Why have I put on weight around my middle in my 40s? An expert explains.

Menopause brings a tonne of changes. One of those can be how our waistlines look.

Mamamia spoke with Helen Blair, a menopause health and fitness coach, to help us understand what happens to our bodies during perimenopause and menopause.  

According to Blair, we need to change our mindset toward diet, exercise, and our bodies as we head into the menopause transition.  

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“It’s a time of opportunity,” she says. “You can understand what the menopause transition is and view it as an opportunity to get as well set up as you can for that menopause moment.”  

“The earlier you can make nutrition and exercise adjustments, then the more prepared you’ll be.”

To make the most of it, first we need to understand what’s happening.  

What’s going on with my middle?

Once we hit menopause, some women notice fat gathers more easily around their middles. As you might have guessed, hormones play a role. 

Blair explains how falling estrogen levels change how our bodies function and store fat: “One of the jobs estrogen has done for us in the background has been to help take glucose out of our bloodstream,” she says.  

“So as estrogen disappears we lose the job it was doing which means our body starts to produce more insulin to do that job and with that also comes a signal to store more fat.” 


Is it inevitable then? Not at all. 

Estrogen drops, but we have other things up our sleeves. Weight gain during and after menopause usually has more to do with our lifestyle changes than hormonal changes, and that’s something we can control. 

Did my metabolism just quit on me?

But you’re doing all the same things and eating the same way you used to? It must be your metabolism slowing down in perimenopause, right? 

Dr Herman Pontzer, an Associate Professor at Duke University and a researcher on metabolism, says that’s not what’s going on.

“People thought menopause must be a big change in metabolism… but no actually, we don’t see a change in menopause.”  

He says even though our bodies are changing in many other ways during our 40s and 50s, there’s actually no change with menopause on your metabolism. 

If you stay the same size, with the same muscle-to-fat ratio, your metabolic rate will remain constant from your 20s through to your 60s. It’s not until after we turn 60 that our metabolism starts to naturally slow down. 

Hormones, sleep, stress, eating patterns, and other life changes, he says, are why we feel like we’re slowing down and possibly putting on weight after 40, rather than our metabolism. 

What do we do then if we’re worried about weight gain around our middle? 

Is your first thought “eat less”? That’s the go-to for many of us, but Pontzer says we need to be careful of diets that cut our calories by drastic amounts. 


“You risk your body initiating a starvation response and reducing your metabolic rate because it thinks you’re in a starvation scenario."

“If you’re eating a diet that makes you feel full and makes your brain feel full, you’re less likely to trigger this response,” he explains. “So if you eat food high in fibre, high in protein those are all signals to your brain that say you’re full and you can do that without overeating calories.”

Helen Blair reinforces this idea. “One of the things I see with clients is women don’t eat enough protein.” 

“We need fat, we need protein, we need carbohydrates,” she says. 

She has a hack she encourages her clients to do: Aim to eat your vegetables first and protein second to make sure you’re not filling up on carbs before you get that valuable fibre and protein.

“We underestimate the protein we need, especially if we’re active. It’s all about that repair and regrowth of muscle mass and putting back what’s lost.”  

But finding good exercise and diet advice is tricky during menopause Blair warns. “There isn’t a lot of research on menopausal women.” 

A lot of the research on diet and fitness is done on small groups and mostly young men. 

“Don’t just take it for granted that someone says research has been done,” she says. “Has the research been done on middle age women who are in peri or menopause? Chances are it hasn’t.”  


What about exercise?

Metabolism researcher Pontzer says, “Diet and exercise are two different tools for two different jobs.” 

What we eat affects our weight management. Our activity affects our overall health. 

Exercise is essential to staying well and ageing positively. 

It supports our bone health, reduces illness, lowers levels of inflammation in our body, reduces anxiety and stress, and keeps us healthy in many other ways. Exercise also keeps your brain sharp. 

Blair reminds us muscle is also more metabolically active. So if we are more muscular, we use more energy as our baseline. “When your muscle mass drops off, you don’t feel strong, you don’t feel energetic,” she says. 

Exercise alone might not keep your waist small during menopause, but keeping physically active will help you stay healthy overall as you age. 

Changing your exercise focus.

Building muscle and maintaining your explosive power are especially important after 40. 

Blair says strength and power are the two things women lose as they head toward and through the menopause transition.

“We lose strength because estrogen is going and estrogen has helped with keeping the muscle mass. Think of power like your ability to bound up a flight of stairs. We lose that too because estrogen helps with strong muscle contractions.”

She recommends changing your regular exercise routine to focus more on building strength and power. Instead of being so endurance-focused, she says we need heavier, harder, but shorter workouts. “We’re looking to create a stress and allow the body to respond to it,” she explains. 20-minute HIT workouts, for example, and a couple of weight training sessions each week. Think under 6 reps of a heavier weight with good technique to avoid injuries.


“Looking at form and how you move is critical too and then gradually increasing those loads.”

“That whole transition pre- and post-menopause is such a critical time for women to be active if we can be,” she says.

”Build a buffer through perimenopause so when you get to menopause you have a higher starting position and you’ll retain more muscle mass which helps with metabolism and body composition and the waistline not expanding.” 

“You don’t need to do a lot and it doesn’t need to be complicated, but it’s a great opportunity,” says Blair. 

“We’re going to live half to a third of our lives in post-menopause, and you want to be as well, fit, healthy, mobile, and strong as you can be for that runway that sits beyond this.”  

We've brought in the best peri-experts in the world for the Very Peri audio series to share the most up-to-date advice and info. Everything you need to know to face perimenopause with confidence. Listen now.

Want to learn more about navigating perimenopause and menopause? Visit our Very Peri Resource Centre. 

Feature Image: Getty