For many women, turning 40 can mean more than blowing out more birthday candles or turning the calendar into a brand-new year. While being the big 4-0 can mean entering a new decade of being fabulous, it can also bring some not-so-fabulous changes to a woman’s health and fitness. Sorry, it’s true. But before you start lamenting the agony of aging – rest assured, there are ways to combat it.
If you ask many women about their major health headache (figuratively speaking), excess belly fat will likely rank high. Ugh, it’s stubborn! And yes, thanks to a combination of factors culminating with age, it’s even harder to get rid of as the years go by. Age itself doesn’t change where this fat is stored (gals are predisposed to storing fat right in the midsection – more on that later), but the proportion of visceral fat can start to change. This can be brought on by a poor diet or exercising less, both of which tend to happen as we get older.
And belly fat isn’t just annoying; an excess is downright unhealthy. Doctors state that fat can contribute to serious health risks, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attack – just to name a few.
Thankfully, you can do a few things to help stave it off, and it may be beneficial in getting rid of it for good. But I won’t lie – it’ll be work.
Why Is This Happening?
A 40th birthday can also mark a change in hormones, namely estrogen. Estrogen is the hormone most famous for supporting female sexual and reproductive health – developing breasts, regulating a menstrual cycle, and stimulating fertility. Estrogen also promotes fat storage during a woman’s reproductive years (think: good fat). When menopause hits (typically between 45 and 55), estrogen levels drop, which can cause weight gain, additional belly fat, and an increased challenge.
Another side effect of menopause is a slow metabolism. Basically, this means women burn fewer calories and can start gaining weight. Every decade after 40, a woman’s metabolic rates slow down at an increased rate. Recent research indicates that metabolic rates drop earlier than scientists first thought. The study, published in Science, noted that total energy expenditure was stable for men and women aged 20 to 60 (including during pregnancy). Still, the average age for basal metabolic rate dropping was around 46.
Stress shows up! It can rear its ugly head in belly fat at any point in life. That’s because prolonged stress (LIKE – EVERYDAY LIFE!) can increase blood sugar levels, spiraling into increased cortisol levels. This can lead to feelings of hunger and irritability, which aren’t conducive to good eating habits or a stress-relieving workout. Put it together = increased belly fat. And once you get into that cycle, it’s hard to break out of. People who consistently have high cortisol levels also have a higher body mass index and larger waste measurements.
To keep the belly fat at bay, keep moving (more on this below)! Living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to creeping insulin and cortisol levels, which can lead to increased belly fat and subsequent weight gain. Coupled with unhealthy eating choices, and the pounds can pack on quickly.
So…What Can I Do?
Belly fat is stubborn. It’s no secret it’s the toughest fat in your body to lose.
Belly fat has different types of receptors called “alpha receptors,” instead of the “beta receptors” in most of the body that release fat much faster. So, when you lose weight, you’ll start to see it in the areas of your body with “beta receptors” (remember: it starts from the inside-out. The first fat to go surrounds your inner organs, like your liver and kidneys), and then (albeit slowly) to the alpha receptors in your abdominal areas.
So you’ll have to work at it.
Keep in mind: there is no such thing as spot training! Doing 1,000 crunches every day will not budge belly fat significantly. It’s really all-over work. That being said, there are several things you can do to keep belly fat at a minimum and trim it away safely.
Keep Up a Fitness Routine
Aim for 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or daily cardio exercise to burn calories and encourage fat loss. Think: running, cycling, swimming and group fitness classes for cardio, and HIIT?! It’s just about any bodyweight movement you find in your CrossFit box! Cycles of full-body activating movements, like squats, push-ups, pull-ups, or farmer’s carries, are all great choices – set your watch for 45 seconds on, 15 seconds rest.
Strength training is fabulous for fat reduction too. A study on Obesity found that weight training alongside a low-calorie diet was more effective in reducing fat and maintaining lean muscle than in adults who did just cardio and a proper diet. So pick up the intensity by lifting heavier loads for moves like shoulder presses, goblet squats, and split lunges, to name a few.
The traditional “ab” exercises can also have their place in fighting belly fat (but remember, don’t lean on them entirely!). Try a 60-second plank hold, bicycle crunches, or 30 seconds of leg lifts to trim your midline. And bonus: they’ll also peak your posture.
The old phrase “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet”? Yeah, it’s true. Keep your diet clean with soluble fibers (fruits and veggies are your best bet, along with legumes like beans and oats) and lean proteins (meat, eggs, and fish). Avoid those fun trans fats, typically found in margarines and other spreads, and monitor carbs and sugar intake.
It might be a good idea to curb your alcohol use as well. A study involving alcohol in more than 2,000 people indicated that participants who drank daily but averaged one or fewer drinks per day had less belly fat than those who drank less frequently but consumed more alcohol on the days they drank. A good benchmark: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends one drink or fewer per day for women and two drinks or fewer per day for men.
Get Your Rest
Sleep solves everything, doesn’t it!? So aim for 7-8 hours consistently if you’re watching your midline (or, really, If you want better health overall!). Research indicates that people who hit the sheets for six or fewer hours a night tend to have a higher body mass index (BMI), fat percentage, and waist circumference than those who sleep for seven to eight hours per night.
Yes, the hour makes a difference! For example, the same study noted that people who slept six hours a night had more fat stored in their abdominal areas than those who slept seven hours per night.
Remember your late-night noshes or Monday morning hangover brunches? Not getting enough sleep doesn’t do you any favors with your food decisions, making you more susceptible to grabbing the easy, processed food (30 seconds in the microwave sounds *much* easier than prepping a meal from scratch when you’re sleepy) or craving the WHOLE pizza.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Remember that stress leads to increased cortisol levels and insulin levels. Both can lead to an extra layer of inner fluff. Getting enough rest, eating right, and exercising are all great ways to keep a great baseline. If you’re still struggling, consider adding self-care actions like meditation, journaling, or therapy.
At the End of the Day…
Belly fat may be unsightly and aggravating, but at the end of the day, remember that it’s a small part of you. It is not indicative at all of the whole you – the beautiful, strong woman who is doing her very best to be her very best every day.
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.