There’s a cruel fate awaiting most middle-aged women in the modern world. As if you haven’t done enough for us already…what with raring children, sacrificing careers and keeping the household together. A recent medical report released this week has pointed the finger squarely at metabolism, specifically, women’s metabolism which suggests that most participants of the fairer sex, if they continue a relatively inactive march to middle-age, will put on two dress sizes between the age of 35 and 55. That means adding an average 1 kg a year for 20 years. If you blink, you’ll miss it…adipose (fat) cells increasing in size literally behind you own back. As a second back-hander the report suggests that a women’s skeleton also begins to lose its rigidity as we age with bone density decreasing after 30 years of age with a peak loss after menopause and beyond.
Let’s back track for a moment and look at this concept of metabolism, or specifically, Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). To keep us alive, every living body cell needs a never-ending supply of ‘simple’ energy in the form of glucose. This glucose comes from the food we eat, is digested and reaches each body cell via blood. Think of it as a steam engine with coal being shovelled into the fire burning engines of your muscles, heart, lungs, liver, kidney and brain every second of each day. This constant conveyor belt of energy happens even at rest (sleeping). In fact, a whopping 60% of the total calories burned by your body throughout a 24-hour period is attributable to your RMR. The other 30% is through physical activity and the remaining 10% is keeping your body temperature at a constant 37 degrees. Now, we’ve all met those who have a ‘high metabolism’ – the ones who can eat half a pig with the crackling and still resemble Olive from Popeye (we don’t like these people!) yet, we simply look at that chocolate brownie and it goes straight to our ever-thickening thighs! Why is life so unfair?
Around 35-40 years of age, a condition known as Sarcopenia sets in where your body experiences a natural decline of muscle mass (you lose about 1% of muscle mass each year from age 30) with a corresponding increase in body fat. As we’ve seen, the amount of muscle you carry has a significant effect on your RMR (muscle is high maintenance!). It stands to reason that in order to keep your RMR revved high into middle age you must keep your muscles strong and healthy. If you think this is impossible, think again. In fact, a women who was sedentary in her twenties and thirties can actually have a higher metabolic rate in her forties if she exercises and eats well. Case in point, do a google search of ‘cross fit women’ and you’ll see what I mean. I’m not saying that all 40-year-old women should be signing up to their local ‘box’ but you have to give credit where it’s due…cross fit is showing what muscle on women looks like at middle age!
At this point, I know what you’re thinking ladies. I can hear the rhetoric in your head…” I don’t want muscles, it will make me look bulky…I’ve already got big legs, I don’t want bigger legs…I think I’m too heavy now, I don’t want to weigh more…” Blah, blah, blah…All I can say from a 50-year-old man’s perspective is that maintaining muscle mass as I age makes me FEEL better. Yes, there is a secondary benefit of LOOKING better as well, but this is completely out of my control. From experience, if I keep my muscles strong and healthy my mental state and demeanour stays in check. To be honest, I don’t know how much I weigh, I don’t know how much my wife weighs either. It’s not important. The only thing that’s important is that we remain active as we age with an emphasis on training large muscle groups each week to keep them strong. So let’s take a look at how to keep your RMR revved to the max as we approach middle age:
1. Start Strength Training. Now I don’t mean having to sign-up to your local basement gym, push through the half ape, half man gym-junkies and suddenly start dead lifting 300kgs! Strength training simply means using a resistance to push against. Obviously this needs to be done in a systematic and planned routine, but simple body weight activity is perfect to get started leading to dumbbells, kettle-bells, medicine balls and the like, as you become more advanced. Exercises like push-ups (or variations of these depending on your starting point), lunges, step-ups, static holds, planks etc will actually make you stronger than any fancy gym machine ever will. These types of body weight exercises have been around since the dawn of time and are still used today because they work!
Why do it? When you place a muscle under ‘load’ it stresses the microscopic muscle fibers causing them to adapt. These fibers enlarge and multiply resulting in the ‘tone’ of a well-trained muscle. These fibers need constant nourishment with nutrients (protein, vitamins, minerals, oxygen, glucose) thus increasing your RMR simply to ‘maintain’ this state. The more muscle the higher your RMR. Period. Now the thing with strength training is that in order for it to work, you must hustle. It has to be a challenge. You have to ‘make a face’ as you push through to the finish. Lifting the pink paper-weight dumbbells in the corner of the gym is not going to cut it.
2. Start Cardio Training. In the 80’s it used to be called ‘Aerobics’, now it’s call ‘Cardio’. It’s abbreviated from the term ‘cardio-vascular’ which basically means heart and lungs. When we stimulate the large muscle complexes of the body (legs, posterior, chest, back, arms) the heart and lungs respond by shunting additional blood and oxygen to them. Any exercise which use these larger muscles i.e walking up hills, running, cycling, calisthenics, swimming, rowing, etc can be used for a cardio routine. Now, to make matters a bit more complex, there’s basically two types of cardio training – ‘steady-state’ and ‘high-intensity’. Steady-state is akin to walking up to a treadmill at your local gym, placing your drink bottle in the holder, watching CNN on the monitor above you and walk/run for an eternity. Whilst it has its merits, I can’t do it. As with strength training you have to hustle and get your heart and lungs working beyond their everyday stresses (for some, that’s not much!). Research constantly finds high-intensity cardio a more effective and efficient mode of training than steady state. An example of high intensity cardio would be running for 1 minute and then walking for 30 seconds over a 20 minute period. The major benefit of high-intensity training is that it’s shorter in duration yet higher in effort than steady-state workouts. My idea of fun is not exercising all day – this type of training allows you to get on with doing other things.
Why do it? Cardio training stimulates the most important muscle in your entire body – the heart. It works hand in hand with the lungs in transporting vital oxygen rich blood to your working muscles and the more conditioned it becomes the less ‘out of breath’ you become. Further, cardio training uses significant energy (calories) brought about by the workings of large muscles – so this type of training becomes an important body weight regulator as we age. Many studies, in particular the use of high-intensity cardio, point to significant anti-aging benefits, not to mention a stronger heart, lungs and overall circulatory system.
3. Eat Real Food. With the onset of a slower metabolism as we age there is no benefit in eating ‘fast-acting’ foods. These foods when digested release insulin quickly into the bloodstream and prevent your body’s natural default to use fat reserves as a fuel source. Foods such as soft drinks, sports drinks, shopping-mall made smoothies, sweet coffee drinks, sweet milk drinks, fruit juice, biscuits, cakes, donuts, sports bars, boxed breakfast cereals, products using highly refined white flour and the Big One – Alcohol, will do you no favours. Stick to real food: vegetables, fruits, rice (wholegrain), grains of wheat (wholegrain), pasta (dried or fresh), lean meats, water drinks. The health benefits of a nourishing diet cannot be overstated as we age.
Self-gratuitous alert: The 50Fit Program is designed specifically for middle-aged men and women. It encompasses strength training AND high interval cardio within each routine. It builds strength (muscle) while stimulating the heart and lungs in a 30 minute workout.