The middle age spread is as unwanted as ageing itself. In fact, it may well be dreaded more than the wrinkles, aching joins and other signs of ageing. And for good reason. Not only does a middle age spread affect our appearance, often before our time, but it can also have a major effect on our health and quality of life.
The reason we get a ‘spread’ in our ‘middle age’ is largely down to the fact that as we age, levels of hormones that have maintained our muscle mass tend to wane. When we lose muscle mass, we burn less energy and are much more likely to gain weight. The good news is, there’s plenty you can do to prevent the middle age spread, and it doesn’t require running up mountains.
What is the middle age spread?
The middle age spread isn’t an acknowledged medical condition, but perhaps it should be. There’s certainly no denying the fact that for many people it’s very real.
“Middle age spread is a term commonly used to describe the accumulation of fat around the hips, bottom and belly in men and women as they get older and is often associated with decreasing core body strength,” says weight loss expert and GP Dr Patricia Bishop.
“In some people this weight gain may begin in their thirties, when they give up regular sport. In others, the weight gain happens after an injury or illness, or when the stresses of work or parenthood cause them to neglect their health and fitness.”
For some women the weight gain can begin with pregnancy and stay with them until menopause compounds the problem. For others, it can occur far sooner than mid-life.
“The middle age spread by definition refers to mid life, or our forties and fifties, but unfortunately we’re now seeing it in much younger people as well — an early age spread,” says Karen Inge, dietitian, weight loss expert and director of the Institute of Health and Fitness.
“It’s certainly a worrying trend.”
What causes it?
There are a number of causes behind the middle age spread, including changing hormones, reduced muscle mass, sedentary behaviour and dietary factors.
“We start losing muscle naturally from our thirties, and from a decrease in muscle mass you get a decrease in resting metabolic rate,” says Inge.
“Also, women at menopause and post menopause deposit more fat in the abdominal area, so it’s actually a hormonal physiological change which occurs with the reduction of oestrogen. So rather than depositing fat in the lower area and being pear shaped you tend to become more apple shaped.”
And it is this abdominal fat which is of greatest concern for our health.
“An apple-shaped body is not a healthy sign,” says Dr Bishop. “Excess weight gain around the abdomen is called central obesity, where fat is deposited around the internal organs, and this is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
Even pre-menopause, an imbalance in your hormones can result in weight gain, directly and indirectly.
“Hormone imbalance can cause food cravings, depression, fluid retention and lethargy, all of which make it harder to be motivated to exercise and change eating habits,” says Dr Bishop.
The other major factors that contribute towards a middle age spread are our diet and levels of physical activity.
“People’s energy expenditure generally decreases as they get older and that in itself means you need less kilojoules to exist,” says Inge. “But people often keep eating as they always have resulting in an energy surplus that contributes to depositing more fat.”
How can mid-life weight gain be prevented?
Even those with a predisposition towards middle-age weight gain can avoid it with the right approach and an understanding of how the body changes as it ages.
“You can preserve the muscle mass and actually increase muscle because our muscles have memory, so if you are active and keep your physical activity up there’s no reason why you should lose muscle mass. Or you can at least decrease the rate at which it’s lost and preserve the muscle you have,” says Inge.
“The best way to preserve muscle mass is by being physically active and doing strength training.”
Dr Bishop agrees that an early healthy lifestyle approach stands you in good stead for the years to come.
“Any exercise program should start with core body strength training and simple walking,” she says. “Our current western lifestyle encourages inactivity and overconsumption, so we have to learn to move more and eat less, and the earlier this education starts the better.
“Children at school need not just sports lessons, but lessons in how to maintain life-long fitness — not just cooking lessons, but how to make different healthy food choices to adjust calorie intake to match calorie needs.”
It’s estimated that we need to cut 200 calories a day from the age of 40 to 45 in order to maintain a healthy weight.
“It’s really a commitment to eating 80 per cent of the time fairly healthy foods, whereby at least half of the food you eat is coming from plant sources, and to being physically active every day,” says Inge.
Is it difficult to lose a middle age spread?
It’s a lot easier to prevent weight gain than it is to lose it, but it can certainly be achieved.
“It’s never too late but it is a big commitment to adopt a healthy lifestyle and it’s not about starving yourself or looking for a quick fix diet,” says Inge.
“Once you’ve been overweight or obese your body acts differently metabolically and that makes it more difficult to lose weight and particularly to keep it off. A lot of people think they’ve lost weight so they can go back to their old eating habits but it doesn’t work that way. Think of it as a haircut — you don’t cut your hair once and expect it to remain short.”
Your weight loss program needs to be sustainable, even enjoyable.
“Exercise alone is rarely sufficient for sustained weight loss,” says Dr Bishop. “It must be combined with dietary changes. If a healthy eating plan is combined with a healthy exercise program, a decrease in tummy size is usually apparent within two weeks.”
Dr Bishop recommends her clients set a goal of losing ten per cent of their body weight then, once this goal is achieved, setting another 10 per cent goal, and so on, until a healthy weight and waist circumference is achieved.
“The exercise program includes weight training for increased muscle mass and bone strength, as well as aerobic activity such as walking, cycling or swimming to burn calories and increase health and fitness.”
Whether you're in your thirties, forties or fifties, we've got a plan to keep you looking great. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for daily health and wellness advice.