Hormones and weight gain after 40 | exercise for hormonal balance

Way back in July I started a 5-part series about hormones and weight gain after 40.

In that post, I highlighted the physical changes that many women experience during peri-menopause and the menopause transition itself. The picture I painted wasn’t pretty and many of you wrote to say that you’ve experienced the changes I described, including muscle loss, weight gain, insatiable food cravings and a belly or ‘muffin top’ that won’t go away

I outlined what I believe (based on research, my experience training many 40+ female clients and what works for my 46-year old body…) to be the four most effective strategies for dealing with hormonally-induced mid-life weight gain; (1) nutrition, (2) exercise, (3) sleep and (4) stress management and promised to write a post about each, in turn.

weight gain after 40

You can catch up on the 2nd instalment of the series here >> Why nutrition matters even more now

Today’s post, Exercise for hormonal balance, represents part 3.

And keep your eyes open for parts 4 and 5; I promise I won’t make you wait another 4 months 😉

Exercise for hormonal balance

We all know that exercise is good for us.

It strengthens our heart, our lungs and our muscles. It helps to regulate blood sugars and fat storage. It improves bone density and stimulates the production of ‘feel good’ hormones. It’s essential for weight loss and weight maintenance.

Indeed, many women experiencing perimenopausal weight gain increase their frequency and duration of exercise in an attempt to ‘out run’ middle-age spread.

The thing is, exercise also creates stress on the body. Not just mechanical (wear and tear on the joints) and muscular stress (aches and pains as muscles repair the micro tears created by exercise), but hormonal stress as the adrenals increase their production of cortisol to keep energy levels high and the body’s various systems running effectively.

While chronically high cortisol levels are never desirable (resulting in extreme fatigue, reduced immune response and low blood pressure, among others), they’re even less welcome in a perimenopausal body whose production of progesterone is at an all-time low.

Why? The adrenals cannot make cortisol without progesterone. The more cortisol they’re required to make to offset stress, the less progesterone will be available to balance estrogen and testosterone. Without the balancing effects of progesterone, excess estrogen often leads to weight gain, in particular, an increase in the body’s central fat stores. Hello muffin-top.

Clearly we need to balance the benefits of exercise with the potential costs of elevated stress. I call this ‘exercise for hormonal balance’ and suggest the following:

  • Lose the ‘more is better’ mindset. Shorter, more intense workouts will stimulate cortisol production less than longer, less intense workouts. Think cardio intervals rather than long, slow runs. If you’re having a hard time letting go of this mindset, think of how many over-40 women you know who’ve trained for a half- or full-marathon and failed to lose or maintain weight despite the volume of their training.
  • Practice efficiency in exercise. Choose compound, whole body movements rather than isolation exercises. Involving more muscles in your workout not only burns more calories (both during the workout and later), it also reduces the length of your training session. I prefer metabolic circuits over body-part splits for myself and my 40+ female clients.
  • Add more non-exercise movement to your day. As cliche as it sounds, taking the stairs, parking farther from the mall, carrying your groceries rather than pushing a cart, hanging the laundry to dry and washing floors all help to increase your metabolism without causing hormonal stress on your body.
  • Engage in formal exercise 4 or 5 days per week. For best results, alternate strength and cardiovascular training days, keeping each workout between 30 and 45 minutes in length.

So what might this look like in practice?

(Recall that although I am a certified personal trainer, the following program is a general one, and may not be appropriate for all individuals depending on their fitness goals, current fitness level and physical abilities).

Monday: Cardio intervals on the elliptical. 30:60 s work:recovery intervals for a total of 20 minutes. Cool down and stretch.

Tuesday: Metabolic strength circuit. 12-15 repetitions of each of the following exercises, in rapid succession, 2-3 times through. Dumbbell squats, pushups, walking lunges, TRX inverted rows, barbell dead lifts and Russian twists on the stability ball

Wednesday: Active recovery. 60 minute leisurely walk and chat with a friend.

Thursday: Cardio intervals on the treadmill. 60:60 s work:recovery intervals for a total of 20 minutes. Cool down and stretch.

Friday: Metabolic strength circuit. 12-15 repetitions of each of the following exercises, in rapid succession, 2- 3 times through. Weighted squat jumps, chest press on the ball, alternating lateral lunges, assisted pull ups, single leg straight leg dead lifts and Bosu abdominal curls.

Saturday and Sunday: Active time spent with family and friends. Perhaps a yoga class for relaxation and meditation.

