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A woman's life is full of beautiful milestones: walking down the aisle, a brand-new baby, the promotion you worked years for. Unfortunately, we accumulate more than experience: At key passages in our lives we tend to pack on the pounds, and as we age it gets harder and harder to lose them. That's why so many American women are constantly struggling to get back to their fighting weight.
To some degree, gender and genetics are to blame. Starting in our 20s and 30s, the body loses two to three pounds of muscle each decade. Though this occurs at the same rate in men and women, since men start out with a higher percentage of muscle, the changes are less obvious. Since one pound of muscle burns 150 calories a day, and one pound of fat burns only three, the arithmetic becomes obvious: As we age, metabolism slows -- about 3 to 4 percent each decade, according to the American College of Sports Medicine -- and unless we consume fewer calories or lift weights to increase muscle mass, our weight creeps up.
Still, love handles and cottage-cheese thighs are not inevitable. "You are not destined to be obese," says Madelyn H. Fernstrom, Ph.D., director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "People want to blame their fat cells or their parents. We have to get away from this victim mentality." In fact, "Most weight gain is behavioral, not endocrinological," says Robert Rosati, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, and director of the acclaimed Rice Diet Program, which provides meals, classes and medical supervision to patients. "It's usually due to decreasing activity levels." The key is to understand how your body is changing and then adapt your diet and exercise habits-not easy, but definitely worth it. Here are the major fat traps in a woman's life -- and how to avoid them.
With the onset of puberty, the body revs up production of fat cells in order to create budding breasts and hips. Girls typically -- and healthfully -- gain about 30 pounds between ages 13 and 16.
Eat smarter: Some studies have shown subtle taste preference shifts in girls this age, turning away from the sugary candy of childhood (think Gummy Worms and jelly beans) to the high-fat sweets grown women crave (like Snickers). It's a good time to teach teens about good fat (the polyunsaturated type found in salmon and soy products) and bad (saturated ones found in meat and hydrogenated oils).
Activity Rx: Middle school means the end of recess and, for girls who aren't into team athletics, a sharp drop in activity levels. Parents should encourage girls to experiment with a variety of sports and help them find activities that can become lifelong passions.
Insider's tip: While rare, this is a pivotal period for eating disorders and distorted body perceptions to develop. Mothers can help by talking to their daughters about their rapidly changing bodies, and by looking for trouble signs like smoking, which many girls start doing to control their weight.
By now, most women have matured into their adult body-and if it's a healthy one, it's the target size they should maintain for life.
Eat smarter: Weight gain often occurs at this point because Mom isn't making the salads anymore. Parents should stress healthy eating and encourage their daughters to deal with emotions by talking with a friend-instead of turning to food for solace.
Activity Rx: Encourage kids to take advantage of college sports facilities and to make exercise part of their routine.
Insider's tip: Teach your daughter that maintaining this weight requires trade-offs. She can't say no to Sunday night pizza? Fine. Balance the extra calories by walking to class all week instead of riding the bus.
A first job usually means a more sedentary lifestyle, and stress and fatigue tend to make young women less likely to exercise. Add that to their happy-hour-driven social lives, and you've got nothing but two-for-one margaritas and fat-laden potato skins on the horizon.
Eat smarter: There's more to life than take-out: Spend time in your 20s learning to prepare healthy meals that taste great.
Activity Rx: Connect fitness to work routines, such as lunch-hour walks, says Michael Roizen, M.D., dean of the medical school of the State University of New York, in Syracuse, and author of The Real Age Diet (HarperCollins, 2001).
Insider's tip: To curb restaurant blowouts, Joy Bauer, a New York-based nutritionist and author of The 90/10 Weight-Loss Plan (St. Martins, 2001), suggests eating a healthy snack such as yogurt before meeting friends for drinks.
In that first year of marriage, experts say, emotionally and physically bonding with your spouse is important, and sex and eating are our primary methods. While sex burns calories, it's not going to offset the fattening hazards faced by the average newlywed. Because the pressure of the wedding is over, there's a tendency to put on a few pounds. And now the bride has a partner in crime -- he loves your brownies.
Eat smarter: "Now is the time women must learn portion control-you can't eat like him and not expect to put on weight," says Joy Bauer. Learn to recognize a single serving of meat (the size of a deck of cards), potatoes or pasta (a tennis ball), and monitor your fat intake.
Activity Rx: If leaving your sweetie in the kitchen while you sweat on the StairMaster seems harsh, find an activity that works for both of you, such as hiking, biking or even walking.
Insider's tip: Buy dinner plates that are 9" in diameter instead of 11" or 13", suggests Michael Roizen.
The birth of a baby is often followed by a rude awakening: Most women end up anywhere from 10 to 40 pounds over their pre-pregnancy weight. And lack of sleep -- an almost universal complaint of young mothers-can lead to overeating.
Eat smarter: Just because you're not dieting (restrictive diets during pregnancy can be dangerous), resist the temptation to stuff yourself. At your first appointment with your obstetrician, suggests Madelyn Fernstrom, go over what she considers a healthy weight gain for your body type. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology's general recommendation is between 25 and 35 pounds, less for women who are overweight, and less still for women who already are obese.
Activity Rx: If your doctor okays it, keep exercising throughout your pregnancy. But if you're like most women, returning to your workout after the baby arrives won't be easy either because of fatigue or lack of a baby-sitter. Find enough day-to-day activities -- like walks with the baby or playing with your toddler in the park -- to replace your old routine.
It's a cruel irony that the busiest period in a woman's life-juggling the demands of school-age kids with work-is often the time our weight reaches critical mass. That slower metabolism is kicking in, and remnants of the baby weight still linger.
Eat smarter: Eat only in what Michael Roizen calls "special places," such as the dining room or breakfast nook. Avoid mindless snacking in front of the fridge, at the sink or in the car, which makes you more likely to overindulge. Enforcing the special places rule has an added bonus -discouraging your kids from falling into the habit of eating in front of the TV.
Activity Rx: This is the time to focus on weight-bearing exercise. By 35, women no longer produce more bone than they lose. Weight training not only increases muscle mass and boosts metabolism, it also strengthens bones, warding off pre-osteoporosis.
Insider's tip: Don't get obsessed with the scale. "The best weight-loss tool is an expensive pair of pants," says Fernstrom. A tight waistband will tell you it's time to start cutting back-pronto.
Practically all women will experience perimenopausal symptoms between 45 and 50. Lower estrogen levels can cause increased appetite, fatigue, loss of sleep and an inability to focus. After the average American woman reaches menopause at 51, she loses lean muscle mass at a significantly faster rate, increasing the likelihood of weight gain. Other changes include a tendency for body fat to shift to the tummy, creating a potbelly even in sit-up fanatics.
Eat smarter: Watch your alcohol. Studies have linked excess alcohol consumption to high blood pressure and heart disease (the American Heart Association recommends an average of one drink a day for women). Eat more good fats; they help fight everything from arthritis to high cholesterol.
Activity Rx: Connect exercise to social commitments-a standing tennis or golf game makes you far less likely to cancel than if you work out alone.
Insider's tip: Because it's unclear whether muscle loss at this stage is due to menopause or simply a factor of aging, "There's no solid evidence that replacing estrogen causes you to increase lean mass," says Wendy Kohrt, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, in Denver. Commit to weight training; research has shown it builds muscle even among the elderly. --Sarah Mahoney