Many women shirk their exercise routines and stress-eat their way through the hectic holiday season. Now comes new research warning us about the dangers of weight gain and menopause (oh joy).

A large study just published by the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) suggests it’s more important than ever for women in their 40s, with menopause ahead of them, to commit to keeping the pounds off.

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“It’s hard,” Dr. JoAnn V. Pinkerton, executive director of NAMS, told LifeZette. “The truth is that people can gain 12 to 15 pounds during this perimenopausal transition, and most of that goes around the abdomen.”

Pinkerton emphasized the urgent need for women in perimenopause to make changes in what they eat and how often they move. Perimenopause is generally believed to occur five to 10 years before menopause, which hits at about age 52.

The new study, done at Yonsei University in Seoul and Hallym University in Chuncheon, Korea, analyzed four years of data from the Korean Genetic Epidemiologic Survey. It looked at 1,200 healthy women not on hormones, 45 to 55 years old, who were at risk to put on fat around the waist and develop high blood pressure and higher cholesterol. That’s what’s known as metabolic syndrome, a dangerous combination of conditions that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.

Researchers found overall that women going through perimenopause didn’t have a higher chance of getting the entire syndrome, but if they started out overweight, sedentary, undereducated or disadvantaged, they were at higher risk.

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“If you were overweight, it was four times the risk, and if you were obese, it was 12 times the risk,” Pinkerton told LifeZette. “I thought this was really important information for all women.”

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Pinkerton suggests women add activity to their day any way they can. (see box)

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Weight gain is a prominent issue for Lynette Sheppard, 60, a registered nurse and author of the Menopause Goddess Blog.

“What happens is women get demoralized,” Sheppard told LifeZette from her home in Hawaii. “I would say be really gentle with yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong because 15 pounds came and found you.”

Sheppard founded a group of women she calls “goddesses” about 12 years ago that helps her and others deal with challenges like weight gain in menopause.

“Have a group of women that you can meet with, talk with, be with,” she advised. “More than anything else, that will get you through.”

Sheppard said women shouldn’t continue to expect to fit in size 4 clothes or they will make themselves unhappy. Despite gaining weight after years of being very thin, she powered through it by eating healthy and exercising more.

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“I’m probably healthier now than I was in my 30s,” she told LifeZette.

Other postmenopausal women, however, feel especially let down by the medical community, particularly when it comes to helping middle-aged women lose weight.

“To say to somebody, ‘Eat less, be smart about how you eat, and get some exercise’ is a cruel thing to say to them,” Robin Donovan, 60, told LifeZette.

Donovan runs an advertising agency in Omaha, Nebraska, and is the voice behind the blog Menologues.” She says she’s struggled with her weight her entire life, but she is not obese.

“There’s no solution for people like me,” she said. “The medical community needs to come up with a real plan, whatever that may be.”