The real problem with letting your once fit self get horribly out of shape, is that when you do start again, you tend to have unreasonable expectations of yourself. In my mind I am still as strong as I was four years ago, still as fast, still as flexible but I am finding that on this journey back to health, my mind and my body are in complete disagreement. In fact, they are having what feels like a drunken back alley brawl over the subject. Making matter worse is that I am over 40 and whether I want to admit it or not, that changes absolutely everything.
Alex Hollings has titled his regular column Old Man Fitness. He’s a much younger human than I, but as he often points out to me, he has injured his body enough to have many of the issues a much older man might have. I have never really been injured. Unlike Alex, I really am just getting older, and I am woman and I am learning that makes a huge difference in how your body reacts to the stressors that you try to put it through to elicit a response.
When I began this journey, I started by running again and dear God did it hurt — everywhere! But running had always worked for me in the past so it seemed like the most natural thing in the world as a jumping off point. I also tried to eat much cleaner and healthier than I had been, except for completely giving up beer. This is something I am going to have a come to Jesus with myself about very soon — I may like the taste of it, but it’s going to have to stay on the shelf until I have earned a cold one again.
This just isn’t working
After a few weeks of somewhat pathetic but consistent running, I was making absolutely no progress. Feeling bad about it and ready to bury my face into a huge slice of cheesecake, I had a phone call with an old friend of mine. Chris is a former Marine around my age and working to get himself back in shape as well. He has never pulled any punches — which is one of the reasons he’s in my inner circle — and he reminded me that I was north of 40 and that meant I just couldn’t do things the way that I used to do them and expect similar results. So, I started doing research and talking to trainers and as usual, Chris was 100% correct.
So now I have moved to my fitness reboot plan version 2.0. Surprisingly, I found not all exercises are good for you. I suppose I knew this in theory but some of the science was really enlightening. When I was younger, all the normal stuff just worked and I could shed weight quickly so I never really put a lot of thought into it. Recent studies have discovered that exercises once considered to be an effective way to trim belly fat, get lean & fit and look younger, have now been shown to cause middle-age belly fat, loss of lean toned muscle and inflammation that causes you to age faster. Uh oh! No wonder I am not getting anywhere.
A gradual and progressive hormonal decline that usually begins around middle age and continues insidiously for the rest of your life, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as the “middle-age spread”. And some of the most annoying symptoms of the middle-age spread is an increase in belly fat and the loss of lean muscle tone that results in a dumpy, shapeless middle-age body. It’s no coincidence that most people over 40 stop wearing form fitting clothes.
The good news I found? Research has discovered that your body has the ability to re-stimulate lagging youth-enhancing hormones naturally. Thank God. So now what?
What not to do!
Stop relying on intense cardio
Too many people think that cardio is the answer to everything related to weight-loss and fat-loss but current studies suggest otherwise — doing conventional long cardio overtaxes your body and increases the production of stress hormone “cortisol”, which causes you to gain belly fat. Cortisol and I are very good friends these days.
Studies have also found that doing long frequent cardio sessions break down your lean muscles and increase the production of free radicals. Free radicals are nasty little molecules that damage cells in your body and cause chronic inflammation that accelerates aging and lead to serious diseases.
So, if you’ve been pounding away on a treadmill, cranking away on a stationary bike or slaving away on some other cardio machine — you need to stop.
I not only burn my candle at both ends, I burn it from the middle these days too. Sleep and I are no longer well acquainted.
As you get older and busier, getting enough sleep becomes a big issue. Although your body is resilient and can handle a lot of stress, there’s one thing it can not cope well without and that’s sleep. In fact, when you’re sleep deprived your body becomes overwhelmed with stress hormone “cortisol”, which loves to deposit fat in and around your belly. And unfortunately, you can’t exercise or diet your way to a flat stomach, if cortisol is the cause of your problem. You need to get quality sleep — period. This is something that I am really going to struggle with.
Endless ab exercises
If you want to get rid of those pesky age-related stomach weight, you have to get to the source of the problem. Unfortunately, doing ab-targeted exercises like sit ups, crunches and side bends will do absolutely nothing to help you get rid of your ab flab, because it’s not getting at the heart of the problem.
In fact, doing excessive ab-targeted moves can injure to your low back by causing unnecessary stress on your spine. This may come as a surprise but the purpose of your ab muscles is to prevent excessive bending and twisting.
Bottom line, don’t waste your time doing typical ab exercises
The cause of fat accumulation in your stomach area is due to hormonal changes in your body that occur as you get older. That means you have to stimulate the right biochemical processes in your body to trigger the youth-enhancing hormones that enable you to burn off your stubborn belly fat.
Squats are one of the most basic and effective exercises for the legs and glutes. However, older bodies are more susceptible to injury, particularly if weights are involved. If done incorrectly, squats can cause lower back and knee injuries due to muscle strains, tears and pulls.
In addition, squats may add muscle to your hips, making them appear wider. Many people will mistake the added bulk for fat gain when it’s actually muscle gain. It’s one area that people usually want to slim down, not emphasize. And because your body’s metabolism slows down after age 40, this is one spot you probably want to keep trim.
A good alternative to squats are lunges and step-ups.
Ok … What do we do now?
Incorporate strength training
Physiologically, the benefits of consistent strength-training include an increase in muscle size and tone, improved muscle strength, and improvements in bone density. This is particularly important for older women, who are at an increased risk for osteoporosis and brittle bones. Adding muscle can also give your metabolism a well-needed boost during the years when it tends to naturally slow down. Plus, lifting weights has also been shown to improve psychological health as well, by increasing self-esteem, confidence, and self-worth. Amen! This is something I definitely want to see in my own progress.
Besides increasing your endurance, power and strength, some studies suggest that strength-training can result in improved intellectual capacity and productivity, too. Physical exercise gets the blood flowing to your brain, which helps keep the mind sharp. Watch out world, not only will I be getting my revenge body, I’ll be even smarter to boot. Win win for me.
Finally, we talked about needing better and more sleep above. Strength training workouts have been linked to better sleep and more restful nights, Bonus!
High intensity interval training (HIIT)
Don’t cut out the cardio altogether – instead give HIIT a try.
Basically, high-intensity interval training involves short, intense bursts of exercise with less intense moves or complete rest in between. Essentially, it’s crazy-efficient—which means you could be spending less time in the gym each week while still cashing in on all the fat-burning, metabolism-boosting, and heart-pounding benefits.
Put them both together for a buy one get one free
You might not think that it’s possible to squeeze a solid strength-training session and a calorie-torching cardio workout into a quick routine, but you would be wrong. With interval training, you’re pushing yourself as hard as you can go to accomplish as many reps as possible. That butt busting earns you cardiovascular benefits. By incorporating strength-training exercises into your intervals (as well as cardio moves), you also reap muscle-strengthening benefits
So, I am off on this reboot now and will check in with my progress and specific routines in the future. I have already embraced so many things about being over 40 – this is just one more step on the way to being the very best that I can be. Best of luck if you are also out there working on your best self. We’ve totally got this! And once we do, we can toast a beer together since as of this week, I am giving up that lovely golden liquid for a while.
Featured image: Working Out At The Reily Center. By Tulane Public Relations [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons