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What causes the middle age spread?

As we grow older we tend to gain weight, usually around the middle.  Whatever you call it - belly fat, spare tyre or muffin top, it's a frustration for thousands of women as they enter middle age. But losing your waist isn't inevitable and there is plenty you can do to prevent or reverse it.

But let's start by taking a step back to understand why the middle age spread is so common. I'm a strong believer that if you understand the "why", you're in a much better position to figure out the "how", meaning when you know what causes middle age spread, you know what needs to be done in order to address it.

Weight gain is a combination of lifestyle, physical changes and genetics.  Some people are blessed with genes that make it less likely they will gain much weight.  However, even these fortunate individuals can succumb to belly fat if they eat more calories than they burn.

Lifestyle Changes

We're less active

As we get older most of us move less. The sedentary nature of modern life means that many of us do nothing more energetic than walk from the house to the car, car to shops/office and then up the stairs to bed.

Stress

Our lives seem to be becoming increasingly more stressful. As we reach middle age many of us are caring for teenage children and older parents while holding down busy jobs, managing the household etc. Stress has a huge impact on your body, especially when it comes to storing fat around the middle.  This article explains in more details why stress makes you store fat around the middle:  ​Why stress makes you  store fat around the middle.

Physical Changes

We lose muscle

We naturally start to lose muscle as we get older.  After the age of 40, women can lose approximately 225g (8oz) of muscle per year.  Add that up over ten years between the ages of 40 and 50, and most women will have lost 2.25kg (5lb) of muscle.

And because muscle is metabolically active, when we lose muscle mass we burn less calories. 

Our metabolism slows down

As we get older, lose muscle mass and move less, our metabolism slows down.  Yet most of us still eat the same amount, or possibly even more, than we did 20 years ago.  At age 48 I need 158 calories less than I did 20 years ago just to maintain my weight.

Menopause

Peri-menopause (the years leading up to menopause) and menopause is a time when we experience some big hormonal shifts.  The biggest change is your ovaries produce less oestrogen and progesterone and whilst these two hormones don't have a big direct effect on your weight, their indirect impact is significant:

  • Oestrogen helps your body more resistant to the effects of cortisol (a stress hormone). If you read the article I've linked to above, you'll understand how important it is to manage the stress in your life, especially if you're over 40.
  • Oestrogen helps keep your body more sensitive to insulin - insulin resistance is when your body is ineffective at moving blood sugar into the cells.  It is linked to belly fat, diabetes, high blood pressure and other serious illnesses.
  • Oestrogen helps protect your bones from osteoporosis.  As your ovaries produce less and less oestrogen, your body  tries to compensate by producing it elsewhere - in your fat cells. And your body wants to protect this source of oestrogen which means it will be disinclined to let go of that fat!

So now we understand the why, let's talk about the how.

A healthy diet

Take a careful look at your diet and see if you can make some small changes to improve it. Can you add more vegetables?  Are you eating good quality protein with most meals?  Could you reduce the amount of sugar/alcohol/caffeine you consume? 

My 7-Day Kickstart plan is the perfect place to start - it's completely free, click on this link to sign up.

Build muscle

Not only is this important to help protect our bones from osteoporosis, but when you have more muscle mass you'll use more energy (calories) throughout the day, even when resting.

  • There are some great workouts on YouTube.  One of my favourite channels is Fitness Blender.  They have a great selection of resistance workouts.
  • Book a session with a Personal Trainer.  If you're new to resistance training I highly recommend you have a 1-2-1 session with a trainer who can write a programme specifically for your needs and make sure you are performing the exercises correctly and safely.
  • Try a resistance based class such as Body Pump at your local gym.

Increase your NEAT

NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis - it's the movement you do aside from exercise.  All that extra movement really adds up so walk or cycle to the local shops, take the stairs rather than the lift or escalator, park further away from the office/supermarket, get off the bus one stop further away from your destination.

Manage your stress

We all have stress in our lives, it's how you manage it that's important.  Maybe you can reduce your stress levels by saying no more often or delegating some of your 'to do' list, but start to put yourself first.  There are lots of things you can do, for example:

  • Meditate (try the free Insight Timer App)
  • Yoga
  • Go for a walk - increase your NEAT and reduce stress at the same time!
  • Take a nap
  • Have a massage

Whilst the aging process certainly makes staying slim more challenging, there is a lot we can do to stay healthy and prevent or get rid of the middle age spread.