Next up: Sleep and Hormonal Imbalance



  1. after 40 it has all all all been about the NEAT here too.
    extra nonexercise movement has really helped.
    Miz recently posted…I sleep like a toddler.My Profile

  2. I have been unable to do much exercise thisppast year because of a head injury.
    I’m looking forward to trying these suggestions now that I have the okay.

  3. Great information, Tamara. I will be happy to share it!
    Elle recently posted…Wanna Catch Up With Me?My Profile

  4. Always great posts Tamara from one that knows this process all too well. Now, I do it differently but that is me & my bod has fought me with weight management since I was young so – I never had the time when I could eat… 🙂

    I will say that 50 & after was my hardest time (not the 40’s for me) so more to come in that learning for sure – it is a lot of hard work to maintain & then it comes down to choices about how one wants to look to feel fine with themselves.. 🙂 Not saying it is all about looks but some people like to look a certain way – I know you get what I am trying to say.. 🙂
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted…Gratitude & Birthday Thanks!!!!My Profile

  5. Great post!

    I know a lot of people who try “to ‘out run’ middle-age spread” and it isn’t working for them. I cut back on long “cardio session” a couple years ago and now do some HIIT. I’ve also been walking a lot more this year. Plus, I do yoga and some pretty short strength sessions. It’s working well at this point, but I’m always waiting to have to adjust it… 🙂
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted…Creamy Potato Leek Soup and CSA BoxMy Profile

  6. Amen. I have lost 5 inches since January, somewhere around 8-10 inches in the last 2 years by upping my protein intake, reducing my carb intake (moderate, not low-carb diet though – I get angry when I don’t have enough carbs!), reducing steady-state cardio and adding high intensity interval training and metabolic strength workouts. I actually eat more calories over all, the macros have just shifted (lots and lots of veggies and few starchy carbs, lots of lean protein), have lost weight and can fairly effortlessly maintain what is my lowest adult weight. I have energy, my cravings are minimal and I’m not hungry all the time . . . old dogs can learn new tricks! I was a 20+ year veteran of the “eat less, exercise more” mentality and a chronic dieter. P.S. I should add here that Tamara was instrumental in these changes – she is the one who convinced me of the need for protein, turned me on to the changes my body was/is going through, and programmed some awesome metabolic workouts for me. Keep up these great articles, Tamara!!
    Sarah @ Semi-Sweet recently posted…Fat-Loss SausageMy Profile

    • Thanks so much Sarah. I really appreciate you sharing your experience here (and giving me such a great shout out!). Here’s to continued ‘fabulousness’ in 2014!

  7. Ah ha! So that is the role progesterone plays in the hormonal balancing act. I had not known that. This post has a lot of valuable help, especially since you offer a week’s schedule. I hope you get a lot of sign-ups for your upcoming program.
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…Take a City Walking Tour: Exercise & History Together!My Profile

    • Thanks Kymberly! There’s been lots of interest already, so hoping that getting the word out early helps to create as great a group as the last go round!

  8. I think with this age, workout need having a good schedule, after 40 the osteoporosis is serious so need very cause, thank for article

  9. How long should I do this routine? I have been doing intervals on the treadmill for 2 months and I have yet to see any results. I’m am starting to get very frustrated. I have been trying to lose weight for a few years now and nothing works. I don’t eat processed food or sugar and I try to get sleep but I can’t lol.

    • Niekka, it depends on a lot of different factors. How often you work out? How much you’ve progressed the exercises? What you’re eating? How you’re training? Why not join my January group and work with us to figure it out?

      • I’m going to really try and join. I’m unemployed right now so my money is a little funny but I have it on my calendar so I try and make it happen. It seems like you have to figure out the perfect formula and that is what I don’t have lol. I work out 5-6 times a week lots of cardio and weights. I’m am staying positive and motivated but its hard. My birthday is tomorrow and I made a goal to lose at least a 10 pounds by this time and I started in the summer. Have I lost the 10 pounds….nope! sigh.
        Niekka McDonald recently posted…The Ex Has Moved On, You Should TooMy Profile

  10. Tara Pitts says:

    Thank you for good advice! I have always been very slim and in past few months, at 43, have gained 7 pounds…hate it!

  11. My age is 44, I wont get sleep at night, but after breakfast I sleep for 4hrs,sound sleep.I try much to sleep during night but my mind will be disturb abt morning preparation for cooking and many more thinking of about my near and dear. Iam taking harmones tablets for getting regular periods, if I avoid this my menstrual periods comex twice in a month. plz suggest me how to maintain my health in coming years….

    • Sounds like you really need to see your doctor or naturopath. I can’t give you individualized advice about health and fitness via a website, other than regular exercise, eating whole foods and eliminating stress from your life.


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