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Diet and Exercise Can Spare You the Midlife Spread

By Betty Dixon - For the Savannah Morning News

I love crab cakes and fried oysters. The best ones are served here in Savannah. However, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror gave me pause. The hips and thighs are expanding to new dimensions.

My book club friends tell me this is midlife, and now is the time to be proactive if I'm going to save what's left of the slacks in my closet. This group of avid readers is over 35 but the interesting thing is that none is overweight. They all look fit and trim. What gives? What are they doing that I'm not?

Medical experts disagree on how much blame to place on aging and how much on menopause, but all agree that between 35 and 55, a women's body changes. Either you gain weight, or maintaining your weight becomes much more difficult. The most notable weight migration in women is toward the hip and thighs.

For most women, increases and shifts in weight begin during perimenopause, the years leading up to menopause. This is the time when your body produces less estrogen, which seems to trigger changes in your weight and shape.

But fat cells have an important role to play. They actually produce some estrogen, like your ovaries, which may help you get through menopause more comfortably by reducing the incidence and severity of hot flashes, mood swings and sleep disturbances. Think back to puberty and childbirth, the two other major hormonal shifts in your life. They both involved changes in body composition and weight, so why should menopause be any different?

Sadly, expansion of existing fat cells isn't the only change women face. Our metabolism slows down, and the amount of muscle begins to decrease. Since muscle burns more calories than fat, the less muscle you have, the fewer calories you will burn.

Extra pounds not only make you feel old, but they are associated with heart disease, high blood pressure and breast cancer. So, those extra pounds you are putting on really need to come off. If you thought dieting was difficult in your 20s, just try it now. Fat cells are stubborn, and they are not about to lose their fight. Deprive yourself of too many calories and your body goes into a starvation mode. This lowers your metabolism even more and jump-starts your craving for fat and sugar.

What can you do? As boring as it sounds, exercise and sensible eating are the key.

The ladies in my book club all take time for themselves, and it shows.

Aerobic exercise boosts metabolism and helps burn fat. If it's weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, jogging and dancing, it will also strengthen your bones and counteract bone loss, which helps prevent osteoporosis. You may also want to incorporate strength-training exercises to increase your muscle mass, raise your metabolism and strengthen your bones.

Eat sensibly. That means eating a variety of foods in smaller portions. Because your metabolism slows as you age, you need about 200 to 400 fewer calories a day. This is difficult but try and eat only when hungry and only enough to satisfy your hunger.

As you age, your body becomes less able to handle huge meals when you stuff yourself, and it's more likely to store the excess as fat. So eat small meals.

Consume most of your calories during the day, when your metabolism is higher. And try to keep fat intake in check to reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Will hormone replacement therapy (HRT) help you control your weight gain during menopause? Maybe yes, maybe no. But many studies show that HRT has no effect on whether women gain weight as they enter menopause. It's something to discuss with your physician; listen carefully to what is recommended.

But if preventing pounds is your goal, the sure bet is healthy eating and adequate exercise.

Take care.


Betty Dixon is a registered nurse who writes a periodic column on health-related issues for the Sunday newspaper. She holds a master's degree in health science and lives on Wilmington Island. She can be reached by e-mail: betydixon@aol.com, or send letters to The Closeups, P.O. Box 1088, Savannah, GA 31402.

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