Help! I'm Over 40 and I Can't Lose Weight!

And it's all in the belly

Mature woman looking at controls on treadmill in the gym
Darryl Leniuk/Digital Vision/Getty Images

When you're young, you probably don't spend too much time thinking about preparing your body for the future. When you're in your teens and twenties, your body works so well, you may not pay any attention to it.

This is when you're in your peak condition and the perfect time to start exercising. Cut to 20 years later and, if you didn't start exercising, you probably wish you had since there's something we all start to experience in our 40's: Weight gain.

It's not sudden weight gain, but it certainly feels that way. As though you wake up one morning and there's an extra 10 or 15 pounds that just suddenly materialized. While it may feel sudden, it's actually a gradual process.

What you may also notice is that much of that weight seems to settle right around your belly

This mysterious fat not only seems appears without warning, it also seems like it's completely immune to both diet and exercise.

What Happens As We Get Older

What happens to our bodies after 40 is a trifecta of weight gain: Our hormones change, our metabolism starts to slow down and, if we're not lifting weights, we start to lose just a little more muscle every year.

That muscle can help protect us from gaining weight because it's more metabolically active. When we lose that muscle, our metabolisms drop even more.

If you're genetically predisposed to gain weight easily, that may be another strike against you.

And the worst part? Even if you don't actually gain weight, you may still gain inches around the waist. 

This weight gain can be so frustrating, it's easy to become obsessed with losing it, starving yourself or exercising too much or maybe even looking into the latest plastic surgery procedure.

But, is that really necessary?

Isn't there something we can do about gaining weight after 40? There is and it starts with understanding just what's going on with your body. We can't control everything about our bodies, but the more we know what's going on, the easier it is to find some acceptance for what's happening.

Why We Gain Weight After 40

The big question is, why do we start gaining weight after 40?  There are a multitude of reasons, some of the genetic, some of it the natural course of things and some that are due to lifestyle choices.

The four most important contributors to weight gain include:

 

  1. Hormones: One of the main culprits for weight gain is, of course, our hormones, which start to change right around the mid-30s and into the 40s. This change in hormones, less estrogen for women and less testosterone for men, causes the fat in our bodies fat to shift to the middle of the body while abandoning other areas of the body you could care less about. That's one reason you may get a little fluffier around the middle while other parts of you actually get smaller.
  2. Heredity:  Scientists have found the specific genes that determine how many fat cells we have and where they're stored. This is something we can't really change and, if you look at your parents and relatives, you'll see those areas where your family may tend to store excess fat. 
  1. Lower Metabolism: There are a couple of things that happen to your metabolism after the age of 40. First, your basal metabolic rate (BMR) decreases and, second, you expend less total energy (TEE) during exercise. Some experts suggest metabolism can decrease by about 5% for every decade after 40, which means you need about 60-100 fewer calories every 10 years. If you sit more, eat more, exercise less and deal with more stress throughout that decade, you'll probably need even fewer calories than that. Add that to the fact that you burn fewer calories during exercise and you've got yourself an equation for weight gain.
  1. Loss of muscle:  Like our metabolisms, we also start to lose muscle when we hit our 40s, experiencing a steady decline each decade. Part of this, scientists believe, is that the motor units that make up our muscles decline as we age and that those motor units don't always fire with the same regularity. However, the important takeaway here is this: The biggest factor in losing muscle is the lack of physical activity, which makes exercise a crucial component when it comes to preventing muscle loss.

If you want to figure out the real deal, enter your information into the calculator below to learn how many calories you really need for your age and activity level.

Of course, just how much each of these contributes to weight gain isn't something we can measure or, often, control.  What we can do is take this knowledge and use it to our advantage, working with our bodies rather than fighting them.

What If I Already Exercise? How Can I Stop Gaining Weight?

If you've managed to keep your weight the same over the years with exercise, it can be a rude awakening when you get into your 40s and 50s.  It isn't so much that you gain weight, it's more that your weight shifts into different places.  Suddenly, the pants you've been wearing for years just don't fit right and you may wonder:  What am I doing wrong?

