When you hit your 40s, you learn very quickly that the exercise and diet routines that sailed you through your 20s and 30s just aren’t going to cut it anymore. Yes, your metabolism has slowed, and so has your body’s natural production of human growth hormone and your thyroid hormones (which regulate your metabolism). If you’re a man, you’re producing less muscle-building testosterone. If you’re a woman, less estrogen. And ladies, I hate to say it, but burning energy can be even harder for you, as you inherently have a worse muscle-to-fat ratio than your male counterparts.
But that doesn’t mean that dropping weight in your 40s is impossible. Quite the opposite, actually. With a targeted routine, a little discipline, and a few smart steps, you can flatten your belly and get your younger body back in no time. Here’s how—and for more great health advice, don’t miss The Truth about Drinking Alcohol While Pregnant.
A decade ago, you probably could get away with eating whatever you liked as long as you hit the gym a couple times a week. No longer. “While some people may have no problem increasing their time at the gym, they do not always put the same time into their nutrition,” says Liz Blom, a registered dietician and wellness coach. “Skipping meals, poor food choices, and a few beers with friends can surpass physical activity.”
While exercise is essential, 30 minutes of hardcore cardio is going to burn a few hundred calories, tops—not enough to make up for a single cheeseburger. Studies fail to show that a physically active person is less likely to gain weight than an inactive person. On top of that, since exercise increases your appetite, there is evidence that working out can sometimes nullify or even reverse weight-loss efforts. To top it off, sticking with a healthy diet is usually easier than sticking with an intense exercise regimen. So stop guilt-tripping yourself about skipping the gym—worry about what’s on your plate. And while you’re rethinking your diet, be sure to read about the 7 Best Foods for Your Heart—and Your Lifespan.
Fiber works wonders when it comes to keeping your weight down. “High-fiber foods tend to be more filling than low-fiber foods, so you’re likely to eat less and stay satisfied longer,” explains Blom. “And high-fiber foods tend to take longer to eat and to be less energy-dense, which means they have fewer calories for the same volume of food.
She urges men to consume an average of 38 grams of fiber a day and women 25 grams per day—beans, nuts, whole grains, and brown rice are all good sources for this. And for more ways to slim down, discover Why Sunshine Is Your Ultimate Weight Loss Weapon!
Due to the natural process of sarcopenia, we all begin to lose muscle mass around age 30 at a rate of 1 percent per year—a process that only speeds up once you hit your 40s. “This is a health problem for many reasons, but one of the main ones in regards to weight is that our basal metabolic rate is primarily determined by the amount of lean muscle mass we have,” explains Dr. Caroline Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center, as well as a professor at Boston University School of Medicine and the vice president of The Obesity Society.
As our muscles shrink, our metabolisms slow down (according to Apovian, the average person burns about 200 fewer calories per day at age 45 as compared to age 25). So what’s someone in his or her 40s to do? Well, eat a diet rich in protein—the most satiating of the macronutrients, which will keep you feeling fuller for longer and less tempted by between-meal snacks. But if you’re going to snack, make sure it’s one of these Perfect High-Protein Snacks.
Of course, not all protein is equally good for you. “Most men think ‘protein’ means a big steak,” says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “That may have a lot of protein, but a well-marbled steak also has a lot of fat—more than can be trimmed.”
Instead, Apovian urges that men build meals around healthier protein sources: lean turkey, chicken, salmon, and plants. Protein bars or powder can be good, but they should be unsweetened (none of those candy bars pretending to be health foods) and ideally draw on whey and casein as their protein sources. “Whey contains particularly high levels of the amino acid leucine, which stimulates the protein synthesis that protects lean muscle tissue, thus keeping the basal metabolic rate at an optimal speed,” explains Apovian. “Casein, on the other hand, digests slowly, over the course of several hours, to keep blood sugar steady and keep us feeling full longer.”
But hey—if you are eating a steak, here’s how to cook one at home like a pro.
The common belief is that cardiovascular exercises burn calories and strength training builds muscle. That’s true—to a point. While cardio is great for your heart, increasing lung capacity and decreasing stress, that doesn’t mean you should do it exclusively, ignoring the weight-loss benefits of strength training.
