Yes, lift heavy… less often. Yes, do HIIT, less often. And vary the motions, the sequence, and keep it focused on safety as well as results you want.

Excerpt from a prior post:

During the time from 2007 to 2016 when HIIT popularity has increased (bootcamps) including classes led by fitness instructors as well as personal trainers there has been a concurrent increase in injuries. The overall injury increase was 144% from the time period 2007-2011 compared to 2012-2016.

It’s not just injury to bone, muscle or your connective tissue that’s the problem with HIIT though. It may actually spike your blood sugar. Yep. Any stress will do that. So, if you’re well rested, well fed, emotionally in a good spot, HIIT can be beneficial. But if you’re not checking all those boxes, HIIT may be making you store fat, not burn it.

How to Know If HIIT is Causing Your Midlife Weight Gain

One way to see how your exercise and your food is potentially causing an increase in blood sugar (and therefore insulin = fat storage), is to use a Continuous Blood Glucose Monitor. Even I have found that drinks that are indeed healthy, spike my blood sugar more than I’d like. So shifting what I have, or when I have it, has made it easier to reduce those spikes and therefore allow me to be in a fat burning state more often.

You can use my link here for $25 off your first month. That, is all I needed to see what I was doing, test the time and parts of drinks or meals, to benefit from more stable energy and fat burning.    

 You’re not recovering completely.

I’m going to repeat myself here. I’ve written this, said this and shared this more than once. We learn best by repetition of the right messages though, so indulge me.

“Exercise (if it’s of adequate intensity and targeted directly at your needs) provides the opportunity for fitness. The time between (and lifestyle habits) exercise is when fitness happens.”

That quote came directly from Joe Friel during a Flipping 50 podcast interview, perhaps he also wrote it in his book, Faster After 50. I have taken the liberty of doctoring it up based on science about women in menopause.

Chronic inflammation (you’ll have some after exercise, like a fever, some can be good) and hormone disruption (constant physical stress) will impede fitness and therefore weight loss.

How to know you’re ready for a workout or not?

How do you know if you’re ready for another workout. Rule of thumb is do less. But that’s not specific now is it? So, you can – easily these days – track… your heart rate AND your heart rate variability. Heart rate that is 5 beats above your normal resting rate several mornings in a row indicates you need to back off. Heart rate variability is the measure of time between beats. The higher your variability the better. Your fitbit, Garmin, or your aura ring, may all be able to help you these days.

And listen, you won’t “feel” it. You’ve potentially pushed babies out of spaces smaller than an inch or two in diameter… come on. You and I are really not a good judge of ready or not. During Ironman training, I would think yeah I feel good and I’m doing the workout as scheduled. But.. wasn’t really making good progress in strength and endurance. Checking HRV regularly I learned I had been shortchanging my recovery. And… by waiting to do the next workout it meant I did less exercise… and got more fit because of respecting recovery needs.

You’re in a state of low energy availability (LEA).

This is your body without enough food and you demanding too much exercise: fat. This Low Energy Availability is something athletes, particularly females in sports where physique matters, and there’s scanty uniforms (gymnastics, diving, track), have long dealt with. Other athletes with high energy expenditures unintentionally can also fall into this (cycling, triathlon). The adaptations your body makes don’t favor body composition. Endocrine changes and thyroid suppression alter the metabolic process.

Women in midlife intentionally exercising “more” and eating less, particularly nutritionally sparse foods are at risk for LEA. It has a negative effect on ability to gain or maintain lean muscle mass, and a positive effect on storing more fat.

This is also referred to as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) so that it’s inclusive of male athletes.

But it’s no longer about young women losing periods as evidence they’re training too hard or eating too little or both. The same endocrine disruption occurs for you if you’re not having a regular cycle any longer. You’re robbing your bone and muscle of nutrients and increasing stress in the body without adequate (and high quality) food. 

If you’re exercising intentionally in pursuit of a goal, and you’re trying to eat less, and you’re not losing weight, in fact are gaining weight, it’s time to look at your energy needs and how you’re feeding a healthy metabolism.

You don’t lift weights properly.

Strength training to muscular fatigue, in total body workouts, twice per week has proven to be as (or more effective) than three times per week for women in menopause+ for reducing body fat, visceral belly fat, and increasing lean muscle tissue and strength.

If you missed any one of these details:

  • To muscular fatigue
  • Total body workouts
  • Twice per week (allowing adequate recovery between)
  • … and or you are not eating enough micronutrient dense foods including protein, you will potentially still not support weight loss and improvement in body composition.

Need support? There are ways to do it yourself (ask a question and receive the Muscles in Minutes book with dozens of images and tips for how to perform exercises that lead to improved body composition) and here is more complete support. [Feb 2022, it’s 50% off and … comes with a BONUS Metabolism Makeover course]







Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

Fit-U at 50% off PLUS bonus Metabolism Makeover in February 

Debra’s Favorite Continuous Glucose Monitor  

Other blogs & podcasts you may like:

When Healthy Foods Cause Weight Gain  (please insert podcast with Sara Banta OR … let them know UPCOMING EPISODE with Sara Banta)

Fit, Fat, Hurt: Is HIIT Really the Answer


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