If you exercise and eat right, you're not doing anything wrong, it's just those age-related changes happening.  And, think about it...if you already exercise to maintain a healthy weight, you're in a much better position than someone who hits 40 with a weight problem.

Even with that, living a healthy lifestyle doesn't protect us entirely from age-related weight changes. In some respects, it's inevitable that our bodies will change as we age and embracing that is just one way to make the process a little less frustrating.

In one study published in The International Journal of Obesity, researchers followed more than 12,000 runners and found that: "Age-related weight gain occurs even among the most active individuals when exercise is constant." Of course, this study didn't include people who lift weights, which may have an impact on weight loss.

The question is: If you already exercise every day, is there anything you can do to burn more calories?

It's possible, but this comes with a warning: We may need more exercise to manage weight as we get older, but our bodies typically tolerate less strenuous exercise as we get older as well.

By our 40s and 50s, many of us are dealing with chronic injuriesstress, fatigue, busy jobs and family life and, perhaps, less time and energy than ever to exercise.

Knowing that, if you really want to increase your exercise and/or intensity, there are some options for bumping up your calorie-burn.

Over 40 Weight Loss Tips for Exercisers

As mentioned before, exercise is an important part of losing weight. But, if you're already working very hard, it's not a great idea to add even more intensity.

You still have to take care of your body and give it the rest that it needs to replenish and rejuvenate. Exercise alone isn't going to make the problem go away. With that in mind, there are some things you can do to bump your calorie-burn a little, including:

  • Try High-Intensity Interval Training Tabatainterval training or metabolic conditioning workouts are designed to burn more calories and push you to your limits.
  • Try Circuit Training - Mixing up cardio and strength together keeps your heart rate elevated, helping you build endurance and strength while burning more calories.
  • Add more time to your workouts - For example, if you usually workout for an hour, add 10 minutes to 1 to 2 workouts each week.
  • Add more frequency - If you can, add a day of exercise or you could even consider 2-a-days once in a while to pump up your calorie burn for the week - Doing double cardio or a cardio workout in the morning and strength later that day.
  • Be more active - Sometimes, just adding a couple of walks each day can help you manage your calories without going overboard with exercise. Try using a pedometer or tracker to see how many steps you can get each day.
  • Change your diet - You know the drill when it comes to a healthy diet, right? Cut out the sugar and the processed carbs. Eat more vegetables and fiber and cut out the alcohol. Sometimes a little tweaking here and there, without starving yourself, can help you eek out a few more calories each week.
  • Hire a trainer - If you've tried everything, maybe it's time to see an expert and get more specific advice for your situation.
  • See your doctor - If you're killing yourself and still not seeing any changes, see your doctor and get checked out. Discuss the possible reasons for your weight gain or plateau and see if there are some solutions out there. Is one of your medications contributing? Maybe you could try something different.

Whatever changes you make, don't overdo. Listen to your body and back off if you start to feel any symptoms of overtraining.  It's always best to gradually add more intensity and/or exercise into your routine a few minutes at a time.

Weight Loss For the New or Yo-Yo Exerciser

So, what if you don't exercise at all? Or maybe you're a yo-yo exerciser heading into your 40s or 50s and trying to fight age-related weight gain?  How can you get into a consistent program to manage your weight?

If you're not a consistent exerciser, you may be tempted to do a bunch of crazy workouts to deal with weight gain.

Try not to give into that temptation because, for one, it's easy to injure yourself. Another reason to avoid the all or nothing approach is that that exercise may not give you what you want. 

The plain fact is, exercise doesn't always work the same way on a 40-something-year-old body as it does on a younger body. 

Think back to when you were younger. There may have been a time where you could eat whatever you wanted or, if you gained weight, all you had to do was watch your diet or do a little more exercise and you could easily lose it.

Fast forward to now and your reality is probably much different. The American College of Sports Medicine said it best in their article, "Exercise and Age-Related Weight Gain,"

"Regular physical activity may be useful in minimizing age-related weight gain or reducing the risk of substantial weight gain, rather than in actually promoting weight loss."

