Updated: May 19
Fat loss for women over 40 can be a tricky business. Not only are we faced with a natural slowing of our metabolism, (the engine to burning fat) but sometimes our lifestyles simultaneously dictate that we become a little less active. It is quite common to have a career that places extra demands on our time and energy, as well as perhaps having responsibilities of children or elderly parents, all of which leave little time for caring for ourselves, let alone thinking about an appropriate and sustainable exercise regime. However, I have to let you in to a secret. You don't have to, in fact you really shouldn't, spend hours doing long cardio workouts. Don't get me wrong—if you're trying to lose weight, a solid exercise regime should be part of your plan. It just can't be the only part, and more importantly, you are much better off establishing what types of exercise are best suited to you, and your body's needs NOW, as opposed to simply following an old exercise routine that was your go-to in your 20's and 30's.
At any age, if you want to lose weight, adopting healthy eating habits has got to be on the agenda. We all know that we need to eat a broad variety of micro- and macro-nutrients, for the optimal healthy functioning of the biochemical reactions and healthy functioning of all of our organs -- heart, brain, liver, kidneys and thyroid, to name just a few.
Deficiencies in the nutrients required for the healthy function of these organs may initially result in subtle symptoms such as fatigue, or dull hair or skin, which might not seem too unbearable to begin with, but if left unaddressed for years, as we age, they may manifest into more serious ailments. So what do we need to consider in our 40's and beyond in order to support our nutrient uptake?
CHANGING FUNCTIONAL REQUIREMENTS AS WE AGE
One thing I think, that is often overlooked when considering what we eat and where calories come from, is the changing needs of women's bodies as we age, in particular, during the periods prior to and throughout the menopause years.
The bottom line for weight and fat loss is indeed that you need to create a calorie deficit, which of course means using more calories in a day than you consume, but there is actually a lot more that goes into female weight loss and body fat loss, as we age.
There are many considerations in terms of lifestyle that should be considered, before we place all the blame on our hormones. As well as changing estrogen levels, older women may have a tendency to be less active and have less muscle mass, which means that they burn fewer calories (as their metabolism is slower) during the day, and after menopause, our cells naturally store more fat and are slower to release it.
These factors can all increase a woman’s risk for weight gain during the transition to and through menopause.
For some, these age-related factors may play a more significant role in weight gain than changes in hormone levels, but I do feel it important to address the possibility that some hormones may be playing a more significant role in the struggle to lose weight and body fat than we think.
DIET & HORMONE BALANCE
A closer look at how dietary changes can affect and better support hormonal balance within women, will help us to establish a sustainable and truly effective fat loss program, that combines making simple and heathy dietary changes with targeted and specific exercise regimes.
WHICH HORMONES PLAY THE BIGGEST PARTS IN WEIGHT GAIN AS WE AGE?
Estrogen & Progesterone: How are they related to body fat?
In short, BALANCE is key.
Estrogen and progesterone are the primary female sex hormones, BUT did you know they play essential roles in the regulation of appetite, eating behaviours and energy metabolism, and crucially, the balance between these two hormones, can have an impact on fat loss and health, and can cause symptoms of PMS, weight gain and fatigue.
Estrogen levels can be low in women for many reasons, but the most common reason for low estrogen is the menopause. This is when a woman’s reproductive hormones decline, and menstruation stops.
Through much of adulthood, women tend to carry fat on their hips and thighs. During and after menopause however, the decreasing levels of one form of estrogen in particular, namely estradiol, which normally help to regulate metabolism and body weight, causes women to store more fat in the abdominal area. This fat that we carry around the waist/belly area, is called visceral fat.
It is not surprising therefore, that one of the most commonly identified goals when discussing weight loss with my female clients, is to lose the stubborn fat that appears to have crept on around the waist in recent years, and that just never seems to budge no matter how much exercise they do.