“Losing muscle mass contributes to a slower, compromised metabolism, and a softer, rounder shape,” says Apovian. “Muscle mass must be maintained and built up—especially as we age—in order to lose weight and keep it off.”
That doesn’t mean you need to look like The Rock. Working out with weights a couple of times per week is enough to reverse the loss of muscle mass. Not only that: like cardio, strength training has also been shown to lower stress levels, while also improving cognitive abilities, protecting against bone loss, and reducing risks for Type 2 diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
In order to get the most weight-loss benefits out of strength, you should emphasize total-body movements. “Squats and deadlifts will pay off much more than isolating muscle groups with curls and dumbbell raises,” says Tyler Spraul, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and the head trainer at Exercise.com. “These movements create the largest calorie-burning effect, especially if you are lifting heavy.”
He adds that full-body moves also help exercisers iron their own physical imbalances that naturally develop over time. Once you get more confident with these techniques, you can increase weights in order to see added calorie-burning, particularly through the “afterburn effect” as the body continues to burn calories even after leaving the gym. Bonus: Here are the 15 Easy Ways to Look a Decade Younger.
Salads can often be worse than the sum of their parts. That’s especially true if ordering in restaurants where the kale or spinach is drowned in dressing, croutons, or other delicious and unhealthy toppings, and where the salad itself is large enough for two meals.
If you’re having a salad, keep the dressing to olive oil and balsamic vinegar (and not too much of it) and maybe a teaspoon of Parmesan cheese, but no more. And keep in mind that there are other ways to get your vegetables, beyond salads. “Roast any veggies you like—cauliflower, carrots, and zucchini work well,” says Ayoob. “Just cut into same-size pieces, toss in a plastic bag with some olive oil, instead of brushing them with oil, which saves some calories but still delivers the flavor.” For more help re-hauling your diet, here’s our Stay Lean For Life Eating Plan.
“Cutting out those carbs later at night is really going to help [lose weight],” says Jamie Logie, a certified personal trainer, strength training specialist and nutritionist who hosts the podcast Regained Wellness. “That unused energy from the carbs is more likely to turn into body fat as your body is slowing down at the end of the day and less likely to burn them off.”
Add to this that after 40 your metabolism starts to drop like a rock and you have some major challenges. Logie advises you to cut out your eating after 8 p.m. or so, or at least be sure to stick with protein or vegetables that keep blood sugar levels down. So maybe swap out that piece of chocolate cake for a carrot, and you’ll be in shape in no time. And when you want to lose more weight, This Is the Safest Way to Lose Weight Over 40!
Get in the habit of splitting your food when you go to a restaurant. As soon as your meal arrives, mentally (or even physically) cut it down the middle, and know you will be taking half home for lunch the next day.
“You won’t have offended anyone because you participated in the meal,” says Darius Russin, a board-certified physician and nutrition expert. “And, you’ll have food tomorrow so you won’t do any groceries.”
Men’s testosterone levels start to drop in their 40s, which can cause fatigue, sleeplessness, weakness, depression, as well as weight gain. But the right diet can influence this hormonal balance, according to Apovian.
“Men should include egg yolks and foods that are rich in zinc in the diet, such as seafood, spinach, mushrooms, and lean meats, to boost testosterone production,” she says. “They should limit or eliminate added sugars, which decrease testosterone, and also soy, which imitates estrogen in the body.”
If you want to enjoy a healthier, leaner body as you approach middle age, cutting out sugar is key. “With estrogen and progesterone levels starting to fluctuate, we become more sensitive to sugar,” says Ariane Hundt, MS, a New York City-based nutrition coach and fitness expert. “When we eat these carbs, we respond more drastically to them and our blood sugar soars more than it used to. This results in faster fat storage and sugar sensitivity.”
Unfortunately, that often means cutting out nature’s candy, as well. Even fruit sugar can contribute to excess weight around our waistlines as we age, so it’s best to limit yourself to a small amount on a daily basis. Hundt recommends no more than 20 grams of fructose a day for most people. “Be very limited when it comes to starches, fruits and sugar as those increase insulin levels and with that fat storage.”
