By Stephenie Karony

Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Weight gain often
part of aging process

Question: Is it true that women naturally gain weight when they enter menopause?

Answer: Getting heavier is not necessarily a part of the menopause experience. Weight gain often occurs as part of the aging process, which is probably why menopause is frequently seen as the culprit.

What's really happening to women's bodies as they age is their metabolisms slow down. This decline occurs slowly over many years. Consequently, as women age their bodies require fewer calories to maintain body weight.

So if a woman is eating the same amount of food in her 50s as she was in her 20s and 30s, excess pounds start to creep on.

The decline in a woman's metabolism, and the associated weight gain, can be reversed or even prevented by making exercise a part of one's daily life.

The process works in two ways. First, a physically active person burns off more food calories than a sedentary one. Second, by adding muscle to your body via weight bearing exercise, you also increase your metabolism.

Why? Because muscle tissue is metabolically active, while fat is not. Hence, a muscular body burns more calories, even at rest, than a fat body. (This fact also helps explain why it's so easy to gain more weight once you've gained some weight.)

In addition to burning more calories, a fit, muscular body has more energy. It's stronger, has better posture, and experiences less age-related aches and pains. It has stronger, denser bones. And, as if all that weren't enough, it looks better.

While menopause is not responsible for weight gain, studies show that menopause can affect the distribution of weight on a woman's body -- i.e., where the fat is stored in the body.

Once a woman goes through menopause and her estrogen levels drop, extra weight may tend to accumulate more around the abdomen and waist areas. This creates a much higher risk for heart disease than weight gain on the hips and thighs.

Remember, since you can't spot reduce - for example, take off excess fat on the stomach with abdominal exercises - aerobic exercise may become even more important as a woman ages. To stay lean and healthy throughout all stages of your life -- and this goes for men too -- be active, eat healthfully, breathe deeply, manage stress, express yourself and have fun doing it.

Q: Can a high fat diet boost performance during aerobic activity?

A: No. Scientific evidence indicates a high carbohydrate diet is the best diet for people who participate in regular aerobic activity. A diet that derives 60 to 70 percent of its calories from carbohydrates helps maintain glycogen stores.

Having enough glycogen (glucose becomes glycogen once it's stored in the muscles) is crucial for individuals who exercise a lot, who exercise hard, or who exercise for long periods of times.

There's a rumor circulating that by eating a high fat diet, an individual will burn more fat during aerobic activity, thus sparing precious supplies of muscle glycogen and enabling the individual to exercise longer and better.

In fact, there is no correlation between the amount of fat one eats and the amount of fat burned during exercise.

Other factors determine the ratio of fat to sugar utilized during aerobic activity, and our bodies are quite efficient at switching between burning carbohydrates and fat for fuel during exercise.

Stephenie Karony is a certified health
and fitness instructor, a personal trainer and the author of
"Body Shaping with Free Weights." Send questions to her at
P.O. Box 262, Wailuku Hi. Her column appears on Wednesdays.

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