How to beat the bulge after 40
Controlling your weight is often a bit of a battle as you head towards middle age, but there’s good news – it is manageable.
As you age, your body undergoes several hormonal, metabolic, and physical changes that make weight loss difficult. Three industry professionals share knowledge and advice to help you on your weight-loss journey. ‘Weight loss becomes a tricky business as you grow older,’ says general practitioner, Dr Shaun Coppin. ‘Everyone has different genes and different lifestyles. The best method for weight loss is a combination approach focusing on diet, exercise,
managing the hormonal effects of ageing, and managing your stress levels.’
‘Oestrogen is responsible for fat deposition around your hips and thighs, creating the typical “pear-shaped” body during your reproductive years,’ says Dr Coppin. ‘Progesterone is responsible for maintaining a pregnancy, and balances some of oestrogen’s effects, particularly excessive weight gain,’ he adds. As you age, lowered oestrogen levels switch the storage of fat from your hips and thighs to your abdomen, forming belly fat. He explains that cortisol, the stress hormone, regulates your body’s energy stores, selecting the right type and amount of carbohydrate, fat, or protein needed. ‘Although ageing doesn’t significantly impact cortisol levels, lower oestrogen levels have been found to increase cortisol levels, leading to weight gain,’ he explains.
Dr Coppin suggests checking your hormone levels twice a year, especially around menopause. ‘Hormone replacement therapy, while not for everyone and not without risks, can impact your weight significantly,’ he says. To manage cortisol levels, Dr Coppin suggests good sleep patterns, about seven hours of sleep each night, and eating nuts and seeds like pistachios, cashews, and sunflower seeds to help build muscle and regulate the nervous system. ‘The value of physical activity cannot be overstated,’ he says. ‘Exercise improves your mood with endorphins, regulates calorie consumption, and can improve strength and muscle mass.’
Tip: An ageing thyroid gland can result in a decline in the levels of thyroid hormone produced, which can also affect your weight. Dr Coppin suggests having your thyroid checked at least once a year.
Metabolism and muscle mass
Registered dietician, Petri Fourie, explains that your metabolism is the entire process of converting kilojoules (calories) into energy to fuel your bodily processes. ‘Your metabolism not only determines how you burn kilojoules, but also how your body stores energy,’ she says. According to Petri, three major factors affect your metabolism:
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR) represents the kilojoules your body needs to support vital functions and keep you alive. BMR depends on your gender, age, body size and composition, genetics, hormones, and general health. It accounts for 60-70% of your total daily energy consumption.
- Activity level affects the calories needed to move, and represents 20% of your daily kilojoule consumption.
- Food thermogenesis represents the energy needed to digest food, and accounts for 10% of your daily kilojoule consumption.
‘The most drastic change to your metabolism as you age is the decrease in your BMR as you lose bone and muscle mass, and gain body fat,’ she says. ‘The loss of muscle mass as you age is called sarcopenia. The issue isn’t the
amount of weight you gain, but the type of weight you gain as you age. Lean muscle mass makes up about 50% of your body composition in young adulthood, but declines to about 25% when you’re between 75 and 80.’ Lean muscle mass is metabolically more active than fat mass, and an increase in fat mass decreases BMR, causing your body to
burn less energy and store more fat.
Petri’s golden rules
- Treat your health as a long-term investment.
- Don’t exclude foods for fear of weight gain; this isn’t sustainable.
- Portion control is key.
- Eat good-quality proteins, high-fibre carbs in moderation, healthy fats, and fruit and veggies.
- Keep active.
Eat and enjoy
- High-quality, portion-controlled proteins like lean meat, fish, and poultry, which:
- supply your body with the amino acids essential for preserving lean muscle mass;
- boost your metabolism; and
- help you feel full for longer.
- High-fibre, unrefined carbohydrates like sweet potato and wholewheat products
- Mono-unsaturated fatty acids found in avocado, nuts, seeds, and nutritional oils
- Fresh fruits and green vegetables
- Refined sugars, which:
- can lead to insulin resistance; and
- increase fat storage.
- Saturated fats
- Refined carbohydrates
- Excess starchy vegetables
- Fad diets that cut out certain food groups altogether. Due to excessive restriction on energy intake, your body’s forced to use lean muscle mass for energy.
The right moves
‘From your 30s to 50s it’s important to keep up regular physical exercise,’ says biokineticist, Michael Rhodes. ‘As you age and sarcopenia begins, your bone density and muscle mass become more important weight-loss factors. Often, cardiovascular exercise, while still important in a training routine, isn’t enough.’ Michael believes a combination of exercises including flexibility, strength or weight training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and cardio in your training routine is key. ‘Decide what you’d like to achieve: weight loss, fat loss, muscle gain, or increased mobility and flexibility. Then work with a biokineticist who will assess your flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular output, and help you achieve your goal with a personalised training routine,’ he says.
Weight loss versus fat loss
‘Your fat-to-muscle ratio is most important,’ says Michael. ‘Fat loss is what you want to achieve, not necessarily weight loss as a whole. For accurate results, measure your fat percentage before starting a weight-loss and exercise routine so fat percentage loss and weight loss can be compared.’ It’s important to note that weight loss may not occur due to increased muscle mass from training, even if fat loss has occurred. ‘Don’t let the scale become your enemy and make you think your training’s been a waste,’ says Michael. ‘Cardio will help with fat metabolism, but it’s more beneficial to combine it with strength training to build lean muscle mass and achieve a healthy fat-to-muscle ratio.’
‘This requires minimal equipment; all you need is the open road and a pair of trainers, or a bicycle,’ says Michael. ‘It’s also relatively safe to perform and doesn’t require much effort in terms of technique. As you age, joint pain might make certain exercises painful or difficult, so cycling and swimming, both non-weight bearing forms of cardio, are great options. While jogging or running place stressors on ankle, knee, hip, and back joints, when following a safe progression programme, those stressors can actually lead to improved bone density and muscle mass.’
Examples: Jogging or cycling outside for extra vitamin D.
Strength and weight training
‘This doesn’t necessarily require dumbbells and gym memberships,’ says Michael. ‘You can use resistance bands and body weight exercises in the comfort of your home.’ Weight training uses your muscular contractions to counter the forces of gravity, or the resistance provided by an elastic resistance band. He suggests having a biokineticist show you how to do the exercises safely on your own to achieve the best results.
Examples: Focus on large muscle groups or multiple muscle groups with squats, lunges, deadlifts, lateral pulldowns, push-ups, and bench presses.
This involves short bursts of high intensity (often strength) exercises that work multiple large muscle groups, followed
by brief rest periods, not allowing full recovery between sets, repeated for up to 30 minutes. ‘HIIT requires self-motivation and depends on your fitness level,’ he says. ‘It can be beneficial for glucose metabolism and overall fat mass reduction, and depending on your chosen exercises, can increase muscle mass while decreasing fat mass.’
Examples: Burpees, thrusters, clean and press, step-ups with press.
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