Have you been doing ‘everything right’ and still not making any progress? You eat a relatively healthy and clean diet of whole foods and minimal amounts of processed foods, and you have challenging exercise sessions 5-6 days a week –yet your weight stays the same, or you even gain. You buckle down, getting a little stricter with food and pushing yourself harder in your workouts…and nothing happens. More and more women are expressing this frustration. I get it; I’ve experienced it too. Guess what? The solution is counter-intuitive, but it works.
I stopped getting results (and even started gaining weight) while following common exercise guidelines and programs that promote 45-60 minutes of intense cardio and/or strength training 6 days a week. This had worked for me in the past when I lost 60 pounds –why not now, and why the opposite effect? Aren’t these healthy recommendations? Well, it depends. These guidelines are based on research on young, fit individuals, and mostly males (though not always). The problem is that there is very little research on how exercise impacts certain groups with hormonal and metabolic challenges. I had a strong hunch that there was a different set of exercise “rules” for these populations, based on my own experience and how often I was seeing this in other women.
Due to my thyroid issues, I first examined how exercise affects the thyroid; as usual, the rabbit hole went deeper. I discovered that not only does exercise affect the thyroid and its hormones, it also interacts with estrogen and progesterone, and key stress and fat burning/storage hormones (cortisol and insulin). I confirmed my suspicions: women who are not hormonally balanced have a tougher time getting results with traditional exercise programs. Translation: what I’m about to tell you not only applies to thyroid patients; it applies to all women…especially the over 40 crowd.
One of the leading experts in the area of women’s metabolism and exercise is Dr. Jade Teta. I have been reading his work for a few years and am convinced that the science that he presents (and has heavily researched) makes sense. Even though I agreed with the science, it was a challenge for me to let go of my ingrained old-school mentality that traditional exercise programs and the eat less/exercise more philosophy were THE best ways to achieve results. Keep in mind that this was what I was taught as a trainer…and up to a point, this approach had worked for me personally. It’s incredible how the brain works: something worked in the past for me, so I kept doing it. It stopped working, but I kept doing it, expecting a different result. Can anyone else relate to this pattern of insanity?
I decided to apply Dr. Teta’s approach and was astounded by the results. Let me boil down what I have learned in order of importance (in my opinion):
- Most of us underestimate what stress IS and what it can DO to our bodies. Up to a point, exercise is extremely However, beyond this point the body perceives exercise as stress…no different from other stressors in life. This is what stress does to you: it makes you fat and sick. Ok, more scientifically: it disrupts the natural hormone balance, both in the body and in the brain. Signals aren’t sent or received properly. Certain hormones that promote fat storage are getting turned on while the fat burning hormones are getting turned off. Everyone has a different threshold for exercise stress, based on their unique challenges, which is why one-size-fits-all programs set people up for failure. This is a huge concept! Have you ever been told that too much exercise is synonymous with driving in rush-hour traffic, workplace conflict, family strife, etc.? Our bodies don’t compartmentalize it: stress is stress.
- Women’s hormones make them more stress-reactive (and the thyroid is extremely sensitive as well). Therefore stress management isn’t just a buzz-phrase; it’s the foundation of a successful fitness plan: Relaxing walks, naps, spending time socializing or in solitude (depending on your personality and what fills your bucket), time with pets, time in nature, Epsom salt baths, tapping into your creative side, restorative yoga/stretching, playing a musical instrument, listening to music, meditation….the list goes on. It’s important for us to carve out time for play and to be mindful of our bodies’ signals that tell us to rest and refuel.
- Given the above information, the more your hormones fluctuate and dip (especially in peri-menopause and menopause), the more reactive to stress you become. Women in this situation will benefit more from restorative exercises, especially walking.
- Daily leisurely walking is a game-changer. I didn’t want to believe it, but walking has had a tremendous impact on my ability to buffer life stress as well as exercise stress. (I recommend relaxation breathing while walking.) As a result, my body is able to respond better to exercise. Why is walking so effective? It’s the only exercise, according to Dr. Teta, that keeps the metabolism burning without increasing the perceived stress on the body. Also, it doesn’t increase your appetite, like long cardio and strength training sessions can. When our appetites increase due to exercise stress, it can easily negate all of our hard work in the gym.
- Weight loss results are not just about diet and exercise; you need to move more. Now, movement and exercise are not the same thing. NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) impacts our metabolism by 15%, compared to exercise, which is only 5%. Examples of NEAT include, walking while shopping, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, cleaning your house, chasing your kids/grandkids, gardening, standing while working…basically anything that is not sedentary. Being mindful of your NEAT every day will have a significant impact on your metabolism.
- Simple carbohydrates absolutely make things worse for women who are navigating peri-menopause and menopause. I’m not thrilled about that either. This doesn’t mean that you should cut carbs completely, but understanding that you are more sensitive can help with portion control. Remember that fruits and vegetables are carbs, but that fruit sugars can be a bit problematic as they can cause insulin levels to rise (and fat storage to be the boss). Limiting fruits to 1-2 low glycemic servings/day is a good idea while increasing vegetable consumption. Other good complex carbs: oatmeal, potatoes, rice, beans, starchy vegetables like squashes. It’s important to find the “just right” amount for you. Too little will slow your metabolism and cause your energy to crash. Too much will increase cravings and trigger fat storage.
- The traditional adage, exercise more/eat less, only works temporarily. Then your metabolism rebounds and you begin gaining weight. I tackled this topic in-depth here and here. Going back to point #1, the practice of exercising more/eating less increases the stress on the body, which leads to weight gain, weight loss resistance, and cravings. A more beneficial approach, according to Dr. Teta, is to cycle between exercising more/eating more and exercising less/eating less. And only very occasionally, for a very brief period (of a few days) to avoid rebound, should one exercise more/eat less. The way that you cycle through these will depend on your own hormonal challenges.
- Women benefit most from HIIT strength and cardio workouts, but frequency depends on what they have going on hormonally. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) involves short bursts of activity where you work hard, followed by rest, and repeat. The time of actual “work” is a relatively small portion of your session. Research has compared HIIT with traditional aerobics and found that HIIT offers more benefits in improving: heart function, overall fitness, diabetes prevention, brain health, fat burning and metabolic functioning. But you can’t, and shouldn’t, do this type of exercise every day. Doing less of the right thing has the same benefit as doing more, but is less stressful on the body. Remember my first point about stress?
Creating a diet and exercise plan based on these principals is a highly individualized process and will depend on your personal situation. It might require some detective work and trial-and-error because the metabolism is always adapting and compensating. The key is to find the “just right spot” with diet (especially carbs) and exercise –not too little and not too much, while always being mindful of stress reduction and general daily movement.
I’ve been using Dr. Teta’s approach with myself and my clients and am amazed by the results. Personally, I have experienced a dramatic reduction in stress reactivity, cravings, anxiety and PMS, hot flashes and night sweats. One of my biggest frustrations was finally eliminated: traditional exercise programs caused a massive appetite increase for me, leading to cravings and weight gain. After using this approach, my hunger cues, appetite, and weight normalized. My clients have had very similar results and have reported losing stubborn weight as well. Once hormones are balanced and stress is reduced, the metabolism can do its job.
If your situation sounds anything like the above, I’d like to encourage you to resist the habit of living out the pattern of insanity. It’s time to try something different.
I’d love to help you navigate your own hormonal situation! For more info on Dr. Teta, check out the link below. If you’d like to schedule a call or Facetime session with me, click here. We can do something tailored to your needs and/or I can guide you through Dr. Teta’s program.