Fight Fat Over 40
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Fight Fat Over 40

Forget everything you thought you knew about dieting and embrace these specific over-40 nutrition and exercise strategies.

The Post-40 Fat War

I thought I looked great at a recent gathering, dressed in a colorful skirt, fitted red sequined top, and black patent-leather pumps. Then I saw myself in a home video. There I was, gobbling up an empanada, oblivious to the thick roll of fat bulging around my middle. I gasped but should not have been surprised. My jeans had been getting tighter. But until that defining moment, when ever I looked in the mirror I saw the svelte woman I'd always been. I faced my fat facts: I was 53 years old and 10 pounds heavier than I'd ever been -- a lot if you're 5 foot 1 and small-boned. If I kept on this way, soon I'd be in trouble.

So I got serious. I signed up for a three-week Fat Fighters course at my gym, three days a week puffing my way through one spinning and two cardio-sculpting classes, which integrate weight lifting with strength exercises such as squats with overhead presses. I didn't count calories, but I switched to a lower-fat diet -- more fruits, vegetables, and salads, less Chinese takeout and fewer late-night freezer raids. By the end of my program I'd lost an inch and a half from my hips and a half inch around my waist. I took the course twice more, then started my own regimen, alternating strength training with running or spinning. A year later I'd lost all 10 pounds. Doing spinning and weights in classes and on my own has made me firmer and fitter than I was in my 30s.

If you're over 40, chances are you've had your own fat face-off, whether it was buying a bathing suit for the first time in three years or seeing a number on the scale you swore you'd never reach. Maybe you found that the pounds don't peel off as easily as they used to or come back faster. But before you resign yourself to life in the fat lane, I'm here to tell you that it's possible to drop that midlife fat and keep it off. You can even rediscover your abs. You don't have to go to extremes but you will have to change your diet, commit to regular physical activity, and keep pushing. Not the sugarcoated no-pain plan you were hoping for? Welcome to Planet Reality.

"There's no quick fix," says Harvey Simon, MD, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "But there is a slow fix. Losing weight and getting fit is not a sprint. It's a marathon." The marathon is winnable. You can outsmart your post-40 physiology. Before starting any exercise plan or serious diet shift, though, be sure to consult your doctor.

Muscle Builder Exercises

Muscle Builder #1: Ease into It

Start with 2- to 3-pound dumbbells and work on the following muscles: your chest, arms, shoulders, upper and lower back, butt, and thighs. For example, do biceps curls, triceps kickbacks, overhead presses, squats, push-ups, bent-over flyes, and stiff-legged dead lifts. Contract each muscle as hard as you can and make smooth, controlled movements. Do two sets of eight to 12 repetitions each for 20 minutes, three days a week. Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets. After six weeks you should notice more muscle tone. Perform three sets of eight to 12 reps each, then try increasing to 5-pound weights. Those new to weight training may want to consult a trainer at a local gym or Y, take a class, or get a CD or book on weights for women.

Muscle Builder #2: Full Body Press

Once you've mastered Muscle Builder #1, focus on your upper body two days a week and your lower body two alternating days. Upper-body exercises include shoulder presses, upright rows, overhead triceps extensions, dumbbell lateral raises, bent-over rows, and dumbbell one-arm rows. Lower body: leg extensions, dumbbell lunges, squats, and standing calf raises.

Muscle Builder #3: Building Up

As you get stronger, you need to train harder to progress. Try "supersets" -- pairing exercises that use opposing muscle groups, such as chest and back or thighs and hamstrings: a set of dumbbell squats followed by a set of dumbbell lunges, then a 60-second break; repeat twice. Other combos: two-arm rows and pushups; dumbbell biceps curls with triceps kickbacks; dumbbell shoulder presses and standing calf raises.


