Does metabolism slow down for women as they age?

[4 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • As women age, metabolism slows down, and the body needs fewer calories. This can make maintaining a healthy weight more challenging.

  • Experts at Providence discuss metabolism and how natural changes, and even thyroid conditions, can affect how your body burns energy.

  • There are many ways to stay healthy and fit as you get older – they just might require new tactics.

As you get older, you may find that it’s harder to control your weight. The same diet and exercise routine from your 20s and 30s just doesn’t have the same impact anymore. It makes you wonder – are all women destined to gain weight as they get older?

As women age, metabolism slows down, and the body needs fewer calories. Weight control might seem harder because it is harder. But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. There are many ways to stay healthy and fit as you age – though they may require some new tactics.

We’ve gathered some advice from Providence caregivers about how metabolism changes over time for women, why it changes, and what you can do in response to this change.

What is metabolism?

Metabolism is the process of converting food into calories, which our bodies then burn for fuel. Metabolic rate is how many calories our bodies burn in a typical day.

If we burn more calories through activity than we take in, we lose weight over time. If we take in more calories than we burn, we gain weight over time.

Our bodies burn calories in different ways:

  • Resting metabolism (also called basal metabolic rate [BMR])
  • Food digestion
  • Physical activity

Your resting metabolism provides the energy you need to pump blood, breathe air in and out, control temperature, and use your brain.

Resting metabolism burns the most calories each day and is what often slows down as we age.

Why does metabolic rate slow down for women?

Over time, studies have shown that metabolic rate (how fast we burn calories) starts to slow down by 2 to 3 percent each decade, beginning in our 20s. It becomes more noticeable between ages 40 and 60. And while the slow down happens for both men and women, it often affects women more since they have a slower metabolism from the start.

There are many natural changes that happen with age that can slow down a woman’s metabolism:

  • Less muscle, more fat: Women naturally lose lean body mass – or muscle – as they get older. Men do too, but women have less to begin with, so hanging on to it takes more effort. Having less muscle decreases your metabolic rate.
  • Body and lifestyle changes: When you’re a child or young adult, your body is building bone and growing. It’s also producing human growth hormone, which burns a lot of calories. Plus, you’re moving around more. As an adult, your body starts making less human growth hormone at right around the same time you’re becoming less active. Maybe you lead a sedentary lifestyle where you sit most of the day for your job? Less movement means less calories burned.
  • Pregnancy: For those who become pregnant, gaining excess weight during pregnancy can later affect muscle and metabolism. The extra weight might also cause you to sleep less, which affects the hormones that cause food cravings.
  • Menopause: Menopause sends hormonal signals to your body to redistribute weight. Before menopause, any extra body fat spreads evenly – and less noticeably – around your body. After menopause, most of it marches straight to your middle. The change in estrogen levels has a big impact on metabolism.

Although many changes to metabolism come from natural forces, some changes happen because of another health condition.

You may have a thyroid problem

The thyroid is an endocrine gland shaped like a butterfly that’s located in the front of your neck. It makes thyroid hormones, which impact functions in the body such as metabolism. Women are 5 to 8 times more likely than men to have a thyroid disorder, especially after pregnancy or menopause.

There are different thyroid conditions. For example, hypothyroidism is when the body doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones. Hyperthyroidism is when the body makes too much thyroid hormone. Either condition can impact your metabolism. Your doctor can check your thyroid levels with a simple blood test.

Did you know? January is thyroid awareness month. Learn more about how important this small but mighty gland is for your overall health. 

Medications can affect metabolism

Prescription medications can have different side effects. Some medications stimulate your appetite, while others reduce it. Changes in medications might even alter your sense of taste and smell or your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. If you have to take medication long-term, it may affect your metabolism.

Ways to boost metabolism

Knowing about how metabolism changes with age makes many women wonder what they can do in response.

Maintain muscle mass

Starting a muscle-building program may seem strange when you’re older, but it can help.

“Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat, so it burns more calories, even when we’re resting,” says Michelle Guitteau, M.D. 

A body with more lean, strong muscle not only helps you look fit, but it also helps with things like balance and mobility as you get older.

“Challenge your muscles regularly,” recommends Dr. Guitteau. “Set aside 20 minutes, twice a week for muscle-building workouts, such as weight training or pushups. And try to eat protein throughout the day, which helps build muscle.”

Move more

People tend to be less active as they get older. Aim to sit less and move more.

“Usually, the less active you are, the slower your metabolism will be,” says Dr. Guitteau.

Activity doesn’t have to be intense exercise. You could ride your bike, stand while you make phone calls, or walk around the house or garden. 

Be strategic about your food

As women get older, their bodies often need fewer calories. This doesn’t mean you have to eat less food, but it helps if you change the foods you eat.

“It’s helpful to eat more fruits and vegetables – which are lower in calories,” advises Valerie Edwards, clinical dietitian at Providence. “And to have smaller portions of meat, pasta, bread and starches on your plate. Adding more veggies still gives you the same volume of food but with fewer calories.”

Get more sleep

Not getting enough sleep can have a negative effect on your metabolism. A lack of sleep can also lead to other health issues. It’s important that you find ways to get the rest you need.

Remember that body changes are normal

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for many reasons. But it’s also important to accept that women’s bodies change with age.

There are plenty of lifestyle changes that can make a difference in response to a slower metabolism. But for women, it’s not reasonable to expect that your body will stay the same as it was in your 20s.

Decide for yourself: What weight can I maintain well, with a reasonable amount of effort? Congratulate yourself for every success on the way to that goal – even if it only gets you part of the way there – and make peace with the rest.

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Find a doctor

If you need help managing your changing metabolism, our experts at Providence can help with nutritional counseling. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. You can also access a full range of healthcare services through Providence Express Care Virtual.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Women's Health team is committed to providing useful and actionable insights, tips and advice to ensure women of all types can live their healthiest lives.

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