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 I was young enough to think that the age of 40 was prehistoric, I was convinced that the worst thing about getting old was becoming dull and boring - Having supper at 5:00, clipping toenails to the dusty voices of ancient news anchors on 60 Minutes, nagging people to put chew with their mouths closed and turn off the lights when you leave the room, for Pete's sake!

Now, of course, I know what really happens when you get old.

 Sure you get dull and boring (which probably isn't the case!), but something worse happens: Sudden, instant weight gain. It happens deep in the night, just after your 40th birthday. The Middle-Age Fairy creeps into your room and loads an extra 5 or 10 pounds right around your belly. This mysterious fat not only appears without warning, it's also immune to both diet and exercise.

What happens to our bodies after 40 is a trifecta, maybe even a superfecta, of weight gain: Hormones change, metabolism drops and we start to lose a little muscle each year. 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.  Not fair, I know.

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.

Why We Gain Weight After 40

So, why do we start gaining weight after 40?  There is a multitude of reasons and some of it does depend on lifestyle choices.

  However, the Big Four 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 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. So, yes, you should feel free to call your parents every so often to thank them for your saddlebags, love handles, etc.

3. Lower Metabolism: There are a couple of annoying 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. Enter your information into the calculator below to learn how many calories you really need for your age and activity level.

4. 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.

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. Small comfort, I know.  The fact is, living a healthy lifestyle doesn't protect us entirely from age-related weight changes.

In one study published in The International Journal of Obesity, researchers followed more than 12,000 runners and found this thrilling conclusion: "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 injuries, stress, 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

  • Try High-Intensity Interval Training - Tabata, interval 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 (I know..that's a tough one). 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.

So, what if you're a yo-yo exerciser heading into your 40s or 50s and fighting 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 injury yourself.  Second, all that exercise may not give you what you want.  The fact is, exercise doesn't always work the same way on a 40-something-year-old body as it does on a younger body. 

Remember when you were 12 and could eat anything you wanted or when you were 20 and could do 10 crunches and lose, like 5 pounds instantly?

Those were the days, weren't they?  Fast forward to now and the reality is 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 1: I want to lose this stupid age-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 ever, 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:  1. 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. 2.  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. How much exercise you need is an individual thing, but the programs below can help you get started:
  • Option 2: I'm doing as much as I can stand...maybe I should work on preventing more weight gain - 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. Some helpful programs:
  • Option 3: Forget about losing weight. I just want to be healthy and feel 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.

    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?


    Toth MJ, Tchernof A, Sites CK, et al. "Menopause-related changes in body fat distribution." Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2000 May;904:502-6.

    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.

    Roberts S, Rosenberg I. "Nutrition and aging: changes in the regulation of energy metabolism with aging." Physiol Rev. 2006 Apr;86(2):651-67. 

    Roberts S, G Dallala. "Energy requirements and aging." Public Health Nutrition. 2005 Oct; 8(7a):1028-1036.

    Part 1:  I'm over 40 and I can't lose weight!
    Part 2:  I already can I stop gaining weight?
    Part 3:  I'm not an can I lose weight?

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