Learn to Love Muscle

A major reason for having trouble losing weight after 40 is that we begin to lose muscle tissue. "By age 50, people have lost an average 10 percent of muscle mass," says Chhanda Dutta, PhD, chief of the clinical gerontology branch at the National Institute on Aging. "By age 70 they've lost 40 percent." At the same time, "the cells that were once destined to become muscle and bone, for some reason that researchers have yet to determine, become fat cells," she says. Worse yet, the size of those fat cells increases -- a double whammy. Muscle burns more calories than fat does -- so having less muscle means your metabolism slows down and then your body needs fewer calories to sustain itself.

Weight training can preserve the lean tissue you have and build more: three to five pounds in about three months from thrice-weekly strength-training workouts. Plus, "after a weight workout, your metabolism is revved for 12 to 24 hours," says Hugo Rivera, a certified fitness trainer in Brandon, Florida, and coauthor of The Body Sculpting Bible for Women. That's because taxed muscles use calories to recover and carbohydrates to replenish their sugar stores, which forces your body to burn fat. Since muscle tissue weighs more than fat tissue, strength training may not drop pounds as effectively as diet or other types of exercise. But you'll look sleeker and your clothes will fit better. Don't worry about looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Women produce much less testosterone than men, so it's hard to build really large muscles. You'll get a lean, defined body instead.

The best way to increase your metabolism may be by combining strength training (to increase your basal metabolic rate) with aerobic exercise, which burns more calories through activity.

Fat Facts You Have to Face

Adults have two types of fat -- subcutaneous, the soft stuff just beneath the skin, and visceral, which settles around abdominal organs. And fatty tissue is not simply a storage bin for excess calories. It produces hormones that influence hunger and other metabolic processes.

Over-40 physical changes may affect both types of fat. You may need different strategies to reduce each. Visceral fat produces chemicals that increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes by upping insulin resistance. "The loss of sex hormones during menopause can cause visceral fat to be deposited around our abdomens as opposed to our hips and thighs," says Wendy Kohrt, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver. Subcutaneous fat makes us plumper all over and less sensitive to leptin, a hormone that shuts off hunger and contributes to heart disease, though less so than visceral fat. Research shows that removing abdominal fat by liposuction, which eliminates subcutaneous but not visceral fat, doesn't lower heart risk. Aerobic exercise -- getting your heart rate high enough to break a sweat -- can reduce both fat types. Weights further help tighten flab.

Fat Fighters

Fat Fighter #1: Walking Works

"A lot of people don't think of walking as 'real exercise,'" says Harvard Medical School's Dr. Harvey Simon. Not so. A study of 173 sedentary overweight women between ages 50 and 75 found that those who did moderate exercise (the majority chose walking) on their own or on a treadmill for 176 minutes per week lost both visceral and subcutaneous abdominal fat. The longer they exercised, the more fat they lost. Don't walk and you gain visceral fat fast: an 8.6 percent increase in as little as six months, according to a separate 2005 study that surprised researchers. "Overweight adults who remain sedentary have a surprisingly fast metabolic deterioration," says study author Cris Slentz, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Duke university Medical Center.

Fat Fighter #2: Start Small

Even short bouts of exercise help your health. "All forms of physical activity fall on a spectrum in terms of benefit," says Harvard's Dr. Simon. And those benefits add up. His book, The No Sweat Exercise Plan, assigns so-called cardiometabolic points to various types of physical activity, from gardening to yoga, and recommends that people aim for 150 points a day, choosing activities that fit their lifestyle and interests. Twenty minutes of fairly rigorous yard work, for instance, scores as many fitness points as climbing stairs for 10 minutes. You get other health benefits as well. The Insulin Resistance Atherosclerosis Study of 1,467 African-American, Caucasian, and Hispanic adults ages 40 to 69 found that those who did nonvigorous activities regularly (such as golf, bowling, hunting, and housecleaning) had improved insulin resistance.

Fat Fighter #3: Intensity Counts

If you exercise hard you burn a lot more calories, say experts. And you may lose weight faster. A 154-pound woman who jogs at 5.5 mph, or bikes at 10 mph, for 30 minutes will burn 295 calories. To burn the same calories walking (at 3.5 mph) takes an hour. And vigorous workouts keep your metabolism revved for 24 or more hours after you stop. You'll find high-intensity classes at gyms across the country: At Chicago's Crunch Fitness gyms, try Tread 'n' Shed, a cardio class taught on a treadmill, interspersing sprints and slow walks. In New York City, the Sports Club/LA's cardiosculpting classes combine weights with aerobic conditioning. In the gym's three-week fat fighters class, women lose an average of two inches in the waist and six to eight pounds of body fat in three weeks.


