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How to Fight the Good Fight Against “Middle-Age Bulge”

While 50 may be the new 40 (and 40 the new 30), there’s no denying that most middle-aged people don’t look the same as they did in their young adulthood, especially around the waistline. While the term “freshman 15” refers to the common tendency to gain weight among college freshmen, there’s another not-so-flattering term called “middle-age spread,” highlighting the battle of the bulge when adults hit their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Before you start the cabbage soup diet (again!), we’ve got practical tips for middle-aged folks looking to stay thin, and a quick rundown on some promising scientific research.

Brittney Bearden, registered dietitian and sports nutrition manager at Texas Health Sports Medicine Fort Worth, says busy schedules and changing personal needs can contribute to sneaky weight gain as people grow older.

“Professional and personal responsibilities often increase with age, which can make it challenging to consistently exercise and eat right,” she explains. “Busy schedules can lead to consuming more calories by eating out and on the go compared to cooking and eating at home. There is also often a lack of knowledge of the proper amount and type of food one needs for their age, goals and activity level.”

Texas Health encourages employees and patients to follow the “Power 9” as part of the Blue Zones Project, which seeks to help North Texans live longer, healthier lives. One of the nine tenets of longevity includes the 80% rule, which reminds people to stop eating when their stomachs feel about 80 percent full. The 20 percent gap between being satisfied and feeling overwhelmingly full could make a big difference in a person’s ability to maintain a healthy weight.

William Hotchkiss, M.D., orthopedic spinal surgeon and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas, says carrying around extra weight during middle age can be a real pain … literally.

“Most men and women tend to gain weight in their midsections (abdomen, trunk, etc.) and this additional weight significantly increases stress on the spine,” he explains. “Weight that is evenly balanced throughout the body can be offset easily by the back, but this is not the common way that most middle-aged weight gain occurs. The amount of forward-leaning stress that abdominal, waist and trunk-type weight gain places on the spine and low back is very significant. The most important thing for middle-aged Americans to consider are getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a strong core and trunk.”

Bearden agrees that the best way to counteract middle-age weight gain is the one-two punch of physical activity and proper nutrition.

“Make health a high priority by making time to be active and eating right,” she recommends. “Add in daily exercise that you enjoy, such as walking, jogging, biking, tennis, golf or gardening. The more you move, the better. The body’s basal metabolic rate (the number of calories burned at rest) is decreasing throughout the middle-age years, so it’s important to be aware of portion sizes. It’s also important to learn how to eat proportionally to your activity level.

“Eating is something we will do for the rest of our lives, so it’s important to learn to do so in a way that promotes long-term health. You can do this by finding foods you enjoy that provide your body the proper amount of energy and nutrients.”

A recent scientific article in Cell Metabolism highlights new research into the specific biological changes occurring during middle age that can lead to weight gain, with the average adult gaining 30 pounds by the age of 50. National Institutes of Health researcher Dr. Jay H. Chung and fellow scientists found an enzyme in lab animals called DNA-PK that kicks into high gear during middle age and slows metabolism, making it harder to burn fat and lose weight.

In order to find out if this enzyme could be “turned off,” Chung and his team developed a drug that not only kept middle-aged lab mice from gaining as much weight when fed a diet high in fat but also protected them from type 2 diabetes and increased their fitness levels. While this research is exciting, it’s unknown whether similar drugs would work the same in people or cause adverse side effects.

While we wait for that “magic fat-blocking pill”, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has several tips for getting active, especially if it’s something you need to ease back into:

  • When you discover regular periods of inactivity in your daily schedule, either at work or home, start looking for ways you can get moving.
  • You’ll be more likely to stick with activities you enjoy at places and times that are most convenient for you.
  • Find an exercise buddy that can help motivate and keep you accountable.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you can’t do much at first. Start by simply walking the neighborhood, to get your heart rate up and your body used to the movement.
  • If your schedule doesn’t allow lengthy blocks of time for exercise, break your recommended amount into smaller chunks of at least 10 minutes each.

Bearden encourages people to remember that small steps can make a big difference in the long run.

“Start with small healthy habits like adding a vegetable to each meal, eliminating high sugar beverages, cooking more at home, decreasing portion size and eating slower,” she suggests. “Begin with one and add a new one weekly, with the goal of developing lifelong healthy habits.”

In need of a partner to help you reach your health and fitness goals? Call 1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-847-9355) to find a qualified dietitian or fitness center near you. 

1 Comment

  • Dwight Blair says:

    Absolutly works! I am 63, have had extensive heart renovations, and significant osteoarthritis. I am 6’1” and 185 lbs. That’s down from the 235lbs I was before my firs heart surgery. Walking, doing yard work, and portion control have enabled me to stay on the job and prosper!

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