A healthier body in middle age doesn’t just mean eating healthy foods, it means eating organic ones, as well. According to Dr. Etti Ben-Zion, PhD, Sr. VP of Research and Product Development and a Partner at Dr. Smood, organic food is key to maintaining the health of your skin as you age, helping you maintain your youthful glow in the process. “It’s very important to eat quality organic food loaded with antioxidants and minerals and devoid of herbicides,” says Dr. Ben-Zion. “Organic bell peppers, oats, burdock root and radishes are excellent sources of silica which slows the aging process and increases the luster and glow of your skin.”
You don’t need to dial up the intensity to get a more effective workout: just increasing your focus will do. “Put down the phone and focus. If you only have 30 minutes, focus on getting an intense and efficient workout. There are 23.5 other hours to be distracted,” says Glenn Dickstein, Founder and CEO of NeighborhoodTrainer and a NESTA-certified personal trainer.
Don’t assume that all water is created equal when it comes to your health. “Hydrate with quality water,” says Dr. Ben-Zion. “Most tap water is highly polluted, so make sure to drink quality water and infuse it with a pinch of Himalayan salt, lemon or decorate your water with Goji berries, raisins, cucumbers or herbs like parsley for additional health detoxification properties.”
Just because something is technically a vegetable doesn’t mean it will help you get a fitter, healthier body, says Hundt. She recommends limiting your intake of starchy vegetables as well when you’re over 40, so keep those potatoes, squash, and corn on the menu, but only in small amounts.
Getting toned as you get older is easier than ever with the addition of probiotic foods to your diet. Researchers at the Université Laval found that women whose diets were supplemented with probiotics lost significantly more weight than those in a control group. Kimchi, here you come.
You don’t need to do high-intensity workouts to see results when you’re over 40. Hundt recommends doing lower-intensity workouts, like yoga, to maximize your fitness goals while limiting the cortisol-spiking stress response other workouts can cause.
While many people assume that a low carb diet won’t provide enough fuel to build muscle, research suggests it may actually be the key to carving out the body you’ve always wanted. In a study conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina, researchers found that a very low carb diet actually helped reduce the body’s fat stores without significantly depleting muscle mass.
Don’t just increase your total protein intake in a single meal, but spread your intake of protein-rich foods throughout the day, recommends Hundt. “Protein is a thermogenic food as about 30 calories of 100 calories consumed will be burned off simply through the digestive process, so eating it every 4 hours or so allows us to feel full and balanced,” she says.
If you have to decide between exercising and another activity you could outsource, choose exercise every time recommends Dickstein. “You can send out your dry cleaning, you can order in dinner, but no one else can exercise for you,” he says.
While many people may acutely feel the effects of their slowing metabolisms in their 40s, most don’t know how to stop it. However, getting a metabolic assessment from a trainer or doctor may help you better understand your caloric and exercise needs and adjust your meal and exercise plans accordingly.
You don’t need to get sweaty to enjoy a healthy calorie burn. Hundt recommends that clients over 40 try swimming instead of some higher-impact exercises to limit the stress-related cortisol spikes often triggered by higher-impact exercise.
If you want to lose weight without risking injury in your 40s, try adding some dance to your routine. Researchers at Fukuoka University found aerobic dance effective at reducing body mass among middle-aged women with mild obesity, despite the workout’s generally low-impact, low-injury nature.
Want to get fit in your 40s? Try loading up on healthy fat. Hundt recommends keeping an eye on how much fat you’re eating and ensuring it comes from quality sources. “Fat intake needs to be monitored as well and should mostly come from avocado, olive oil and the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids,” she recommends.
While it may be tempting to skip a gym day here or there, staying consistent is the key to maintaining your muscle mass as you age. In fact, researchers in Denmark found that just two weeks of immobility significantly reduced muscle mass that six weeks of training afterward couldn’t make up for. “The biggest tip I can give is to be consistent,” says Dickstein. “Create a program that fits your busy professional and family schedule. If you can consistently exercise only 20-30 minutes, do it. The longer days will present themselves and you’ll be better conditioned to take advantage of them.”