Why Drastic Diets Don't Work Anymore

Maybe in your 20s and 30s you corrected those errant pounds with a month or two on a wacky fad diet. Well, guess what? Cutting corners won't cut it anymore. The body's slowing post-40 metabolism means you need fewer calories to maintain the same weight. What's more -- and here's what will make you groan -- even drastic dieting doesn't work as well as you get older. If your post-40 body thinks it's starving, it slows your metabolism to conserve energy, stored as the very body fat you're trying to shed. Do this long enough on a low-protein starvation diet and you begin to burn lean muscle tissue instead of stored fat, depriving you of strength and slowing your metabolism even more because muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue does. To lose fat, you need to short-circuit the body's ways of accumulating and storing it.

In addition to paying attention to how many calories you eat, it's important to choose which calories. Many people walk around in a state of glycemic stress -- living with wide swings in blood sugar levels largely due to diets heavy on refined carbohydrates, such as sugary snacks, white bread, and white rice. Take in a big load of these carbs and they enter the bloodstream almost immediately, making the pancreas begin to secrete insulin to lower blood sugar by sending it to different parts of your body. But the body can only use so much sugar at any one time; the excess (and a mega-carb snack leaves you with plenty) is stored as fat. Eat a lot and you gain weight and might increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Choose foods with a low glycemic index (fruits, vegetables, whole grains); these take a long time to digest and don't cause a dramatic rise in your blood sugar levels.

Luckily, there are ways to use your diet to rev up your metabolism and reduce body fat as well. And paradoxically, a moderate-calorie diet is not only healthier than an ultra-low-cal one, it's also more effective at reducing both weight and fat in the long run.

The New Way to Eat for Post-40 Weight Loss

No more skipping breakfast.

"You've just had an overnight fast," says Lisa Hark, PhD, RD, director of the nutrition education and prevention program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of Nutrition for Life. "If you don't eat breakfast you won't get your metabolism going -- digesting burns calories." Breakfast also gives you energy, keeps you from getting hungry before lunchtime, and helps you concentrate, says Dr. Hark.

Eat less, but more often.

Instead of three large meals a day, consume the same number of calories in five or six smaller ones, two to three hours apart. "This not only helps to control your appetite," says Dr. Hark, "but the calories needed for digestion use up the glucose so it's not stored as fat. This keeps your metabolism stimulated." Because many small meals also give you a slow, steady supply of food, your body is spared the insulin surge (and big letdown) of a huge meal.

Cut calories.

After age 40, women need about 250 fewer calories a day to maintain weight, and at least 500 fewer to lose. One tactic: Up physical activity by 250 calories a day and cut your diet by another 250. Research shows postmenopausal women who both diet and exercise improve their insulin profile more than women who do either alone. For peak performance and weight loss, trainer Hugo Rivera recommends eating 40 percent complex low-glycemic carbs (such as brown rice and sweet potatoes), 40 percent lean proteins, and 20 percent healthy fats (olive oil, flax oil).

Go to to create a customized food pyramid and learn how much to eat daily to maintain or lose weight.


The Sleep Solution

During our 40s, when hormones are in a state of flux, we become more prone to insomnia. A 2007 National Sleep Foundation survey found that 59 percent of perimenopausal women and 61 percent of menopausal women had insomnia at least a few nights a week. Reasons included stress, hormonal changes, or -- no joke -- because their pets sleep with them. Half the 1,000 women polled said the first things they cut in a time bind were sleep and exercise. Yet sleep is crucial for maintaining and losing weight.

