Midlife Fitness Takes Finesse
When Life & Body Change, Change with Them
Midlife turns topsy-turvy for most people, women and men alike. Physically and emotionally, it can feel like chaos, but a smart health and fitness strategy can help to smooth out quality of life. From food to exercise to sleep, we can influence an array of factors that may not make the process of shifting into a new stage of life a breeze, but can make it less of a struggle. It means nuancing lots of little factors. Here are some tips.
By the way, though I'm suggesting some weight loss/maintenance strategies here, please remember that ALL of these strategies also impact the most important factor in quality of life—supporting great health, regardless of the number on the scale.
Beware of The Creep
What’s the first thing most people mention when they talk about midlife? Usually, weight—and not a loss of it. It’s a common belief that weight gain comes on suddenly in our middle years, but actually, researchers say it’s more likely due to a decades-long creep factor. While it’s true that basal metabolic rate slows with age, it does not account for most of the weight gained by midlife. Instead, experts believe that a steady loss of muscle mass over the years causes a daily drop in calories burned, resulting in gradual weight gain. (Each pound of lean body tissue burns an estimated 35-50 calories per day. Losing this cumulative advantage means gaining pounds over time.) They posit that, by our 40s and 50s, we “suddenly” notice a major gain.* And because women’s weight distribution shifts to the body’s midsection as estrogen levels drop, this can add to that sensation. The problem is, by midlife, with a slightly slower metabolism, it takes more effort to drop these pounds.
Ditch Fad Diets
Most people turn to dieting as a first line of attack on weight gain, but dieting has proven extremely problematic. Not only is it a difficult process to maintain, but it ultimately results in the opposite outcome of what we seek: Up to 2/3 of dieters regain more weight than they lose. (Mann et al, 2007) Unfortunately, food restriction causes a decrease in metabolic rate and an increase in fat storage — aka, “starvation mode.” If you’re hoping to drop a few pounds, the approach requires more subtlety. (For more insights, read last week's post, "10 Reasons Why Diets Don't Work."
Layer Calorie Burning Tactics
At this stage of life, stacking calorie burning & cutting tactics makes more sense than expecting one factor (like a strict diet or an Olympic-wannabe workout) to impact bodyweight. Consider these habits, which individually induce only modest calorie shifts but collectively add up significantly over weeks, months, a year. Even if you lower energy balance by a mere 100 calories a day, say 5 days a week, that equates to a 500 calorie drop, the amount most would burn in one or two workouts. That is MAJOR. Some suggestions:
• Eat smaller, more frequent meals. There's some evidence that eating more frequent meals slightly boosts calories burned. Weight loss researcher Wayne Calloway recommends eating four meals evenly spaced throughout the day. Each of those meals should represent a quarter of your day's total calorie "budget."*
• Don't skip breakfast. Not only does eating breakfast result in a 5% upward bump in metabolic rate*, but it can keep you from reaching that ravenous point at which entire bags of chips are up for grabs.
• Fill up on fiber. Here's a cool fact: A Tufts University study found that, if women ate 24 grams of fiber daily, they would absorb 90 fewer calories.* Again, it's a modest amount that can add up over time and only requires tracking fiber intake. The recommended amount of for women under 50 is 25 grams/ day; women over 50, 21 grams/day; men under 50, 38 grams/day; men over 50, 31 grams/day.
• Move more frequently. When the weather cooperates, I try to tack a 30-minute walk onto my day, which technically isn't part of my daily workout. Using my heart rate monitor, I've found this burns about 100 calories. (That's true for me—Remember that age, gender, intensity, etc will all influence an individual's calorie expenditure.) And as we've all heard, the most basic activities, like using stairs and pacing while you talk on the phone, also make a difference. We just don't see the changes right away, so we often take less strenuous options. Again, if you look at the long game, you see that these small expenditures add up over time, especially when combined with the simple tactics mentioned above.
Keep Up With Muscle
As mentioned earlier, much midlife weight creep happens because gradually muscle shrinks away when we don't consciously work to develop and maintain it. Not only is lean tissue more metabolically active than fat, but strength training workouts have the potential to burn extra calories AFTER you're finished through a process called EPOC. This stands for exercise post oxygen consumption, a state during which your body is working to repair itself from a workout and burning some extra calories as it does so. For even more specifics on the connection between strength training and weight loss, read the post "Trying to Lose Weight? Strength Train."
Pay Extra Attention to Joints
By the time we reach midlife and beyond, our joints have taken quite a beating, and more so if we've been hooked on running and other high impact workouts. At this point in life, it's crucial NOT to skip weight bearing exercise because it helps to preserve precious bone density. But now more than ever, start making joint & muscle TLC part of your regular fitness routine. That means stretching after every workout, backing off when joint pain kicks in, modifying exercise choices as needed, and cross training so that joints don't take the same, repeated stresses every time you exercise.
Address Your Stress
If there's one thing that seems universal about the middle stage of life, it's that for most of us it brings a ton of life stress. Not only are we coping with physical changes, but we're likely to be caring for kids and/or aging parents, still working, and possibly dealing with health issues. It's now common knowledge that stress elevates levels of the hormone cortisol, which can impact weight. Cortisol elevates insulin, which can lead to blood sugar drops and cravings for sweet foods. Stress also leads to poor sleep. Speaking of which...
Laser in on Sleep
Those of us navigating midlife and beyond know that sleep becomes a precious commodity. Not only might we face major life stressors (like caring for extended family or managing health conditions) that can disrupt sleep, but physiological changes make it slightly more challenging for the body to generate sleep, too. Lack of sleep messes with our hunger hormones. Ever notice that you're ravenous on the days you sleep too little—and not for carrots? Levels of the hormones grehlin and leptin get thrown off, causing appetite changes that defy willpower. More obviously, lack of sleep can leave your workouts lackluster and even lead to injury.
Be Vigilant About the Blues
Mood changes, often mocked in midlife stereotypes, are no laughing matter. Mood has a push-and-pull relationship with exercise. If anything can stand in the way of a workout, it's a bad mood or, worse, serious depression that saps all motivation. However, exercise works as an extremely effective remedy for depression and anxiety. So, when the blues threaten to up end your fitness routine, do all that you can to get that workout going. You won't regret the effort.
While this probably seems like an exhausting to-do list, making even just a few of these basic changes can nudge your fitness in a better direction. At a time when so much can seem beyond our control, we CAN drive these simple changes that make midlife a whole lot more enjoyable.
* Source: "Women, Exercise & Metabolism", Exercise Etc, 2019