In the third part of our midlife series, we put your health questions to the experts. Do you have a health question? Click here to ask our panel.
‘I’ve lost my “snap back”’
I’m a 49-year-old woman and I know that metabolism slows with age. But what I’ve noticed is that I’ve lost my “snap back”. If I gained weight in the past or needed to lose a few pounds for a wedding, I would eat well for a week and my stomach would flatten and the pounds would drop off. That just doesn’t happen anymore.
When we reach midlife, things start to change and, unfortunately, it becomes a lot harder to lose weight. Our hormones become depleted. We lose muscle mass. Our metabolism slows and we need fewer calories. Joints and bones ache. Unwanted bulges appear.
The scary part is, the heavier we become, the less likely we are to want to move – and so begins the vicious circle of weight gain, less exercise, more weight gain, even less exercise.
So far, so depressing. But while the natural loss of muscle mass can make it more challenging to manage our weight (muscle uses more calories than fat), it doesn’t mean that achieving weight loss is impossible as we reach our late 40s and beyond, says weight-loss expert Louise Parker.
“Going about it sustainably and safely will bring about the most benefit for overall health and wellbeing, whatever age we are. It is important to focus on realistic changes that you can integrate into your routines,” she says.
“Alongside being mindful about portion sizes and eating habits, the type of physical activity we engage in is important also.”
Parker suggests resistance activities, such as using weights, “are especially important to both preserve and build muscle mass”, and you should aim to incorporate two days of resistance training, in which some force is exerted upon your muscle – whether that be through free-weights, equipment, resistance bands or your own body weight – every week.
“The evidence shows that fast walking for thirty minutes each day could reduce the risk of heart disease and lead to approximately 7kg (15lb) weight loss in 12 months,” she adds.
“Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week (such as 30 mins, five days per week) to maximise your day to day movement. Weight loss may be more gradual once we reach our late forties. The key is to focus on the small, daily shifts to your habits to bring you closer to your goal instead of a ‘quick-fix. It’s all about consistency over severity.”
Dr Sabine Donnai, founder and chief executive of Viavi, agrees that the focus of your exercise routine should change from mainly cardiovascular exercise to weight training to ensure to keep and even grow your overall muscle mass. “The key to maintaining weight as we age is maintaining and increasing your muscle mass,” she says. “Most women shy away from weight training and body fat gain is the inevitable result.”
‘I can’t shift the last few pounds’
I’ve managed to get my weight down to 12stone 5lbs from 14stone with exercise and diet. I’m 5’7” and I would say I have medium to large bone structure. I am aiming to get down to around 11stone 6lb, which is a healthy weight for my height, but I’m struggling to lose the last half stone. What would you suggest?
First of all, if you’ve tried to lose weight after the age of 40 but given up after seeing very little reward, you’re not alone. Midlife weight loss can feel like mission impossible, so do take a moment to acknowledge what you have accomplished so far.
“The measurements you have provided show that you have lost over 10 per cent of your original body weight, which is a clinically significant amount of weight loss,” says Parker.
“Reflect on the changes you have made to your nutrition, physical activity and overall lifestyle. With regards to losing the last half a stone, it is important to bear in mind that there is a complex interaction of physiological, psychological and environmental factors influencing our weight (many of which are not within our volitional control).
“As your overall body mass reduces so does its requirements for energy (this is a process called adaptive thermogenesis). The rate of weight loss that occurred with one approach may naturally appear to slow down or stabilise after some time.”
The body is pretty clever and there are biological mechanisms in place that act to counter weight loss – “as losing weight wouldn’t serve us well from a survival and evolutionary perspective,” she explains. For example, as we lose weight, the body detects there are fewer fat stores and so more leptin is produced – which is our hunger hormone.
“There are also signals from the brain to the muscles to conserve energy, which is why we become more efficient at using energy over time, thus burning fewer calories,” says Parker.
So what’s the solution? “Being mindful of food portions and remaining active in general can help to create a negative energy balance, encouraging weight loss,” she says.
There is, of course, only so much that we can reduce our calorie intake by.
“Are you monitoring your body fat and muscle mass in addition to weight? Sometimes our body composition is changing even if the scales are not. Muscle weighs more than fat and therefore if you have experienced an increase in muscle, this may also influence your overall weight,” she adds.
“If the scales aren’t going down, but your clothes feel looser and you feel stronger in your body, this may be an indicator that the scales may not be giving a full reflection of what is taking place behind the scenes.
“Make a list of all the ways in which you have progressed each week, before stepping on the scales, to remind yourself of just how far you have come. Progress can be measured in so many other ways besides weight.”
Dr Donnai suggests also looking at your thyroid hormone levels, stress, sleep and type of exercise you are focusing on. “It is important to remember that we need to eat fats to burn fat and often we focus too much on calorie counting rather than eating what stimulates our metabolism,” she says.
“Weight training is the most effective exercise to burn body fat but perhaps even more important is how we manage stress and sleep. Very often this is the missing link and the ‘forgotten’ driver of weight gain that is not looked into. Cortisol, our stress hormone, stimulates abdominal fat storage and so does ineffective sleep.
“If there are unmanaged stressors in your life or stimulants after midday – such as caffeine, sugar loads and alcohol – your sleep quality will be affected, you will not go into good energy recovery mode during the night with the resulting increase of Cortisol and its consequences on weight. Ensuring a peaceful quality night sleep and practising mindfulness meditation or yoga are crucial elements to a successful healthy weight programme, as are of course the correct exercise routine and balanced eating habits.”
‘Can you get a flat stomach in midlife?’
I’ve always been fairly slim and I eat well. But from my early 50s onward I’ve gained a lot of weight around my stomach. If I do lose weight it comes off my face – which makes me look older – or my legs. My stomach seems to be the one area taking its time to reduce.
As we progress through midlife, you may notice that – despite best efforts – weight begins to accumulate around your middle. The changes we undergo in midlife directly impact our waistline – it’s not just overindulgence or a lack of dieting motivation.
There are various reasons why women often put on weight during their perimenopause and menopause. Scientifically speaking, low oestrogen levels lead to metabolic changes in our bodies. They also lead to sugar cravings and increased hunger, so we comfort eat to try and improve how we feel. In short, hormonal changes can lead to a redistribution of fat around our waists.
“Women generally store more subcutaneous (soft) fat in the abdominal and thigh area whilst men store more visceral (hard) fat in the abdominal area,” says Dr Donnai. “This starts happening when they hit puberty and remains the same till they reach 40. After this age, hormonal changes take place in both men and women.
“Women go through perimenopause and menopause and the fat storage tendencies shift. They gain more hard abdominal fat due to lower testosterone and oestrogen levels and men gain more soft fat. Maintaining healthy hormone levels will not only contribute to increased energy levels but easier control of weight gain.”
Matt Tanner, senior performance specialist at Bodyism, suggests that if you’re already eating well, to target belly fat, you need to ensure that you’re getting adequate sleep, keeping your stress levels low, and sticking to a regular exercise regime.
“Full body, compound exercises are always a good place to start for burning body fat, such as squats, lunges, rows and press-ups, but find something you enjoy and you can do regularly,” he says. “High Intensity exercise is often said to be the most beneficial for fat loss but can often put excessive stress on the body, so implementing lower impact options such as yoga, Pilates and walking will help put minimal stress on the body, but lead to more sustainable and consistent results, as well as reducing your risk of injury.”