Studies show that a shortage of sleep can wreak metabolic havoc, increasing glucose levels and triggering a prediabetic state. A recent study of more than 1,000 adults between the ages of 30 and 60 in Wisconsin found that when people slept less than eight hours a night, their levels of leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells that tells the brain when to stop eating, went down. And levels of the stomach hormone ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, went up. The result? They ate more and got fat.

"Chronically not having seven to eight hours of sleep will make you eat more, decreasing the body's ability to clear glucose and causing you to gain weight," says Andrew Monjan, PhD, chief of neurobiology of aging at the National Institute on Aging. Exercise improves sleep, in part by helping to set the body's internal clock. For people who have trouble falling asleep, exercise seems to have an effect similar to sleeping pills, according to research reported at the American College of Sports Medicine.

When's the best time to exercise? Researchers at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that postmenopausal women who worked out at moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes each morning had less trouble falling asleep than women who exercised less frequently or who worked out in the evening. If you exercise later in the day, finish at least three hours before bedtime to give your body time to feel sleepy.

Why Fighting Fat Is All in Your Head

There's little doubt it takes longer to lose weight after 40 and longer for your diet and exercise plans to show results. While a woman in her 30s might shave up to three pounds weekly, once she passes 40 she might only shed one pound on the same regimen. To combat the discouragement of this slower pace, you need to stay motivated more than ever. Here, mental and behavioral strategies that work.

Weigh yourself daily.

Hopping on the scale every day may help keep weight off, according to a 2006 New England Journal of Medicine study of 314 adults, most of whom were women, who had lost an average 43 pounds over the course of two years. In the 18 months after the weight loss, some participants had to report their weight weekly, either by phone or online. Only about half of this group regained five or more pounds over the 18 months. In contrast, 72 percent of the control group, who received only a quarterly newsletter about diet, exercise, and weight loss and didn't weigh themselves, regained five pounds or more.

Bear in mind, however, that the scale "doesn't give you the full story," says trainer Hugo Rivera. "If after a month of working out you gain one pound of muscle and lose three pounds of fat, the scale will only register a two-pound loss, which can be highly frustrating. If your clothes are fitting better and you feel firmer, then you're losing fat even if the scale isn't moving."

Get plugged in.

If you don't already have an MP3 player for downloadable music, now's the time to invest in one. It won't weigh you down as you exercise, and listening to music, especially when the tempo matches your exercise rate, can help you work out longer and harder, according to research by Costas Karageorghis, PhD, a sports psychologist at Brunel University, in Uxbridge, England.

Pick a pair of "goal jeans."

As you're picturing the new, slimmer you, it may help to periodically try on a favorite pair of skinny jeans that you'd love to fit into again -- or for the first time. Indeed, 35 percent of American women say that jeans, more than any other type of clothing, inspire them to control their weight, according to a 2006 study by TSC, a division of Yankelovich, a research organization that tracks consumer trends. Keep trying them on until they fit. Then keep wearing them to make sure they still fit, a good way to stay at your goal weight. And beware the dangers of getting too comfortable in your sweats or elastic-waist pants. They keep you from facing the fat facts and doing something about them.

More Strategies That Work

Keep a photo diary.

Set your camera to automatic and take a picture of yourself (or have someone else photograph you) every couple of weeks. "Save and date the photo," says trainer Rivera. "When you look in the mirror, all you notice is a roll here, a roll there. Looking at a photograph is the only way to be an objective judge of yourself. You'll start seeing differences and that's how you'll get motivated."

Enlist an exercise or diet buddy.

"When you start feeling tired, having a workout buddy or a trainer you can hire call you and say, 'Hey, we have to walk this morning,' can be a tool to help you stick to the changes you want to make," says the National Institute on Aging's Dr. Chhanda Dutta. Likewise, having a diet buddy -- a friend, coworker, or an online dieting group -- to whom you can report weekly can help you keep on track.

Join a woman-friendly gym.

If you aren't sticking to your exercise plan because you're intimidated by trendy gyms crawling with buff young people, a woman-only facility may be a better fit. For example, Curves offers 30-minute workouts for the time-deprived, and Lady of America offers childcare. Also, women-only gyms often have specially sized equipment. Machines at Ladies Workout Express, for instance, have 10 adjustable resistance settings instead of weights stacked in 10-pound or higher increments.

