And I really thought I wouldn’t be. I was sure that if I watched my weight, stayed really active, and took my vitamins, I could avoid becoming a rectangle. It’s really one of my least favorite geometric shapes. (Though I don’t like trapezoids much either.)
But alas, I am becoming more rectangular by the day, and I weigh the same as I did when I got married, I exercise every morning, and I choke down a handful of vitamins every night. What’s up with this? Why won’t my body behave anymore? I have never had a Scarlett O’Hara waistline (17 inches with Mammy’s help), but I’ve always had some kind of indentation there below my ribs and above my hips.
Now, not so much. And it’s just not fair. I’m doing everything right, dammit.
Well, not everything. A few years ago, quite against my will, I stopped making estrogen. Yeah, I’ll try not to use the “M” word here, as I know that it is offensive to many (Ha!), but when that happened, my body decided to do things differently. I didn’t have a lot of say in the matter. I even tried replacing that estrogen (with a side order of testosterone) with pellets of hormones implanted right into my right buttock. That hurt like hell and then I had some rather unpleasant side effects I’d really rather not discuss. That only lasted a few months.
So now I’m left with my rectangularness, and my worry that if I don’t do something differently with my eating and exercise habits at this phase of my life, my shape will soon resemble a hexagon—and I really hate hexagons.
So, what’s a girl to do? I miss those hormones I used to take for granted. They really were useful when it came to helping me maintain my girlish figure. The estrogen was good at keeping the fat distribution on my body more hour-glassy, and the testosterone helped me maintain good muscle mass, which in turn kept my metabolism humming along burning up all those extra cookie calories. Even the progesterone helped keep fluid retention at bay.
And now, they’re gone. That ship sailed. It arrived at port sometime in my mid-forties and is now all but disappearing over the horizon. Oh well. It’s not the end of the world, maybe not even the end of my waistline—what’s left of it.
There are some things I can do, despite the endocrinological mutiny I’ve experienced over the last decade. Though I may never again resemble an hourglass, I don’t think I have to become a hexagon either—or an oval, or any other shape that is broadest through the middle.
The standard advice to “eat less, and exercise more” is colossally frustrating to those of us who don’t eat a whole lot to begin with, and who exercise regularly (of course that is the starting point for those of us who don’t). But the changes I’m going to suggest may not float your boat either. They require changing the way we do things. And at our age (the age when our reproductive hormones go AWOL) we can tend to get a little set in our ways. My best advice is this: Don’t get set in your ways. Especially now, when your ways, for whatever reason, aren’t working for you.
So, if you’re already “eating less, and exercising more” and find yourself getting thicker and thicker around the middle anyway, you might want to consider making some specific changes to your exercise and diet regimes. Here are three exercise strategies that seem to be working for me:
Switch it up: Find at least three different ways to move your body—your whole body—every week. Do yoga, walk, run, swim, dance, paddle, box, lift—hell, resurrect your old pogo stick, and hop. Mid-life weight gain is largely a result of decreased muscle mass, ipso facto, decreased metabolic burn. The muscles we don’t invite to the party get their feelings hurt, and eventually don’t want to show up at all. (Wouldn’t you?) If the only exercise you get is a daily brisk walk, your shoulder and chest muscles may feel left out. If you only lift light weights, your heart (cardiovascular system) doesn’t get an invite. If you only practice restorative yoga—your fast-twitch muscle fibers may not get the attention they need to stick around. Which brings me to the next point.
Twitch it up: Research shows that muscle fiber type is a hugely important factor in understanding the reasons for mid-life weight gain—especially around the mid-section—and how to avoid it. Without going all Bill-Nye-the-Science-Guy on you, a brief explanation on fast-twitch/slow-twitch muscle physiology might be helpful. (But first remember this: It’s the recruitment of as many muscle fibers as possible that burns the most fat and changes your body composition most effectively.)
Your muscles (and mine too) are made up of two main types of fibers: fast-twitch and slow-twitch, usually at roughly a 50/50 ratio (often only until mid-life). The slow-twitch fibers (or type 1) are smaller and have a lot of stamina. They are the first fibers recruited for most activities and are good for endurance activities like long distance running or cycling. The fast-twitch fibers (or type 2) are much bigger and fatigue rapidly. They contract quickly for movements like jumping (that pogo-stick?) or sprinting. Fast-twitch fibers require massive amounts of energy (i.e. calories).
We tend to lose the fast-twitch fibers if we don’t use them—or at the very least, they atrophy or get smaller. Muscle biopsies of older men and women show a marked decrease in type 2 muscle fiber size and number. This is not good news. Those type 2’s are the fibers that deliver the biggest bang for our buck—the ones that really burn those calories. And to add insult to injury, all that muscle mass that we’re losing is usually being replaced, and if you can pinch an inch or two or ten, you already know, with what.
So, how do we keep this from happening?
Invite them to the party, those type 2 fibers—by doing some stuff that they enjoy—like lifting weights (probably a bit heavier than you’re used to), and any move that forces you to generate power quickly, like jumping, hopping or skipping. Channel your inner three-year-old. Move like a toddler.