Unlike other fat on your body, visceral fat produces hormones and other biochemicals substances that can:
cause blood vessels to narrow and blood pressure to rise
increase insulin resistance, which reduces your body’s ability to use insulin effectively (and leads to storage of carbohydrates and subsequent weight gain)
trigger inflammation, which is linked to a range of conditions, including heart disease
contribute to sexual dysfunction
increase your risk of getting some cancers
Cortisol - the Stress Hormone
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. The most notorious of the hormones, it has actually earned the nickname “the stress hormone” because it is released as the body’s natural response to stress. Cortisol can be helpful in the short term, but long-term stress can cause the adrenal glands to become overworked.
Over time, chronic stress prompts the body to pack on excess visceral fat. The largest concentration of receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, can be found deep in visceral fat tissue, and so a vicious cycle can begin; of elevated stress levels leading to weight gain and other health related illnesses, leading to increased stress...and so it goes on.
However, cortisol itself, is not evil. It is a hormone that circulates throughout the body and was made to be naturally released during stressful situations to help give you that extra pump of energy when you need it. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, it might have enabled you to escape a dangerous situation or animal. Today it is more likely to give you that extra boost of energy short term if you need to run to catch a bus for example!
Generally, our cortisol levels are naturally high in the morning (10-20 micrograms), 4-10 micrograms at 4 p.m, and lowest in the evening (less than 5 micrograms), and we do experience a natural burst in the late afternoon, which helps get us through the rest of the day.
However, the modern age in which we now live, has forced us to adapt to experiencing lengthier and more heightened stress levels— for perceived or real reasons - throughout the day. So unless you are doing something that is restorative, such as mindfulness, yoga, or Pilates for example, to counter these elevated levels of stress, you are likely going to be adding to the stress and therefore increasing the levels of cortisol that are being released in the body. Any workout that puts a strain on your muscles or accelerates your heart rate, is actually going to tell the body to release more cortisol. The problem with this, is that heightened cortisol encourages the storage of fat, rather than the burning of it.
So far better than daily high intensity workouts or long runs, is a variety of lower intensity, meditative, functional, low impact and perhaps Pilates or Yoga inspired workouts alongside the occasional longer run or higher impact exercises, and interspersed with weight training to strengthen bones and build muscles to tackle the reduction in bone density and muscle mass that go along with ageing.
In addition, it is advisable to find ways to manage your stress whether that is improving your sleep, taking more time to yourself through meditation and doing activities you enjoy.
Our mind can be one of the best assets we have in terms of controlling our hormones.
Deep breathing, meditating, journaling and being present in the moment can be incredibly effective ways we can help to manage stress and reduce cortisol levels.
How To Train with Low or High Cortisol Levels
It is not all about high levels of cortisol .
TRAINING WITH LOW CORTISOL LEVELS
If you are experiencing low cortisol, your biggest risk with exercise is over-training. It’s best to avoid metabolic conditioning; HIIT, sprints, and intense metabolic training. Basically, anything that relies on a good cortisol and adrenaline output to complete and deliver results. You just don’t have it right now, so you won’t get the same results, and you will not give your system time to heal.
Definitely walk. Walking helps normalise the cortisol response, so it’s great whether your cortisol is high or low. If your cortisol is low, you can continue strength training, just don’t do any metabolic work. Your workouts should be more along the lines of traditional strength training with plenty of rest, big lifts (like squats, bench press, deadlifts, rows, and overhead presses), full body movements, heavy but low intensity and volume (i.e., a 5x5 or 3x6 protocol).
TRAINING WITH HIGH CORTISOL LEVELS
If you’re dealing with high cortisol issues you may want to tone down your metabolic training to just one or two very short sessions per week and keep up the walking. For both, high or low cortisol troubles, watch out with hour-long metabolic classes such as spinning, as well as many CrossFit and bootcamp classes.
My advice is to avoid those entirely with low cortisol (you aren’t getting the benefits anyway). With high cortisol, you’ll do much better with shorter metabolic sessions, keeping them to to once or twice per week so that you don’t continue to drive the high cortisol output you’re dealing with.
KEEP LIFTING...most definitely keep lifting. High cortisol can quickly erode muscle mass. It’s best to focus on using heavier weight with more rest for your strength training sessions, and reduce the overall intensity you feel during each session.