If you want to maintain your healthy glow and keep the elasticity in your skin, it’s time to say so long to those sodas. “The biggest problem with soda is the crazy amount of sugar that causes an inflammatory reaction in the body, which causes pre-mature aging such as wrinkles and a saggy and dull texture,” says Dr. Ben-Zion. “In addition to sugar, the caffeine found in soda can dehydrate the skin, emphasizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”
Instead of eating three squares, your 40s are the ideal time to try eating smaller meals throughout the day to combat the metabolic dips that tend to accompany middle age. “An ideal diet consists of four or five smaller meals throughout the day, lots of green salads with lean proteins, and a little good fat from olive oil and avocado,” says Hundt.
Adding a little extra vitamin D to your diet could be the key to maintaining your health and fitness as you enter your 40s. Researchers at the University of Milan found that high levels of vitamin D supplementation yielded the greatest weight loss among overweight and obese adults, so don’t be afraid to enjoy a little controlled sunlight and supplements.
Those marathon workouts you enjoyed in your 20s may be doing more harm than good by the time 40 rolls around. “In terms of workouts, we need to understand that long, drawn-out cardio sessions, such as long runs and very intense and stressful workouts, such as spinning, sprinting and long HIIT workouts can make our bodies more stressed out and promote high cortisol levels, which boosts fat storage around the midsection,” says Hundt.
A little stretching can go a long way when it comes to improving your overall health, fitness, and your likelihood of becoming injured in your 40s. While stretching isn’t a major calorie burner, research published in the Journal of Athletic Training reveals that stretching can reduce muscle soreness and injury risk, limiting the risk you’ll find yourself sidelined and unable to exercise.
In your 40s, it’s more important than ever to eat the right foods to fuel your workouts. “A good basic guideline for every meal would be to focus on one to two fist-sized portions of lean protein and two fist- sized portions of green vegetables,” says personal trainer Casey Dellas, who also recommends adding some healthy carbs for an extra boost of energy before and after intense training sessions.
Intermittent fasting is all the rage among the fitness community, and with good reason: research suggests it’s an ideal way to maintain your muscle mass while ditching unwanted fat. In fact, research published in the Journal of Translational Medicine suggests that eight weeks of time-restricted eating yielded significant fat loss while maintaining study subjects’ muscle mass.
If you do decide to indulge in some dessert, make it dark chocolate, says Hundt. “Cocoa boosts serotonin levels—your happy neurotransmitter—and also makes your brain and mouth think they had something indulgent,” says Hundt, who says that skipping a sugary dessert will also yield fast results, like a reduction in bloating, weight loss, better skin, and even better sleep.
Trading in that burger for an omega-3-rich piece of salmon could be the key to the fit body you want over 40. Research published in PLoS One reveals that omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced obese study subjects’ waist circumferences. Better yet, research suggests that bulking up on omega-3s may even reduce your risk of dementia as you age.
Although weight loss often means muscle loss, as well, there is a way to maintain your hard-earned muscles while still cutting fat. Researchers at McMaster University found that calorie reduction while weight training signals the body to preserve muscle mass, helping maintain a person’s metabolic rate and fitness level, even while losing fat.
Think you can afford to skip the cool down after your workout? Think again. Walking might just be the best way to burn more fat while reducing your body’s cortisol levels. “The ideal workout consists of a 20-30-minute lifting session, followed by a long, relaxed walk afterwards,” says Hundt. “While the lifting session helps boost a short release of adrenaline and cortisol, the walking reduces the stress effects and allows body fat to be burned off.”
Getting the body you’ve always wanted after 40 may mean skipping happy hour, especially if you tend to have more than a drink at a time. Researchers in Korea found that heavy alcohol use contributed to greater muscle loss after menopause, so if you’re trying to shape up and slim down, nix the drinks from your usual routine, or stick to just one when you go out.
Exercise isn’t the only way you can improve your body as you approach middle age. According to Hundt, meditation is an effective way to improve your body from the inside out. “Meditation and other R&R activities are now much more important [in your 40s] than ever before as they help reduce stress, boost mental focus and lower stress hormones.”
Getting enough sleep is always a good idea, but it’s particularly critical for your health in your 40s. According to research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, short sleep duration is linked with both weight gain and an increased likelihood of obesity, so don’t skimp on snoozing if you’re dreaming of a leaner, healthier body.
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