I'd like for you to imagine a married couple training at the gym together. They are in their mid-40s and doing the same exercises, even with the same personal trainer. We'll even give them some names. Let's call them Muthu and Priya.
Muthu loves his workouts. His muscle mass is steadily increasing, and he is shedding weight pretty quickly. Everyone is talking about his incredible weight loss. He admires his hard work in the bathroom mirror at night and tells Priya that he may even start training for a marathon.
Priya, on the other hand, is quietly seething under her skin. It's been six months, and she has barely lost a kilogram. Yes, she has gotten stronger, but she hasn't seen evidence of her hard work on the scales or in her clothes. She considers cutting her calories down, yet again, to see if that will help, but she feels as if she is slowly going crazy.
Also read: Three great workout videos for a strong core
Despite this being a fictional story of two people trying to get fit and lose weight, it begs the question: do men and women lose weight differently? And if so, why is that the case?
Most trainers have traditionally looked at women's bodies as being like a man, except smaller. So they put women into the same training programs expecting the same results and are confused when it's not the case.
Let's start this conversation where both Priya and Muthu are the same: their age. They are both in their 40s and are experiencing a typical phenomenon of midlife weight gain. This weight gain can come from a variety of lifestyle habits. However, regardless of gender, there is a biological process called "sarcopenia" underpinning this change.
Sarcopenia is the slow decline of muscle mass. Every decade after 30, one can expect to lose approximately 3-5% of muscle mass. According to a 2014 study published in the European Journal of Clinical nutrition, muscle decline can lower your resting metabolic rate (the calories you burn at rest). This reduction in resting metabolic rate means a person may gradually put on weight over time, without changing their diet or lifestyle, simply because of their changing anatomy. Other factors contribute to weight gain, which will be the same for both genders, including high stress levels, lower activity levels associated with age, and indulging more in food.
However, why is Muthu losing more weight than Priya? A woman's body is an intricate network of hormones designed towards developing and sustaining life, whether she chooses to have a child or not. According to the US National Institute on Aging, the transition in a woman's life into menopause stems from the natural process by which her hormone levels change. This process is called "perimenopause" and can begin around the age of 45. However, some women experience this transition earlier, and it can last up to 7-10 years.
These hormonal changes may lead to symptoms or side effects that seem foreign and confusing, or perhaps she won't notice anything at all. Some women will articulate that their bodies don't feel familiar anymore or struggle to lose weight. Also, the changing hormones associated with the transition into menopause can affect a woman's desire to eat. Her hunger cues may become heightened, whether or not her body requires the extra calories.
A woman's changing hormones can also be responsible for mood changes, increasing feelings of depression and anxiety while decreasing self-esteem. Experiencing these mood changes may also alter a woman's attitude towards food and exercise, which impacts her motivation or desire to exercise and eat healthily.
Shifting hormones can also be responsible for disturbed sleep, a common menopausal symptom. Studies have shown that chronic disturbances in sleep can affect a person's hormones. Hormones, after all, regulate their hunger and satiety cues, as well as reduce their resting metabolic rate. Therefore, a woman experiencing moderate but chronic changes to her sleep pattern may find herself hungrier and craving more during the day, as her insulin, leptin, and ghrelin hormones can be impacted by her lack of sleep. It will also affect her energy levels available during a workout, as well as her ability to recover from an intense session.
When programming exercise or a weight loss plan for a woman like Priya, a professional should address these concerns with compassion and empathy. As her body may feel foreign and frustrating as she experiences these natural changes, it is essential to look for ways to increase her energy and vitality while decreasing the symptoms of sleeplessness, stress, and appetite changes that she may be experiencing. By focussing providing a satisfying range of macro and micronutrients and programming resistance training with appropriate rest and recovery, we, as professionals, have the opportunity to change how women experience this phase in their life.
After all, if these are the golden years, shouldn't we equip women with the self-awareness and confidence to claim them as such?
Jen Thomas is a woman's weight loss coach based out of Chennai, India