You say your joints don’t like moving that way? Ever since the meniscus tear of ’08, or the rotator cuff injury from your killer serve, or the ever-present arthritis soreness, or the recurring plantar fasciitis, you’ve decided that “impact” exercise is not for you. Well, only your orthopedist knows for sure, but you’ll be spending a whole lot more time with him if your muscles “forget” how to move quickly and you trip over your grandson’s Lego castle, topple down the steps and break a hip. Remember, it’s those fast-twitch muscle fibers (combined with good reflexes) that come to the rescue when you’re falling.
The exercise doesn’t necessarily have to be “high-impact,” pavement-pounding sprints, but it should be weight bearing and quick. It can be incorporated into exercise you may already be doing. If you go on a long walk every evening, try skipping for a few paces every few minutes. (Really fun for you, and the neighbors who are watching.) If you only lift light weights at the gym, try out the back row of a Zumba class (or just about any class for that matter). If you ride your bike for exercise, stand and sprint in timed intervals.
Which brings me to my final suggestion today.
Break it up: One of the very best ways to train your muscles (fast-twitch fibers specifically) and your heart is through interval exercise. And incidentally, studies show that it is also the best way to generate that “after-burn” effect—the continued metabolic burst that keeps burning calories at an accelerated rate, even hours after your workout. You want that. You really do.
Remember, the point is to recruit absolutely as many muscle fibers as your body will allow—and to make sure that the ones with the biggest metabolic impact (the fast-twitch ones) get out on the dance floor at the party. And remember, they won’t get out there if all you play is Marvin Gaye. Get some B-52’s crankin’. The trick is to alternate between the two within the same workout: steady state exercise (e.g. a comfy jog) interspersed with shorter bursts of more energetic exertion (e.g. a quick sprint). But it doesn’t even have to be that intense, especially if you’re just starting out. Nor does it have to be strictly regimented with carefully timed intervals. Just break it up. The easy stuff with the hard stuff. And the good news is that you get to do more of the easy stuff, as long as the hard stuff is as challenging as you can manage without making yourself miserable and killing your motivation. How about ten minutes of the Electric Slide followed by a couple of minutes Jitterbugging? Rinse and repeat, and you’ve got yourself a twenty-five-minute interval workout for rookies. Move the intervals closer together and decrease the ratio between easy and hard, and your fast-twitch fibers will soon be dancing the night away.
And whittling your waist away. The bottom line—or middle line in this case—is that maintaining muscle mass by slowing the age-induced loss or atrophy (sarcopenia) of fast-twitch muscle fibers is probably the best thing you can do exercise-wise to keep your girlish figure. Or your rectangular figure. Or to start to chisel down the widest angles of your hexa-bod.
These three principles are really very easy to implement. Every exercise class I have taught for the last twelve years incorporates all of these strategies. In my class, aptly named, Use it or Lose it, we go through all the decades of studio exercise. We’ve been exercising together at the same gym (Gulf Breeze Aerobics and Fitness) at the same time on the same days now for more than a decade. I’m a Certified Personal Trainer but found that teaching groups was way more fun. In my class, we do a kind of aerobics montage, and it’s a hoot. We start out in the ‘70s à la Jane Fonda; step it up for the ‘80s on the bench; jab, hook, cross and kick-box for our ‘90s throwback; pump it up hip-hop style with a little “krumpin’” and “jerkin’” for the 2000s; and mellow it all out with some good old yoga that’s feeling new again for so many this decade. Principle one: We “switch it up.”
Also, in every single class, I demonstrate high, mid, and low-impact variations for each segment of the class. But I encourage everyone—from the 17-year-old cutie on the front row to the 82-year-old super-hero-great-grandmother by the side mirrors—to “twitch it up.” Experiment with quicker movements and a little bit of impact as they become comfortable with the exercises and choreography. We do little “drills” every single class that progressively move us through no-to-low-impact sets to mid-to-high-impact variations of the same basic move for those who are ready for the challenge. We even incorporate a plyometric, or jump training, set for those who really want to get those fast-twitchers twitching.
(An added benefit of weight-bearing exercise like this is that bone growth is actually stimulated by impact exercise—any impact beyond what our body normally experiences in a day. So we don’t necessarily have to dust off our pogo stick to reap important benefits. Several women in my class have, over the years, increased their bone density—and their DEXA Scan results prove it—through the type of workout routine described here.)
Every class also includes several “intervals” of brief but intense cardiovascular work interspersed with steady-state cardio. We “break it up.” I sneak the hard stuff in there and get it over with quickly, so we hardly know we’ve done it. But our muscles do, and they respond by recruiting all their buddies (fast-twitch ones too) to help us through it, demanding we expend tons of energy (i.e. calories) even hours after we’re done with class.
So, the bottom line (as far as exercise is concerned) when it comes to battling that middle age spread seems to be muscle maintenance—specifically those big, metabolically active, fast-twitch fibers. Try these strategies and see if it helps.
Next month I’ll discuss three dietary strategies for whittling the waistline that have worked for me (and my husband). I always thought it was just a simple calories-in/calories-out equation. Then that stopped working for me. I’ve learned, especially when it comes to abdominal fat weight gain, it’s a little more complicated. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.