Fantasize the Fat Away

People who focus on how exercise makes them feel rather than worrying about whether it's making them look thinner are more motivated to keep going, experts say. "Enjoy the immediate benefits of exercise: sleeping better, having more energy and a higher sex drive, being a good role model for your kids, and inspiring friends and those around you," says Lindsay Dunlap, a New York City trainer. Visualize yourself as on your way to being fit and toned -- looking great at the company picnic or your cousin's summer wedding. Remember those goal jeans. "If you see yourself as unhealthy, you're more likely to throw in the towel and eat that second bag of potato chips," says Ellen Langer, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Power of Mindful Learning. "But if you've made a decision to be a healthy person, your behavior will match that mind-set. We've only begun to tap the effects of our mind's control over our health and well-being."

Exercise Equipment on Any Budget

Buying new exercise equipment for a home gym doesn't come cheap, but you won't be able to use that as an excuse to not get fit once you see the bargains you can find in good used exercise equipment. According to experts, half of consumers' home gym purchases go unused. More and more, that perfectly good equipment is showing up on eBay, Craigslist, even tag sales. Gyms that update their equipment can be another good source. If possible, test-drive the brand at a gym or sporting-goods store, and check it out on the company's Web site. Before buying, ask whether the seller can include the original warranty from the machine's manufacturer.

The Last 5 Pounds

When you're trying to get in shape, losing the first -- or last -- five pounds can be a particular challenge. "We know from weight-loss studies that the more obese you are, the faster you may initially lose weight," says Dr. Dutta. "But after a rapid phase of weight loss, you plateau."

Others wrestle with those first five pounds. That's often because we make dramatic changes too quickly, says Lindsay Dunlap, creator of the Fat Fighters program at the Sports Club/LA, in New York City. "If you drastically cut your calorie intake, your body will think it's starving and hold on to its fat stores," she says. "It's best to start cutting back by 250 calories a day. Wait a week before shaving off another 250 calories."

The going may also get tough when you're down to those last pockets of fat. One reason? You may have hit an exercise plateau, which can happen in as little as a few months. As your body gets stronger, it uses fewer calories to do the same exercises. Researchers call this the training effect. "If you want to lose more you have to increase the amount and intensity of your exercise," Dunlap points out.

Try high-intensity interval training, which alternates periods of moderate-intensity with near-maximal-intensity activities. For instance, take a five-minute warm-up jog, then do eight sets of one-minute sprints followed by one minute of walking. End with a five-minute jog.

Remember, the more intensely you exercise, the more calories you burn. Interval training will also improve your cardiovascular fitness. If you've been successful at shedding fat and pounds, you also need fewer calories -- one reason that you can never go back to your old eating patterns. To keep your new lower weight, check with your doctor about cutting even more calories to help drop the last five pounds.

TIP: Eliminate alcohol for a couple of weeks. The reason? You drop the three or so pounds in fluid that wines and spirits make your body retain. If you want to reintroduce alcohol after you've reached your goal, try to limit yourself to three drinks a week, says nutritionist Lisa Hark.

Bust Belly Fat

A potbelly after menopause pretty much goes with the territory; physicians with a linguistic sense of humor call it the "meno-pot." Aerobic exercise reduces fat, including around your middle. But to really suck it up, you need to exercise and tone your abdominals. "That potbelly responds extremely well to Pilates, which exercises the entire deep layers of the abdominal walls," says Christiane Northrup, MD, author of The Wisdom of Menopause. Aim for at least 10 minutes of abs exercises three times a week on alternating days, perhaps after your weight workouts. For example, do leg lifts, modified sit-ups with your knees bent, and side crunches. As you get stronger, wear arm or leg weights.

Also helpful: exercises that strengthen your core -- the muscles in your abdomen and back. Try the Bosu Balance Trainer, a rubber dome set on a platform that requires you to tighten your abs for balance and stability at the same time you're doing crunches, leg lifts, and the like.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2007.