Those in their 40s just rolled their eyes when Miley Cyrus proclaimed that people in that age group don’t have sex. But what they can’t deny is that losing weight in that decade gets much, much harder.
Blame it on evolution.
“If you were a hunter-gatherer, the oldest person in the village is always going to get food last,” explains Dr. Sean Wharton, medical director of the Wharton Medical Clinic, a community-based internal-medicine weight management clinic with locations throughout Ontario. “So you’re going to hang onto as much weight as possible to survive. As we get older it’s harder to lose weight because the body wants to hang onto it.”
All the Botox in the world can’t conquer the slow-down of metabolism that accompanies aging. Mitochondrion, which Wharton describes as an “energy package” that lives in every cell, becomes less efficient, like an old furnace. “As we get older that furnace burns a little less, which is why we get grey hair and wrinkles. The mitochondria just don’t work quite as well.”
Declining muscle mass in your 40s plays a role too.
“Muscle is more metabolically active than fat tissue,” says Dr. Helen Cho of the Calgary Weight Management Centre. “Our muscle mass gradually declines beginning in our 20s. Resting metabolic rate [RMR] is the energy or calories required to perform vital body functions, such as respiration and heart rate while the body is at rest. As we age, our RMR also naturally goes down, so that if we eat the exact same number of calories and do the same amount of exercise in our 40s that we did in our 30s, we actually would gain weight since we have more calories than we actually need since our RMR has gone down. Studies show that our RMR declines about 2 percent per decade.
Lifestyle comes into play: hectic schedules leave little time for working out, and it’s not uncommon for those with demanding careers to let healthy eating slide, opting all too often instead for lunches and dinners out. Crash diets also lower the metabolic rate. “Your body ends up burning muscle for energy,” Cho says. “When you stop dieting, you gain the weight back in fat since your body is now storing up for the next time you go on a diet and when the body thinks it is starving.”
Just as gender equality is an ongoing fight in the corporate boardroom, men have a distinct advantage over women when it comes to shedding pounds.
“Men have greater capacity to lose weight because of the metabolic system again,” Wharton says. “Men inherently have a greater amount of skeletal muscle mass. Skeletal muscle mass burns six calories whenever it needs a repair, and fat cells use about two calories. Muscle cells need a lot more energy, and you will grab energy from fat cells and burn your fat cells to get that energy over to the muscle cells. Of all my patients who are couples, the men always tend to lose weight faster than the women.”
Gender differences also exist among medical conditions that cause weight gain. Hypothyroidism, for instance, is five to eight times more common in women than in men, Cho notes; one of its key symptoms is weight gain. Women also have the added challenge of losing weight gained during pregnancy, and hormonal changes associated with perimenopause can also make it harder to lose weight.
For men, habits tend to be an important factor in gradual weight gain.
“We usually find that an injury or a change in their lifestyle from being physically active to being more sedentary slowly increases their weight,” Cho says. “We see men who are used to having a few beers and chicken wings after playing hockey or football with the guys suddenly get injured or are unable to participate for other reasons. If they continue having a few beers and eating high calorie foods out of habit, then you can see how the pounds can creep up fairly easily.”
So what can men and women in their 40s do to successfully shed pounds and keep them off?
For starters, get out the weights.
“There are two types of exercise: cardiovascular and resistance,” Wharton says. “I would recommend in any weight management program to try to work on 30 percent of a resistance activity where you’re actually ripping muscle—not just using muscles but getting it to stage where you’re ripping muscle so repair is necessary. It’s not just mild Pilates or mild yoga; it has to be a ripping of the muscle.
“The remaining 70 percent would be cardio, which…maintains weight over the longer term,” he adds. “During time when you can’t do cardio—say your ankle is swollen or sprained—you can do sitting exercises that engage muscles, so you can continue to be active.”
Four essential steps:
Be mindful of what you put in your mouth. “Track everything you eat on weekdays as well as weekend days, since we tend to eat differently when we are on a schedule,” Cho says.
Plan to eat every three to four hours during the day and don’t skip breakfast. “When we’re starving, we tend to eat more than we usually need, resulting in additional calories and weight gain,” Cho says. “Drink more water and less alcohol, which is high in calories but low in nutrition.” Ramp up the intake of vegetables and fruit and cut back on refined carbohydrates and processed foods.
Aim for at least 30 to 45 minutes of activity three to four times a week, plus that aforementioned resistance weight training, and avoid sitting as much as possible. “Any activity that you do that prevents you from sitting allows your body to burn calories, and it all adds up,” Cho says.
Do not use over-the-counter “weight loss” pills: “they’re all baloney,” Wharton says. “There’s no scientific evidence that they work.”
In some cases, medication may be prescribed, Wharton says, noting that behavioural modification can help too. “With the assistance of a behavioural therapist or counsellor, we can walk people through their [eating] patterns, the emotional and psychological factors, or their lack of organized eating structure.”
Finally, if you are carrying what you (and not necessarily others) perceive as a small amount of weight and have no associated medical problems, there may be another strategy.
“If it’s not a medical issue but a cosmetic issue, maybe acceptance of certain things is what’s necessary,” Wharton says.