Weight gain after 40
“What can I do? Ever since I turned 40 the weight has been creeping on around my middle.” A couple of weeks ago another mum (who knows what I do) stopped me in the playground and asked me if had any advice about what she could do to avoid weight gain in the belly area. She explained that she was not eating any differently than she was before and that she was quite active and did a few sessions of exercise a week. It was like the weight had just slowly snuck on and was now she was finding it very difficult to budge, which had never been a problem in the past.
This is a common story. Weight gain around the age of 40 for women (and men) is something that happens to a great many of us, including people who have never had to worry about their weight before. What are the reasons for this seemingly unexplained weight gain?
- Hormonal changes. For women this can start in the mid 30s. Our estrogen levels decline and this can mean that those areas of our body which were nice and plumped up become smaller and fat tends to be stored more and more around our middle.
- Lower metabolic rate and less energy expenditure. As you get older your basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy you expend at rest) and the amount of energy you expend when you exercise decreases. This means that even though you do the same amount of exercise you did previously, you are not using up as much energy. This will be exacerbated if we actually find ourselves moving less, due to the demands of kids or work.
- Loss of muscle. A natural part of aging is loss of lean muscle. We lose between 3% to 5% of our muscle mass each decade after we turn 30. If we have less muscle we use less energy which can result in weight gain.
All of these factors can lead to weight gain if we continue to eat as we always have using less energy with less muscle. As a woman over 40 you can expect to gain about 1 kg a year if you continue to just do whatever you have always done, without making any changes. This might not seem like very much but after 10 years that is a 10 kg weight gain, which places our joints under a lot of additional strain and also increases the risks of heart disease, cancer and many conditions associated with being overweight.
All this might seem very depressing. Thankfully it is possible to tackle this weight gain by stealth – there are 3 things you can do if you are not prepared to accept the weight creeping on year after year.
- Sort out the hormonal issues if there are any. It’s worth talking to your gp or naturopath, having a blood test and working out if you have an imbalance which can be addressed. You might decide to go down the HRT path or you might not, either way – it’s good to be aware of what is happening or not happening and to know all of your options.
- Start to pay more attention to WHAT you eat and how much. From a nutrition standpoint what you need to be aware of as you move into your 40s and 50s and beyond is making sure you increase your protein intake. This can help you to maintain and build muscle mass. The timing of your protein intake is also important – you will build more muscle if you spread out the protein throughout the day. Try to eat 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal. As we get older it is even more important to remember that not all calories are equal. What you eat and drink can have a big impact on the way you feel soon afterwards, the next day and also on your health in the longer term. You will find that more than ever you have to be consistent – eating well most of the time.
- Finally, make sure your training routine includes some strenuous exercise (HIIT) at least twice a week and some resistance training (weights or body weight) twice a week. Slow laps in the pool and long peaceful walks are not going to be as effective in building muscle which is what you need to be focused on if you want your body composition to be showing increased lean muscle and reduced fat. Weight training will also help you to preserve bone density and avoid osteoporosis in your later years. You don’t want to be that old lady who has a little fall which results in a broken leg. Forget what you hear about old people needing to do “gentle exercise”. Save this for when you are 90. You actually need to be hiking rather then walking, jumping and skipping rather than gardening (unless we are talking about hard physical labour in the garden) and doing push ups and squats rather than slow freestyle and breastroke. If you don’t use it you lose it.
None of these things are easy at first. Your goal should be to make good nutrition and training so much part of your life that is not a huge deal. It is just something you do. You have many years of good health ahead of you – you want to avoid weight gain to be in the best shape you can be to enjoy them.