As much as women who get their periods may dread the monthly cramps and cravings, the hot flashes, mood swings, and weight gain that often come with menopause are equally frustrating.
Most women hit menopause in their 40s or 50s, when their ovaries slow their production of estrogen and progesterone (which regulate menstrual cycles, help the body use calcium, and support healthy cholesterol) and fat cells begin to take over that production. As this happens, their periods become irregular and eventually stop.
The hormonal changes during menopause can spur a decrease in muscle mass and an increase in body fat, which result in a slowed metabolism, along with bone thinning, which can lead to osteoporosis. These changes also increase the threat of risk factors for cardiovascular disease like high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to ramp up your focus on diet and exercise to prevent the weight gain, stress, muscle loss, and other issues that menopause may bring, says Marta Montenegro, M.S., C.S.C.S., certified nutrition and exercise physiologist for IVFMD, South Florida Institute for Reproductive Center.
Update your eats and workouts with this expert advice so you can sail through menopause (and the years beyond) as smoothly as possible.
Your Post-Menopause Diet
It’s hard to reboot decades of eating habits, but as the metabolism slows down during menopause, it’s especially important to monitor calorie intake, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., creator of Better Than Dieting. “Be mindful of portion sizes, since weight issues are often attributed to the quantity of what you eat, not just the quality,” she says. The USDA recommends splitting your plate equally between fruit, vegetables, protein, and grains at each meal. Keep these portion sizes in mind to make sure you take in a balance of nutrients and don’t overeat.
Taub-Dix recommends sticking to whole grains for carbs, healthy sources like avocado or nuts for fat, and lean meats, beans, eggs, tofu, cheese, and almond butter for protein. Aim to eat between 25 and 30 grams of protein per meal, she says. Since one of protein’s many functions is supporting muscle mass, it’s especially important as we age and start to trade that muscle for fat.
During menopause, declining estrogen levels lower your defenses against the breakdown of bone tissue and increase risk factors for cardiovascular disease, so you’ll want to adjust your diet to support strong bones and a healthy heart. This is where two essential menopause-friendly nutrients come in: calcium and vitamin D.
Calcium builds healthy, strong bones, and vitamin D helps you absorb that calcium. Shoot for 1200 mg of calcium (which can be found in milk, Greek yogurt, cheese, and broccoli) per day, says Taub-Dix. And for vitamin D, you’ll want 600 IU a day between ages 51 and 70, and 800 IU a day beyond 70. Vitamin D can be found in cod liver oil, sockeye salmon, egg yolks, and many fortified milks and cereals.
Two of the main heart-related concerns women have post-menopause are high cholesterol and high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). To support your heart health, incorporate foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to lower blood pressure and decrease triglyceride (bad cholesterol) levels, into your diet, the AHA recommends. You’ll find omega-3s in fatty fish such as salmon and albacore tuna, avocado, walnuts, and flax seeds, says Taub-Dix. To reap the benefits, try to eat two servings of fatty fish (omegas’ most powerful food sources) per week.
Related: Talk to your doc about whether a fish oil supplement is right for you.
Cutting down on or avoiding caffeine, alcohol, excess salt, and cigarettes—which all contribute to high blood pressure—can also support your heart health post-menopause.
Your Workouts Post-Menopause
During and after menopause, your muscle mass decreases, your metabolism slows down, and fatigue hits an all-time high, which makes sticking to a steady fitness routine more important than ever.
Estrogen appears to influence where the body stores fat, and as it decreases during menopause many women notice they start to carry more weight around the middle (versus around their hips), according to The Mayo Clinic. The downside of having more belly fat goes beyond your clothing not fitting like they used to—it can increase your risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease, says Montenegro.
Plus, in addition to the metabolism slow-down that comes with menopause, many women become less active in middle age (fatigue playing a large part in this), which has a huge impact on body fat. To combat the uptrend of body fat—and the downtrend of muscle—your goal is to get moving in any capacity, and to make strength training your new best friend, Montenegro says.
Regular cardio can help ward off heart disease, while strength-training offers a two-for-one combo of other benefits. When you load your body (whether using your own body weight, dumbbells, a weighted vest, or a medicine ball), your bones hold onto the minerals they need to stay strong, which can help prevent or lessen the impact of osteoporosis, according to the American Council on Exercise. Plus, strength training also helps you maintain and build muscle mass, which keeps your metabolism stay as revved as possible, makes weight management easier, and preserves your mobility.
Related: 6 Ways To Use A Medicine Ball For A Total Body Workout
If you’re new to strength training, start with bodyweight exercises like pushups, pullups, squats, and lunges, says Montenegro. As you feel comfortable, you can progress to weighted exercises.
She suggests strength training twice a week, doing cardio (like running, swimming, or rowing) twice a week, and participating in a mind-body activity (like yoga) once a week. Even just 30 minutes of activity a day will make a difference, she says.