Why is it so tough for women to lose weight and what can they do about it?
Nearly 60% of the calories we burn every day comes from doing absolutely nothing at all. This is called your resting metabolic rate, and it is influenced by genetics, body composition (fat vs. muscle), hormones, and organ size. Another 30% is burned during physical activity, and the remaining 10% is consumed due to the thermic effect of food metabolism. So, what does all this mean, and how can I lose weight?
What does this mean?
· Women, by their very nature, have less muscle mass than men. We burn fewer calories and require fewer calories just to maintain our weight, even when compared to a man of the same weight.
· Women are affected by hormones to a greater extent than men (more on this later). Many of these hormones cause weight gain or make it difficult to lose excess weight. These hormones can also contribute to food cravings and binge eating.
· Women tend to work in occupations and engage in hobbies that require less physical activity. While this is not universally true, if you look at the average population of men and the average population of women, you will see that it is generally true.
· Women usually bear the brunt of the caregiver activities (both child and elder care) and often take more responsibility for household chores, making it difficult to find the time to eat properly or get enough exercise.
To make matters worse, scientists have identified over 400 different genes that contribute to weight gain and obesity, either directly or indirectly (Source: Harvard Medical School). These genes can affect your appetite, satiety (how “full” you feel), metabolism, food cravings, body fat, and your tendency to eat under stress. But rather than blaming it all on your genes, try using this as a motivation to try even harder.
“We cannot be held hostage by our DNA.”
All of these factors, in combination, can make it difficult for women to maintain a healthy body weight, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we are all under more stress. Increased stress means our adrenal glands release more cortisol, which can contribute to weight gain. Cortisol is a hormone that can increase appetite, accelerate the breakdown of muscle, suppress fat oxidation, and enhance fat storage, among many other negative effects.
Other hormones can have an even more profound impact on women. There is a delicate balance between estrogen and progesterone. As we approach menopause (perimenopause), progesterone levels decrease and estrogen levels tend to dominate. When this ratio gets out of whack, it can cause weight gain, severe premenstrual syndrome, and even depression. Depression itself often leads to weight gain.
During menopause, a woman’s testosterone levels drop, which decreases her body’s lean muscle mass and increases her body’s fat percentage, which makes it easier to pack on the pounds. Insulin and androgen are two other hormones known to exacerbate weight gain in women, particularly during middle age.
What can I do?
First of all, avoid fad diets at all costs. A healthy diet should consist of about 45–65% of calories from carbohydrates, 15–30% from protein, and 10–30% from fat. If you are consuming different percentages and are not under physician’s instructions to do so, you are putting yourself at risk for many health problems.
“Diets don’t work.”
Do not skip meals. Eat three or four small, well-balanced meals per day. Skipping meals often causes people to binge later. Skipping meals can also make you feel too tired to get any physical activity.
Second, monitor how many calories you are consuming each day. I used to keep a copy of The CalorieKing: Calorie, Fat, & Carbohydrate Counter (by Allan Borushek) with me at all times because my daughter is diabetic, and we needed to know the carbohydrate content of everything she ate. It was an eye-opening experience to see just how many calories are contained in some foods, especially fast food. Many restaurants now post the calorie content of their items right on the menu. Of course, your best bet is to prepare your own food from scratch at home, and for some, the pandemic has not only made this easier but has also made it a necessity.
Third, calculate your daily caloric needs. Do not make it a guessing game. This is the only way you can figure out how to lose weight.
Fourth and most important, make a commitment to a more active lifestyle.
How do I calculate my caloric needs?
To determine how many calories you need each day, you need to first determine your resting metabolic rate (RMR). This is just what you need for basic bodily functions, not including physical activity. You can estimate your daily caloric needs using the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation:
Women’s RMR = (9.99 * weight) + (6.25 * height) — (4.92 * age) — 161
where weight is in kilograms, height is in centimeters, and age is in years.
There are more accurate methods of determining your RMR if you know your body fat percentage, which you can obtain using calipers or a bioelectrical impedance device. These devices are not expensive, but you do need to know how to use them correctly. Then you can use more precise equations to calculate your RMR, and a simple web search can help you find some of those equations.
“The good news is that you can increase your resting metabolism by building lean muscle mass and getting regular physical activity.”
Next, calculate the number of additional calories you burn each day through physical activity. There are tables on the web that can provide you with that information, but these values are all approximate since the exact numbers will depend on many other factors as you might imagine.
Here is an example of how many calories you might burn during vigorous activity:
130 lb (60 kg) Woman: Walking: ~260 calories per hour (cal/hr). Cycling ~360 cal/hr. Swimming ~420 cal/hr. Jogging ~600 cal/hr. Skiing: ~480 cal/hr. Weightlifting ~420 cal/hr.
175 lb (80 kg) Woman: Walking: ~360 cal/hr. Cycling: ~480 cal/hr. Swimming: ~600 cal/hr. Jogging: ~800 cal/hr. Skiing: ~660 cal/hr. Weightlifting: ~480 cal/hr.
You will need to add your RMR to the calories you burn through physical activity to arrive at your estimated energy requirement (EER). This is a rough estimate of how many calories you need each day to maintain your current weight. If you eat fewer calories than your EER, you should (in theory) lose weight. It requires a deficit of 3500 calories just to lose one pound. Rapid, initial weight loss is often due to water loss.
