The term ‘middle-age spread’ often refers to the weight gain that often occurs from the 40s onwards – and in particular during and after the menopause in women.
A landmark international study, published in August 2021, however, concludes that the so called ‘middle-age spread’ is actually a myth. The culprits for ‘causing’ the so called ‘middle-age spread’ are around changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle, rather than anything else.
What does the new research show?
The new study looked at more than 6,000 people from 29 countries over 40 years. The participants ranged in age from 8 days to 95 years. They found that our metabolism peaks around the age of one, when babies burn calories 50% faster than adults. It then gradually declines at a rate of around 3% a year until the age of 20 and from there, rather than slowly declining as previously thought, it flattens out until about the age of 60. Once you reach the age of 60, it then starts to slowly decline again by about 1% each year. This means that by the time we get to the age of 90, our metabolism is running over a quarter lower than in it was in mid-life.
So why do we seem to gain weight during mid-life?
So, if a significant reduction in metabolism isn’t to blame, why do people struggle with this so called ‘middle-age spread’? There are likely to be several reasons for this, as outlined below:
- Changes in diet – dietary changes can happen as well get older. Some example include eating out more frequently as income increases, drinking more alcohol, moving towards more convenience-based foods (which are naturally higher in calories)
- Hormonal changes – weight gain is a common side effect seen during the menopause, which is caused by the significant drop in the hormone oestrogen levels. This weight gain tends to be deposited centrally (‘central adiposity’) after the menopause, which can lead to metabolic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
- Changes in physical activity levels – often people become less active as they get older. This can occur due to a range of factors such as changes in job (moving towards more sedentary work), children getting older (less ‘running around after the kids’ and less active trips or days out), retirement (leading to a more sedentary lifestyle), illness and other health conditions (conditions affecting mobility, e.g. arthritis and knee pain, can force a reduction in physical activity).
- Lifestyle factors – other lifestyle factors, such as increased stress (due to career, family relationships, worries about the pandemic) and lack of sleep can become more common as we get older.
Tips for nutrition and exercise
If you would consider yourself ‘middle aged’ and are concerned about any of these factors, read on for some helpful tips to help you stay healthy:
- Revisit your food habits – the impact of the internet and social media means we are all faced with misconceptions about what our diets should look like on a daily basis. Getting back to basics and looking at what you are eating and making small sustainable changes towards a healthier intake is the way to go. What changes could you make today to eat more healthily? This might include reducing your portion sizes, reducing your sugar intake, increasing your fruit and vegetable intake, or cutting back on alcohol, eating out and takeaways. Research continues to suggest that eating wholegrains regularly can have a positive impact on weight maintenance.
- Review your lifestyle – stress and lack of sleep can have an impact on weight gain. If you are stressed, making time to relax, de-stress and re-energise is really important. It could be something as simple as making time for a relaxing bath or listening to some contemplative music.
- Establish a regular exercise routine – consider your current lifestyle and plan changes to become more active. If you struggle with mobility issues, there are still plenty of options, for example chair-based exercises, or seek advice from a personal trainer to create a bespoke plan.
- Weight training – there is some evidence that weight training can offset the central adiposity caused by menopausal changes, as we as helping preserve muscle mass and raising metabolic rate
For more information on the study discussed in this article, please visit: Metabolism changes with age, just not when you might think -- ScienceDaily
Written by Annemarie Aburrow RD BSc (Hons) PGDip, Slim & Save Dietitian.
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