I was doing a nutrition consultation with a woman who was so excited because she finally got her husband on board with heathy eating and exercise. She loved exercising with him and cooking dinner was less of a chore now that they were eating most of the same foods. She also said their marriage felt stronger than ever (no pun intended) as they challenged and supported each other through fitness. She only had one complaint. Her husband was making noticeable progress and although she felt better, her overall progress was much less visible. She was losing inches to his pounds and most of the weight she lost was from her bust while his stomach was noticeably slimmer and his jeans were baggy. She was frustrated and couldn’t help comparing their progress.
Have you heard a similar story from your female clients? We all know that diet and exercise are only part of the fitness and fat loss equation. For women, the underlying cause of many of their struggles may be linked to hormone imbalances. What should fitness professionals know about female hormones and how they impact a woman’s fat loss and overall fitness? How can we help women optimize their hormones for health and fitness?
According to Sara Gottfried, M.D., it’s important to note that blood work is the most effective way to assess hormones and detect any imbalances (Meyers, 2016). However, there are common symptoms of hormone imbalance that your female clients may report experiencing. Symptoms include frequent headaches, mood swings, trouble losing weight with diet and exercise, depression, insomnia, cold extremities, bloating and fluid retention, and heavy or irregular menstruation.
The Female Hormones
The following list is a brief summary of the female hormones and the key roles they play in health and fitness.
Estrogen is required for sexual reproduction and often referred to as the “female sex hormone.” It is responsible for fat storage in the hips, thighs and breasts and creating the “hourglass” shape of a woman’s body. Estrogen, alongside progesterone, interacts with other hormones like cortisol and insulin to impact fat loss.
Progesterone’s main roles are preparing the body for conception, maintaining pregnancy, helping the thyroid perform efficiently and regulating the monthly cycle. Produced in the ovaries, placenta and the adrenal glands, progesterone opposes the action of cortisol and works with estrogen to halt the storage of fat. Progesterone starts to decline in the mid-thirties and causes a slower metabolism and increased appetite. Needless to say, this can lead to fat gain that is hard to lose.
DHEA is produced in the adrenal glands and in the brain. It’s a precursor to male and female sex hormones that helps block the storage of fat. A low-calorie diet paired with intense exercise does nothing to restore DHEA and can hinder fat loss long term.
Testosterone (Is Not Just for Men)
Women produce testosterone in a lesser amount, but benefit from it for building muscle, increasing bone density and decreasing fat in the hips, thighs and stomach.
Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands and known as the “stress hormone” because it increases with stress. Cortisol increases fat, suppresses the immune system and increases blood sugar levels. High stress often leads to overeating, less motivation to exercise, muscle protein breakdown and depression.
Thyroid hormones are secreted by the thyroid gland and have multiple functions. They help in the body break down fat (direct role in metabolism), lower cholesterol levels, maintain a healthy weight and energy levels. Lower levels are associated with a decreased metabolic rate and fat gain.
Training Tips to Optimize Female Hormones
Jade Teta of Metabolic Effect lists sleep, adequate protein intake and intense exercise as the 3 key factors influencing female hormone optimization (Teta, 2012).
- Sleep – Prolonged sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain, but getting at least 7 hours of restful sleep every night can reduce body mass index and overall fat mass. Our female clients may be dealing with work stress, issues of self-image and self-esteem, and general anxiety about their workouts, especially in a large gym. Also, using exercise to relieve stress when they’re already stressed can increase cortisol and actually be counterproductive to their goals (Teta, 2012). Start the conversation about self-care and stress reduction strategies early in your training relationship.
- Nutrition – The smallest tweaks to a woman’s nutrition can result in some big changes in how she feels, looks and how her body responds to her workouts. Discuss protein intake and foods to avoid that mimic estrogen for a healthy and balanced diet. Some good protein choices for women include plant-based options like pea and hemp protein, lentils and beans or vegetarian-fed animal proteins and wild-caught fish. These proteins help promote growth hormone and provide amino acids for muscle development. Soy, many canned foods, non-organic meats, soda and drinking from plastic bottles may mimic estrogen in the body and can potentially lead to more fat storage (Teta, 2012). You can start by suggesting that women eat 25 grams of protein with each of their major meals and make adjustments based on changes to how they feel, their body composition and weight over time.
- Weight training – Exercises like yoga and walking are healthy and build strength, but weight training is also a great way to naturally increase human growth hormone, which is to women what testosterone is to men. Teach and assist your female clients with exercises that target the greatest amount of muscle mass - deadlifts, squats, power cleans and presses. Incorporate hybrid or compound movements that recruit more muscles simultaneously and focus on shorter bouts of intense cardio versus steady state; however, this will be dependent on the client’s physical capabilities. Remember that delicate balance of intense exercise and adequate rest so as not to increase cortisol levels. Moderate exercises such as swimming, yoga, walking help balance the overall program.
Balanced hormones are neither too high or too low when most women report feeling and looking their best. Women have a unique set of hormones that work behind the scenes to impact their fitness, health and wellbeing. While most women think more exercise, more dieting and more cardio is the solution to fat loss, fitness professionals are responsible for educating them on their hormones and the influence they have on long term fitness success. Although blood testing is needed to accurately assess female hormone levels, being knowledgeable about the basics of these hormones puts you in a position to help your clients achieve sustainable, healthy results.
Myers, C. (2016). Could hormones be clocking your female clients’ success? Retrieved from: https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/prosource/january-2016/5764/could-hormones-be-blocking-your-female-clients-success
Teta, J. (2012). Female hormones and weight loss. Retrieved from: https://www.metaboliceffect.com/emale-effect-hormones-determine-female-fat-patterns/
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