Some people find it easier to calculate their EER by multiplying the RMR by a correction factor, C, based on your activity level:
EER = RMR * C
where C = 1.2 (sedentary), 1.375 (lightly active), 1.55 (moderately active), 1.725 (very active), and 1.9 (extremely active)
Another common method of estimating EER is the following equation:
Women’s EER = 354 — (6.91 * age) + PA * [(9.36 * weight) + (762 * height)]
where weight is in kilograms, height is in meters, age is in years, and PA is based on activity level and gender: PA = 1.0 (sedentary), PA = 1.12 (lightly active woman), PA= 1.27 (active woman), PA = 1.45 (very active woman).
Once you figure out how many calories you need each day to maintain your current weight, eat fewer calories to achieve your desired weight. You can calculate your caloric needs for any hypothetical weight. It is better to take it a little slow if you want to keep the weight off. Try reducing your daily calories by 300 rather than starving yourself, which will only hurt you in the long run by reducing your metabolism and forcing your body to store fat.
Better yet, become more physically active so you so you can burn more calories and also create more muscle mass, which will increase your RMR. Remember that your RMR is responsible for about 60% of your caloric consumption so tweaking this number can help a lot.
Burn more calories
Ha! Easier said than done you say? Well, there are many things that can motivate you to get more physical activity, but at the end of the day, you need to enjoy it, and you need to make time for it. I have been active my entire life, which has not always been easy. I have had injuries and surgeries throughout my life, two pregnancies and two children to raise, many stressful jobs, and intermittent bouts of depression. For me, physical activity has been a savior. I will share with you some of the things that have helped me to stay active.
Set goals. I set physical goals for myself, like completing a marathon (26.2 miles), a century (100 miles on a bike), and hiking across the Grand Canyon. Of course, I did not start with these goals. I started with much simpler goals, like running a 5K (3.1 miles), participating in a mountain bike race, and climbing to the top of the highest peak in town. Setting goals gives you something to work toward, and I have found that setting goals related to physical accomplishments is more effective than setting weight loss goals. Usually if you set out with a goal of running your first 10K, you will probably lose weight in the process. At a minimum, you will become fitter and healthier, which is a better metric than mere weight loss.
“Your #1 goal should be to try to get some type of physical activity every day.”
Find like-minded people. If you find people who like to run, ride, ski, hike, etc., you will stick with it. And it is fun. I recently went backpacking in the Gila National Forest with one of my old racing buddies. We are too old to race mountain bikes, but getting lost in the wilderness suits us just fine! My friends and I have always encouraged each other to be the best that we can be in all aspects of our lives. I could have called this paragraph “Find a training partner,” but that is so blah! You really want “friends” who love and support you and share your vision of living an active life.
“Birds of a feather flock together, so make sure you are not in the flock that sits in front of the TV for hours on end!”
Participate in sports and athletic events. When I was younger, my primary motivation for working out each day was to play better soccer or tennis or run a better 10K. I always wanted to be the best that I could be because I did not want to let my teammates down, and during races, I wanted to achieve a personal best or a personal record (PR). Participating in races or playing team sports are also one of the best ways to meet like-minded people. The comradery you encounter at these events is amazing! And participating in big events makes you a more interesting person.
Become an instructor. Becoming an instructor for an exercise or spin class forces you to work out even when you do not feel like it. It also forces you to be in moderately good shape to set a good example for your students. I chose to become a certified personal trainer and received several certifications from organizations such as the American Council on Exercise and the National Academy of Sports Medicine. I only actively trained clients for a couple of years, but the knowledge I gained from helping clients and studying for my certification exams, greatly improved my understanding and appreciation for how the body works.
Keep an activity (fitness) journal. Keeping a journal of my daily workouts was once a very important part of my routine. The mere ‘act’ of writing down what I did each day made me want to do even more. Also, it is impossible to train for a big race without keeping track of your daily mileage and having some semblance of a plan. I used to advise my clients to keep an activity log to help them adhere to their training plan. When you write down what you do each day, it makes you accountable. No one likes to see a blank page in a running log, cycling log, or weight training log. Writing these things down helps you stick with the schedule, plan, or program. Some people also recommend tracking what you eat each day. If that works for you then do it.
Lead an active lifestyle
Why not make being active a part of who you are? No matter what your age, what your commitments, or what your physical limitations might be, there is probably some way you can incorporate more activity into your daily life. When I was young professional, I would often ride my bike to and from work and jog with colleagues at lunch time; when I had young kids, I would run with them in a jogging stroller; when they were a little older, I kept my running shoes in the car, so I could sneak out for a run when they were in dance class or cub scouts; I was a soccer coach and certified soccer referee for years; I hiked and biked with my kids, and our family did a lot of camping and outdoor activities.
Now that I am older, I have slowed down a bit, but I still enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, backpacking, and cross-country skiing.
Try to get some type of physical activity every day, but make it fun… because it is fun! Try doubles tennis, pickle ball, rollerblading, coed soccer, rock climbing, or disc golf, for example. Then alternate those activities with strength training, yoga, and other activities that will help build muscle, improve balance, and even increase your focus. Getting more physical activity often leads to better eating habits. Sitting in front of the TV for hours on end often leads to poor food choices and overeating.
“An active lifestyle will make you feel better physically and mentally, and you will be fit, healthy, and youthful looking!”