Are your jeans fitting a little tighter? Have you noticed more flesh hanging over the belt-line?
If so, you may be suffering from what is often called the “middle-age spread.” And no, it’s not all your fault.
There are definite changes that occur at middle age that compel the body to start storing fat around the abdomen. Of course, this isn’t good news. Not only does this development tend to make us unhappy, it can also create a dangerous health situation
“Apple-shaped” women, as those with belly fat are called, are more at risk for heart disease and other illnesses because the fat cells in the abdominal area tend to accumulate around our vital organs—not a positive development. Studies have found that this type of fat is much more likely to promote disease than fat in other areas, like around the hips and thighs.
If you’re starting to experience this very common phenomenon, what can you do about it?
What is the Middle-Age Spread?
The term is used to describe what seems to be the inevitable weight gain that begins around the age of 40. Compare most women’s pictures when they were 20 to when they are 50 and you’ll see an expansion in waist size. According to Dr. Francis Collins, writing in the National Institute of Health’s Director’s blog, the average American “packs on an extra 30 pounds from early adulthood to age 50.”
There’s no doubt that this is a common change, so if you’re going through it, you’re not alone. The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, which has tracked three generations of women, showed that middle-aged women (defined as those 45-50 years of age when first recruited for the study) gained an average of 7.5 pounds over a period of eight years. On top of that, the number of women classified as overweight or obese increased from 4 in 10 to 6 in 10 over the same period.
You may feel like suddenly everything you eat lands around your middle. Why does this happen?
What Causes the Middle-Age Spread?
There are a number of factors involved in creating the middle-age spread. Below are a few of the most common ones.
1. Hormonal changes.
Even if you haven’t gone through menopause yet, you may be in perimenopause, or simply experiencing the inevitable hormonal changes that occur at this age. Dr. C. W. Randolf, American gynecologist and pharmacist, told the Daily Mail that midlife spread is the result of hormonal imbalances.
In women, levels of progesterone start to decline as early as the mid-30s, and will decline even faster as they approach menopause. Of course, during perimenopause and menopause, estrogen levels drop, too.
The connection between hormones and body fat has been shown in many scientific studies. Researchers looked into it when they realized that prior to menopause, women tended to gain weight around the hips and thighs, but after menopause, when female hormones dropped, they gained more weight around the abdomen—like men typically do. That signaled a hormonal connection.
Scientists found this to be true in a 2012 study, in which they reviewed decades of research to determine that menopausal hormonal changes shifted the distribution of body fat to the abdomen. Other changes that occur with menopause include:
- Certain proteins and enzymes associated with fat storage become more active.
- Cells in the body store more fat, and are also more resistant to giving it up, making fat loss more difficult.
Scientific author Sylvia Santosa noted: “Taken together, these changes in bodily processes may be more than a little surprising—and upsetting—for women who previously had little trouble managing their weight.”
Hormonal changes can also cause food cravings and fatigue, which further exacerbate the problem.
2. Metabolism rates.
Metabolism rates naturally slow as we age unless we make a purposeful effort to keep them going. Your metabolism is the rate at which your cells burn energy. When you’re young, the rates are naturally high, which is why you could eat more without having it show up on your belly.
But the rates start to slow beginning around the age of 40. Scientists aren’t sure why this happens. Is it a natural factor of aging, or is it because our lifestyles change? Researchers reported in a 2010 study review that most cases, there seems to be a reduction in resting metabolism rate that “cannot be explained by changes in body composition….”
A slower metabolism means that your body doesn’t burn calories as fast as it used to. So that ice cream cone you eat now is more likely to affect your waistline than it did ten years ago.
3. Muscle loss.
In addition to a slowing metabolic rate, most women tend to lose muscle mass as they age. We are all warned about the natural loss of bone mass that can occur with menopause, but we may be less aware of the simultaneous loss of muscle mass that often occurs.
In a 2013 study, researchers stated that the muscular system accounts for about 40 percent of the total body mass, but that the aging process leads to a decrease in muscle mass and strength. We begin to lose muscle in our 30s, but according to this study, the greatest loss comes between the ages of 40 and 60. Researchers associated this decline with hormonal changes, physical inactivity, and health conditions.
4. Sedentary lifestyle.
You’ve probably noticed that you don’t exercise quite as much as you did in your younger years. We tend to slow down as we age. We also have a lot of responsibilities. Women may take care of their own families while also acting as caregivers for their aging parents. That doesn’t leave much space for regular workouts or jogs.
What’s worse, because of all the changes we’re going through hormonally and otherwise, we actually need more time exercising than we did in our 20s and 30s. According to a 2010 study from Harvard researchers, if a middle-aged or older woman wants to maintain a normal body weight index, she must exercise at least 60 minutes a day (instead of the usual recommended 30).
Scientists have connected chronic stress with weight gain, and middle-aged women are often stressed out. In addition to the aforementioned responsibilities, they may be facing empty nest syndrome or other stressful life events that contribute to the rise in cortisol levels in the blood.
