It’s no fun being the poster child for middle-aged fat women, but that’s how I feel lately. That recent study on how women need to exercise at least an hour daily simply to not gain weight–they were talking about me. Have I put on pounds in middle age? Check. Have I had trouble exercising it off? Check. And there I am again in the research that says those who do manage to lose often hit the wall after about 10 pounds. Or regain it. Check, check, check.
This losing weight when you’re 45-plus–it’s tough. “The reality is that if you eat and exercise the same amount, you’ll still put on weight in perimenopause and menopause,” says Dr. Dena Bravata of Stanford University. The main reason for this sad state of affairs: hormones. “Women have a lower metabolism after menopause, and the lack of estrogen also may cause cravings for carbs and fats,” says Seattle health coach Jennifer Lovejoy. (Oh, that explains my recent potato chip addiction!)
It’s true that my metabolism is slow, according to a MetaCheck–a breathing machine that measures resting metabolic rate (RMR). If you add my daily activity to my RMR, I don’t even burn 2,000 calories a day. Back in the day, I was naturally thin and could eat whatever I wanted. Now, to maintain my weight, I should have no more than 1,800 calories a day and, to lose, I should be around 1,100 to 1,400. No wonder I’ve put on 30 pounds. (Calculate your own total daily energy expenditure at healthstatus.com.)
But it’s not too late for me at age 54. My inspiration is Mary Weaver, who lost 30 pounds in middle age (from 163 to 129) and created Primefit for Women (Primefit.org), a fitness resource for women over age 40. With this advice from Weaver and the other experts I interviewed, I now feel better equipped to tackle my own middle-aged spread.
Don’t go with your gut
Getting fit at 45-plus requires more intellect than instinct, says clinical psychologist Dr. Deirdre Barrett, author of Waistland, The R/evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis. Despite evolution, our survival instincts are still telling us to “sit in the lounge chair and eat chocolate,” she says. Barrett is right: My gut has become unreliable when it comes to estimating how much I need to eat or have eaten. In fact, research shows that we consistently overestimate how much we exercise but underestimate how much we consume.
Since I can no longer wing it when it comes to calculating my food and fitness needs, I’ve been experimenting with ways to keep track–a behavior proven to increase a person’s odds of losing weight. I’ve found that the simple act of paying attention makes me feel more in charge (and quite virtuous). “Awareness is a critical tool for weight loss,” Lovejoy agrees. Study after study shows that a food diary, for instance, is absolutely the most helpful weight-loss tool, revealing stealthy snacking habits or long periods without eating, which can lead to bingeing. To make tracking more fun, I’ve used weight loss and goal-setting apps on my iPhone and iPad (simply having a goal can help you lose, says Dr. Bravata). Keeping track also helps you make smarter choices, Lovejoy says. “Given our slowing metabolisms, we know we need to cut at least 100 to 150 calories a day. You can look at a food diary and decide’Well, I just won’t have that cookie,'” she says. “Some women realize that not eating that 150-calorie cookie is lots easier than working out an hour and a half to burn it off!”
Do the zig-zag
One of the things that depresses me about dieting and exercise is that they are bo-ring. But not in fitness blogger Mary Weaver’s world. She reminded me about interval training (the fat-burning practice of alternating periods of high and low intensity exercise), and turned me on to a sort of interval version of dieting called the zig-zag.
Here’s how it works: To lose a pound a week, I need to cut 500 to 750 calories a day (a pound equals 3,500 calories). Based on my lousy RMR, that means I’m down to about 1,200 calories a day. That can feel like deprivation in a hurry, Weaver admits.
“But if you zig-zag, lower the calories for three days a week and then have a maintenance day where you can have slightly more calories–you won’t feel deprived or lose the muscle you do when you’re constantly in a calorie deficit,” she says. Weaver thinks it’s a terrific strategy for weight loss, and I’m giving it a try. My “splurge” day sure is something to look forward to!
Sometimes it feels like I’m going through my crazy-busy days holding my breath. Surprisingly, that may be sabotaging my weight-loss efforts, says Los Angeles trainer Dennis Grounds of Training Grounds for Life. He suggests I try slow deep breathing for five minutes a day. “Deep breathing reduces stress and allows more oxygen into your system, which can speed up your metabolism,” he says. Similarly, one study shows that yoga can help prevent middle-aged spread, although it’s unclear if that’s due to relaxation or increased body awareness.
Make a commitment
“People who lose weight and keep it off will say, even 20 years down the road, that it’s difficult,” says Dr. James O. Hill, cofounder of the National Weight Control Registry, a National Institutes of Health-funded nutrition center. The 6,000 successful losers in the registry made dramatic changes and a big commitment, he says.
Am I ready to commit? Yes I am! I want to wipe the grin off the face of my friend Jonathan, who lost 30 pounds recently without exercising at all (sometimes I hate men), and I want to be a happy, healthy middle-aged woman–not a plus-sized poster child. Wish me luck!