Hot flashes. Headaches. A tummy that won't go away no matter how many crunches you do. Menopause can be especially vexing for women trying to lose weight. As their estrogen levels drop, their testosterone exerts more influence. Because of the ensuing havoc, a woman's body will do what it can to retain whatever stores of estrogen it has. Alas, estrogen is stored in fat.
Don't despair, says Leigh Shipman, an instructor with the Simmons branch of the Charlotte, N.C., YMCA. She's been working with "active older adults" for 17 years, and she's seen both men and women lose weight and get fit.
"The average American woman should do just fine with one hour of moderate exercise a day," says Shipman, 51.
The key is finding the right exercise regimen — one you enjoy, one you look forward to doing and will stick with, says Mary Petters, an exercise physiologist with the University of North Carolina Wellness Center at Meadowmont in Chapel Hill, N.C. "There's something out there for everyone," says Petters. "You're never too old to start."
We polled Petters, Shipman and Gerald Endress, with the Duke Diet & Fitness Center in Durham, N.C., to find the most popular exercise classes for women 50 and older at their facilities.
This Latin dance workout originated in Colombia in the 1990s and then became popular in the United States. Classes are almost everywhere.
Benefits: It's a full-body aerobic workout that gets you sweating, gets your heart rate up, burns calories — and it's fun.
Why it's popular with the 50-plus set: Unlike other dance and aerobic routines, Zumba is less choreographed, more free-spirited. No tricky footstep combinations to memorize.
Ten years ago, says Duke's Endress, water exercises focused on folks with arthritis and other joint issues. That's changed. "Water aerobics has really taken off — it's a much more vigorous exercise. ... We even have an aqua boot camp."
Benefits: Good cardio, good toning.
Why it's popular with the 50-plus set: You may not have arthritis, but at 50 your joints still need more TLC than they did 20 years ago; exercising in water relieves the pressure on your joints.
Walking is the preferred exercise for 25 million women ages 45 and up, making it by far the most popular form of exercise for that group.
Benefits: A vigorous daily walk of at least 30 minutes can manage weight, control blood pressure, decrease the risk of heart attack, boost "good" cholesterol, lower the risk of stroke, reduce risk of breast cancer and type 2 diabetes, and protect against hip fracture.
Why it's popular with the 50-plus set: You can do it on your own schedule, it's cheap and it can be a social activity — walking groups, formal and informal, are especially popular with older walkers.
Exercises done with or without equipment that focus on core strength, flexibility and balance — the main areas we worry about as we age.
Benefits: It can make you leaner and stronger, but the benefits can also help people move more gracefully and efficiently, making it possible to do some of the basic functions of day-to-day life that can become a challenge as we age.
Why it's popular with the 50-plus set: It's adaptable. Pilates classes can be grueling enough to benefit a professional athlete or scaled back to accommodate people with less strength and flexibility.
Consult a nutritionist and a trainer. A nutritionist can help you get a handle on what you really are eating and what you should be eating, says Endress. "People say, 'I don't eat a lot,' then they start writing down all the Starbucks coffees they have," says Endress. "They can even overeat fruit — an apple has 100 calories."
Likewise, says Petters, a good trainer can help you look at your lifestyle — work, family commitments, etc. — and see what realistically will work for you.
Mix it up. "The body gets used to what you're doing," says Shipman, "and after a while it won't work as hard. You need to challenge it to work the muscles differently." For instance, you may walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and take Pilates on Tuesday and Thursday.
Achieve a "moderate" pace. You need to push yourself, though not at first, says Petters; it's good to work into a new routine. But to get stronger and lose weight, your body needs to be challenged. "If you're not sweating, your heart is not getting the workout it needs, and you're not burning the calories you need to burn," Shipman says.