What does that mean for you? That the weight loss process naturally becomes harder as you get older...that's just a fact and accepting it means you can stop punishing yourself or feeling ashamed about your body. Instead of focusing on the negative, focus on the things you can control: Your workouts, activity levels, diet, stress management, sleep management and, most important, your attitude.

Is It Time to Change Your Goal?

If you're experiencing some of that age-related weight gain, it's easy to panic and start obsessing, restricting and, maybe, exercising like crazy to get rid of it.

Maybe that works for some people, but you can't live that way forever and life isn't much fun if you're worried about every single bite or every single minute of your workouts. 

We have a choice in how we deal with age-related weight gain, even if it doesn't feel that way. We even have a choice to completely give up on weight loss and focus on something entirely different.

That doesn't mean giving up all things healthy to sit at home in your sweatpants eating Oreos and zoning out on daytime TV. It means stopping the fixation on the scale and focusing on the things that really matter - How you feel and how you function.

With that in mind, consider this: Your goal doesn't have to be to lose weight. It's probably foreign to most of us, this idea of not working towards weight loss every single day, but taking your weight out of the equation opens the door for so many more options. Without weight loss as your primary goal, what could you attain?

Think about that as you consider all of your options, including:

  • Option 1You really want to lose this age-related weight - If you really want to go for weight loss, you're going to have to work at it and you're going to have to work harder than you did before, doing up to 350 minutes of exercise each week. We have to exercise more frequently and more vigorously to compensate for the typical weight gain associated with aging. There are some important points to consider if you go this route:
    • More work won't necessarily bring the changes you're looking for and there's always the chance of injury, burnout and overtraining, not to mention frustration.
    • If you don't already exercise, you're going to have to start at the beginning and work your way up to more vigorous exercise over time. Your body needs at least a few weeks of simple cardio and strength training to build the foundation for harder, more intense workouts.  How much exercise you need is an individual thing, but the programs below can help you get started:
  • Option 2: You're already exercising and feel like you're doing as much as you can tolerate. Maybe it's time to work more on preventing weight gain than losing it  - While weight loss can require up to 350 minutes of exercise weekly, preventing weight gain allows a more moderate approach, focusing on about 150-250 minutes of exercise each week, a more approachable goal if you have a busy schedule or you're a beginner. This allows you to get your exercise in without having to be miserable about it. Some helpful programs:
  • Option 3: Forget about losing weight. You want to focus on being healthy and feeling good - Focusing on being healthy means getting about 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. This level of exercise can keep your heart heatlhy and work on things like lowering your cholesterol and/or blood pressure. This is a great place to start if you're getting into exercise after a long break.  There's no reason you can't start here and progress to more intense goals as you build strength and endurance.

And these aren't even your only options. You could still set up a healthy program that focuses on something other than losing weight. For example, what about working on getting stronger? Lifting weights more regularly so other things in your life get easier?

You could even train for something, a 5K or a cycling race. Sometimes having something specific to work for is a lot more fun than focusing on the scale.

The Bottom Line

The important takeaway from all of this is this: We can only control so much of what happens to our bodies as we age.  Some things are going to sag or soften or wrinkle no matter what we do, but it's much easier to find some acceptance of our bodies if we do everything we can to keep them healthy and fit. Aging is going to happen.

The question is, can you age more gracefully? Maybe that means something different to all of us. To some it might mean getting plastic surgery. That's always one option, of course, and a good one if something really bothers you and you do your research.

But another option is to do the best you can with the body you have. Nurture it with good food and exercise. Remind yourself that it's not your fault that your body is changing. It's going to change for all of us. Being kind to yourself, forgiving yourself may be just what you need to get through this phase of your life.

Sources:

DiPietro L. "Exercise and Age-Related Weight Gain." ACSM Current Comment. ACSM. 16 Apr 2014.

Harvard Health Publications. "Abdominal fat and what to do about it." Harvard Health Publications. Dec 2006. Harvard University. 16 Apr 2014.

Gesta S, Bluher M, Yamamoto Y, et al. "Evidence for a role of developmental genes in the origin of obesity and body fat distribution." PNAS 2006 103 (17) 6676-6681.

 

 

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