These cortisol levels are actually directly linked with abdominal fat. One study found that women with more abdominal fat had more cortisol circulating in their blood after a stressful session than women who were leaner through the mid-section. Other studies have found similar results, with higher levels of stress associated with higher body mass index and increased odds of being overweight or obese.
Stress has also been associated with less exercise and more fast-food consumption. You know how it goes—you’re rushing from place to place, feeling stressed, and you drop in to grab a quick burger and fries. It’s the stress that’s driving you, and the stress that will deposit that food on your waist.
7 Ways to Avoid the Middle-Aged Spread
Considering all of the above factors, it’s no wonder that many of us lose the battle with the middle-aged spread. You don’t have to accept defeat, however. With a few key lifestyle changes, you can get your body moving in the slimmer direction.
It is possible. According to a 2012 study, postmenopausal women who committed to a healthy diet and regular exercise were more likely to have remained at or below their baseline weight.
1. Pump some iron.
This is one of the most effective and most rewarding new habits you can develop as a middle-aged woman. By lifting some weights twice a week, you can not only fight muscle loss, but you can also help rev up your metabolism. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more you have, the better for your overall figure.
2. Recommit to cardio.
It’s more difficult to stay with cardio exercise as we get older, mainly because of aches, pains, and joint damage. Running is one of the most efficient aerobic exercises you can do, but it can take a toll on your knees and hips.
You need cardio training, though, if you want to trim a few inches off your waist. You can stay with it and protect your joints by getting into some alternative exercises. Try swimming, biking, rebounding, and fast walking to get your heart rate up without killing your knees.
3. Exercise for 60 minutes a day.
Some days you may not have time to lift weights. You may not be able to take that run. But whatever you do, get 60 minutes of movement in.
One of the best ways to do this is to incorporate more movement into your day. Take a 30-minute walk on your lunch hour. Commit to at least 10 minutes walking after work before you drive home. (You can afford 10 minutes on most days.) Get your family involved in a bike ride after dinner. Make movement something you’re always thinking about so you can add up the minutes.
Then, as often as you can, get in that hour-long jog or walk.
4. Ease stress.
The key here is to make stress relief a habit. It’s not enough to realize that you need to reduce stress. You need to do something active to relieve stress. Plan a tennis game with your girlfriends at least once a week. Go get a massage. Take the dog for a walk. Sign up for a yoga or tai chi class. Meditate for 10 minutes each morning. Try art therapy.
The choices are endless. Pick the ones that work for you and do at least one of them every day.
5. Get enough sleep.
Scientists have connected sleep deprivation with weight gain. When you don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours a night, your hormones change, compelling you to eat more carbohydrates, which are quickly converted to fat.
If you’re having trouble sleeping because of hormonal changes or other issues, talk to your doctor about your options. Sleeping pills are not a good idea health wise, but there are natural options you can use like melatonin supplements or lemon balm tea (which relaxes the muscles and helps you sleep).
Be sure to keep all technological gadgets out of the bedroom, keep it cool and dark, and do something relaxing before bed, like taking a warm bath or reading a good book.
6. Ditch the unhealthy foods.
Potato chips. French fries. Soda. Processed meat. These and other similar food items were connected to middle-aged weight gain in a recent study.
Researchers looked at the lifestyle habits of about 120,000 adults ranging in age from about 300 to 60. They were all of normal weight at the start of the study. Those with a taste for unhealthy foods, however, gained weight faster than their counterparts who ate more healthy foods.
Eating one serving of potato chips a day was associated with gaining an extra 1.7 pounds every four years, for example. Each daily serving of soda or processed meat was associated with one extra pound.
On the other hand, some foods actually helped fight weight gain! For each daily serving of yogurt, participants gained about 0.8 fewer pounds than expected. For each daily serving of fruits and nuts, they gained about half a pound less.
These pounds add up. Try swapping out your unhealthy choices for healthier ones. Choose iced tea, iced water, or sparkling water instead of soda. Enjoy a salad or whole-wheat crackers instead of potato chips. Add more yogurt, fruit, and nuts to your meals. And just avoid the fries altogether!
7. Eat more fiber.
It’s time to focus on whole grains, beans, vegetables, and seeds. These foods are rich in fiber, which helps fight weight gain.
According to a study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, eating 30 grams of fiber each day can help you not only lose weight, but lower blood pressure and improve blood sugar response. In the study, one group of participants followed a more complicated American Heart Association diet that included eating more fruits and veggies and high-fiber foods while also cutting back on salt, sugar, and alcohol. The other group simply focused on eating more fiber—that was it.
Results showed that both groups lost weight and experienced the other health benefits mentioned. Those following the more complicated diet lost a little more—5.9 pounds compared to 4.6 pounds—but the difference was minor. Both groups also maintained their weight loss for a follow-up period of 12 months.
An overall healthy diet is best, but you can lose weight or prevent gain with this one simple step: eat more fiber.