Belly fat: The battle of the bulge
An expanding waistline is a natural part of growing older – but that doesn't mean we have to take it lying down, says Dan Roberts
Tuesday 31 May 2011
For years I denied it. Just bloating, or protruding abs from too many crunches, I'd say to myself. Then came the jokey comments from friends; formerly perfect-fitting jeans now uncomfortably snug; glimpses in the mirror of a – god forbid! – belly. And the slightly sickening realisation: my once-lean stomach was gone, covered in this horrible, wobbly and gelatinous substance. Fat, I think they call it.
Not pleasant at all, but neither surprising nor uncommon. Having been fairly fit my entire life – and knowing I could compensate for over-indulgence with an extra run or gym session – when I hit my late 30s everything changed. If I ate too much junk, I put on weight. If I stopped exercising, I put on weight. Injuries stopped me from training and so I put on weight. Cardiovascular fitness was suddenly easy to lose and hard to regain.
Now aged 43, I understand these are common complaints in middle age. But is it just a natural part of the ageing process? Or due to laziness and poor lifestyle choices? And is there anything we can do to stop middle-aged spread?
Why do our bodies change?
Professor Tom Kirkwood is the director of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University. "You first need to understand what ageing is and why it occurs," he says. If humans lived in the wild they would die by the time they reached the age of 25, he says. So evolution has made us perfectly adapted to function until that age – not longer. "We have evolved mechanisms for maintenance and repair that keep our bodies in good shape until our 30s or 40s at most," Professor Kirkwood says. Because we have made the world unnaturally safe for living, we now survive long enough to experience the downside of ageing – an accumulation of damage that leads to changes in our bodies and makes us increasingly vulnerable to "a whole spectrum of age-associated diseases".
So I'm gaining weight partly because my body's maintenance and repair mechanisms can no longer compensate for the aspects of my diet – more calories than I need every day, too much red meat, dairy and calorific drinks like beer and wine – for which I am not designed. "Nothing flips a switch in middle age," Professor Kirkwood says. "What you see in your 40s and 50s is the classic middle-aged spread – thickening of the body, an accumulation of fat and deterioration of muscle."
Fighting it with exercise
Just because – especially in the West – we are prone to this bodily deterioration doesn't mean you should accept it. Apart from the aesthetics, studies show that accumulating fat, especially around your middle, is bad news. The Mayo Clinic, in the United States, looked at data from more than 15,000 people and found "central obesity" was dangerous because fat in this area has more of an effect on cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar. This "visceral fat" has been linked with a host of diseases, from Type 2 diabetes to cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Determined to stop my belly in its tracks, I visited Matt Roberts in his Mayfair gym. Roberts is one of the UK's top personal trainers, having honed the physiques of countless A-listers, politicians and City high-fliers. Having listened patiently to my litany of broken-down body parts (including a serious back injury last year), he gives me a mini-workout. We start with a half pull-up on some straps, which are hooked up to wall bars. "That exercise is working a large part of the back of your body, including your biceps, shoulders, upper and lower back, hips and buttocks," Roberts says.
On the mats I perform an oblique bridge, where I hold my body off the floor at a 45-degree angle with arms outstretched, which "gets the corset area of your abs, plus your love handles", Roberts says. We finish off with press-ups, to work the chest and triceps. It's a remarkably effective workout based on just three exercises.
Roberts says it's important to combine this type of vigorous resistance training with cardiovascular exercise such as running, swimming or cycling. "You need to make your muscle fibres highly activated, because that will help raise your metabolism and testosterone levels, burning more calories and keeping you invigorated."
In men especially, this drop in testosterone explains the loss of muscle mass. As a result, your posture changes and postural weaknesses turn into structural issues like prolapsed spinal discs or inflamed tendons and ligaments. This then stops you training, so you put on weight, causing more problems.
Just because you hit your 40s doesn't mean you can give up and settle into middle age. It's all the more vital to keep training, because that will maintain a healthy weight, muscular strength and stave off injuries.
Eat right, stay youthful
My final port of call is a nutritionist, Fiona Kirk. She confirms Roberts' view that muscle loss is a key reason for the characteristic middle-aged weight gain. "If you keep muscles strong you will burn up a lot more calories," she says. Kirk says you need to combine the right type of exercise with the right type of diet. Somewhat counter-intuitively, to burn fat effectively you also need to eat the right type of fat. "Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids result in improved muscle synthesis, in response to greater amino acid and insulin availability, which encourages the body to burn more fat," Kirk says.
It's all about eating healthy fats, like the omega-3s found in oily fish, nuts and seeds. Kirk also recommends eggs fortified with omega-3 and flaxseed oil.
Kirk cites recent studies that found up to 65 per cent of Northern Hemisphere-dwellers are deficient in vitamin D, which the body needs to absorb calcium and stave off age-related diseases like osteoporosis. "Luckily, vitamin D-rich foods like oily fish and eggs are also a great source of omega-3s, so you can kill two birds with one stone," she says. Apart from that, it's the usual healthy-diet advice about eating plenty of lean protein, non-starchy carbohydrates and a varied selection of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
It's not rocket science. The essential advice to avoid middle-aged portliness is to get plenty of exercise and eat lots of the right things and not too many of the wrong ones.
Our bodies may not be designed to live past 40, but we can offset their inevitable deterioration by keeping them in decent shape.
Tips for beating belly fat
Check your belly fat
* Place a tape measure around your middle, over your belly button. A measurement of more than 80cm (32in) for women and more than 94cm (37in) for men means you're at increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
* Over the age of 45, you need to consume about 200 fewer calories a day to maintain your weight.
* Even if you have a narrower waist, check your waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) to see whether your fat is distributed unhealthily. Measure the narrowest part of your waist, then your hips. Now divide your waist measurement by hip measurement – if it's higher than 0.8 for women and 0.9 for men, you're an unhealthy apple shape.
* Research has found that cutting out white bread, cakes and biscuits is one of the most reliable ways to beat the mid-life bulge.
* Aerobic exercise is especially important for reducing middle-age spread. Do 30 to 45 minutes of moderate-intensity exercises – such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling – at least five times a week.
* It's also important to do strength-based exercise like weight-training at least twice a week, because combining this with cardiovascular exercise helps you lose both subcutaneous (visible) and visceral fat (the invisible fat that covers your internal organs).
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