Also, be mindful of doing too much long, moderate intensity cardio. Cardio is not the devil. It has its place, but because it drives up cortisol without triggering any fat burning hormones like growth hormone (the way more intense training does), you’re increasing stress without getting the same fat burning benefits. It’s inefficient at best, and when your stress hormones are running high, you’re adding fuel to the fire.
For those of you who love those long runs or bike rides, don’t worry, you won’t have to avoid them forever. Get your stress response normalised, then find a way to keep those exercises you love in your life in a healthy way that works for you and with you.
Thyroid hormones play an important role in maintaining a healthy weight as they regulate metabolic rate. When your body isn’t able to produce enough of the thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) is causes our metabolism to slow down significantly leading to weight loss becoming infinitely more difficult.
Healthy levels of thyroid hormones are really important when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. While some thyroid abnormalities can sometimes be caused by diet, it is also important to understand that these issues can be genetic. If you think that you have hypothyroidism, it is important that you speak to your GP as it can be treated.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP OURSELVES?
While the natural fluctuation in hormones isn’t something we can directly naturally control, we CAN control the food that we eat and the lifestyle choices we make, which in turn play a part in our body's function and secretion of these hormones.
By implementing the steps highlighted below, we can begin to influence the potential hormonal imbalances caused by diet, lifestyle and exogenous (environmental) estrogens.
What can you do today to start creating more balance in these essential but somewhat troublesome hormones?
1. Dietary Adjustments
Eliminating or significantly reducing the intake of refined carbohydrates must be the first thing to do if fat loss is a priority as it will also allow you to balance your blood sugar levels (and therefore reduce the likelihood of insulin resistance) and control appetite and cravings.
2. Digestive support Before prescribing dietary and nutritional support for weight loss, it is important that optimal digestion is present in order to ensure the nutrients in the diet can be absorbed properly and perform their various functions. Hydrochloric acid (HCL) for example, has been shown to be lacking a vast numbers of people's digestive systems. Since the main role of HCL is to breakdown and prepare foods to be assimilated in to the body, this means that all the greatest organic foods and fancy supplements in the world are going to be almost pointless, as they will not be effectively broken down, and absorbed for use.
There are a whole host of factors that can cause a reduction in the efficiency of the absorption of micronutrients including, gastrointestinal issues such as IBS and Coeliac disease, stress, a diet containing too much processed food. (Processed foods are high in sugar and rob the body of important micronutrients, particularly magnesium.)
Certain medications can also alter our bodies' production of hormones and absorption of nutrients. Stress, alcohol and caffeine similarly all play a significant role in reducing the production of digestive enzymes and reducing the thickness of the lining of the stomach wall, and therefore the affecting the assimilation across it of nutrients, in to the blood stream and the circulatory system.
HOW CAN WE IMPROVE OUR NUTRIENT UPTAKE?
Fortunately, there are ways to boost the body's ability to absorb nutrients, helping us to get the most out of food and supporting optimal body function.
Eat a variety of foods in one meal
To get a combination of nutrients, focus on including various colourful foods in your meals, for example, a salad with roast vegetables or brown fried rice with carrot, greens, courgette and celery.
Pair vitamin C-rich foods with iron
Particularly for people consuming plant-based iron sources (legumes, tofu, dried fruit), pairing these with vitamin C-rich foods helps to convert the iron in to a more bioavailable form.
Include healthy fats with each meal
Vitamins such as A, D, E, and K need healthy fats to efficiently absorb as they are all fat soluble. Some easy ways to do so are by using flaxseed oil and olive oil in food preparation or in dressings, and similarly adding nuts, seeds and avocados to salads and meals, are also a wonderful way to enhance your nutrient absorption.
Take a break from caffeine and alcohol
Alcohol and diuretics [like coffee] not only lessen the number of digestive enzymes in your system, it also damages the cell linings of the stomach and intestines, making it harder for the nutrients from digestion to enter the bloodstream
Manage stress levels
As we have already established, stress negatively affects digestion. The cortisol felt by the body during stress slows down digestion and food is left in the system undigested.
To help, try deep diaphragmatic conscious breathing which can relieve stress and get the digestive system going.
This one important factor can make or break our digestion
When you haven't had enough fluids or water, you immediately see a difference in your stools. Our digestive system is reliant on our level of hydration as our blood cannot transport nutrients without enough water in our system.
3. Don't be too hard on yourself - It might be in your Genes
As scientists have looked into weight-loss genes, they have found that people with variations of certain genes are more prone to put on weight than others.
To date, scientists have discovered seventy-five gene alterations that increase the likelihood of obesity.
These genes are usually involved in how the body breaks down food, stores fat, and sends signals to let you know you’re no longer hungry. Variations to these genes are known as polymorphisms.
As a result of genetic variation, two people could eat the same exact diet but put on vastly different amounts of weight.
One theory is that people who gain more weight from eating the same amount of calories do so because it was once an evolutionary advantage.
Thousands of years ago, food was often scarce, so being able to gain weight from very few calories could have meant the difference between life and death. Now, food is easy to come by, but still these “thrifty-genes” persist in some people’s genomes.
Lifestyle Effects on Hormones & Genes
So, your hormonal (im)balances and genes can make losing weight more difficult—but not impossible. While researchers are still working on understanding the relationship between nutrition, hormones and genetics, the good news is, you can work to combat them with small adaptations to your lifestyle practices.
In short, we need to
Reduce Stress -
Build in more nurturing and supportive activities in to your routine such mindfulness, Pilates, Conscious Breathing, journaling & slowing down in general
Boost Muscle Mass -weight training three days a week.
Use light dumbbells to train your upper body; do a few sets of squats and lunges every other day; and if you have access to a gym, work some leg lifts and leg crunches into your routine. Working out with weights and strength training take just a few minutes, but they have just as much effect, if not more, than cardiovascular exercises.
Tone down intensity
Your mind may be willing, but your body is weaker and slower now than when you were 25. So tone down the intensity of your exercising to prevent wear and tear of muscle and bone and to prevent injury. As you grow older, your bone density decreases and leaves you prone to accidental falls and fractures. To prevent this, you need to build bone density with strength training and reduce high impact activities that could damage your knees and leave you prone to early arthritis.
Keep an eye on your body and health at all times. Check in with your overall health, and if necessary visit your doctor to get yourself screened for various diseases like breast cancer, gynecological disorders, heart disease (women are more prone to heart disease when they near menopause and lose the protection provided by their hormones), and other illnesses. Also, take a step closer to fitness by giving up smoking and drinking regularly, and avoiding stress.
Fitness is not just a matter of aesthetics for women; it is an indicator of our overall health and wellness as we grow older.
It is crucial for our long term health, to take stock of what stresses we put on our body, mind and physical systems by looking at our daily routines, nutritional intake and mental and emotional wellbeing. Think about the physical activity that you do and whether it is supporting you or actually being counterproductive. Most of all, listen to your body. Within today's advanced technological world it is easy to get swept along by faddy diets and training apps, (which certainly have their place) but what is most important for you, can only be understood by you listening to and being in tune with your own body. So if you are struggling with weight gain and stubborn fat around the middle that has crept on, here is my advice.
It can be really helpful to get down on paper and identify what lifestyle factors might be creating obstacles to your weight loss.
Although a very simple exercise, it can be very effective; I suggest to my clients that they start by taking some time to write down the following:
1. What, if anything, currently makes up your daily and weekly exercise routine,
2. Make a food diary over at least 1 week: Daily diet sheets should include all meals, snacks and all drinks
3. Likes and dislikes in terms of physical activity
4. Amount of sleep on average per night
5. Stress (emotional, psychological and physical stresses or triggers of stress in your life)
6. What physical and/or emotional changes, if any, have you noticed in recent years?
7. What are your main aims and objectives in terms of weight loss, body shape, health related improvements
Once these have all been identified, we have a much clearer picture of the changes that can often quite easily and quickly be implemented, and those longer term dietary & lifestyle adaptations and appropriate exercise routines that can be established to best support your longer term health and happiness.
If you have any questions, as a result of reading this, or would like further advice on how to support yourself through weight loss in your 40's and beyond, please don't hesitate to get in touch via the website or leave a message for me below.
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