Pushing 40: My Quest to Avoid the Muffin Top, Keep My Energy Up and Find Peace With My Body

If you are frustrated with your own middle-aged weight gain, I encourage you to take a new route. Figure out what isn't working and leave your old habits behind.
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I thought it would never happen to me. I thought time would move at a snail's pace and that the natural progression from 20s-30s would never really hit. I was convinced that I would never be affected by the sneaky weight gain that my over-40-year-old patients talk about. It turns out I was naïve and wrong on all ends. I'm 10 pounds heavier today at 38 than I was at 27, despite the fact that I maintain a healthy diet 90 percent of the time, eat less, and exercise almost as much as I did in my 20s.

Victor Hugo once said that 40 is the old age of youth; 50 the youth of old age. I guess I have that going for me; I'm still young, kind of, according to a French poet from the 1800s -- and my mom. I started to notice my body changing around 35. The skinny black pants that helped me during my 20s (aka my dating years) were slowly becoming inappropriately tight. To make matters worse, my tops seemed to be getting a little shorter; I found I was tucking in (and sucking in) much more than tucking out. I realized that I had two choices:

Choice #1: Get a mom haircut, invest in the best sweats and suck-me-in undergarments, be grateful that I landed an amazing man for a husband while I was still fairly "hot" and ride off into the middle-age sunset.

Choice #2: Devout my research and career to helping other women in their second phase of life, maintain a great body, lasting energy and -- above all -- avoid gelatin abs, back fat, and a saggy tush.

I am proud to say that I chose the latter -- and here is what I learned.

Your sleep habits are a huge determinant of your weight
When the demands of work (both in and out of the home -- yes, BOTH are work) and children take center stage, sleep can often times take a back seat to other responsibilities. That means if you're working out like a mouse on a wheel and eating like a bird yet still can't seem to lose the weight, it may have something to do with the fact that you're not getting enough Zzzzs. A 2012 study found that a "lack of sleep increases the stimulus to consume more food and increases appetite-regulating hormones," making it more difficult to lose weight, despite efforts surrounding food and physical activity. The study went on to explain that total sleep, as well as quality of sleep, was a larger determinant of weight loss success than other factors.

Another study found similar results. Getting less than six hours of sleep a night reduced hormones capability to regulate energy balance. That means that the hormone that tells you to eat (Ghrelin) doesn't turn off and the one that tells you to stop eating (Leptin) never turns on. A duel disaster in terms of keeping weight in check. You're also more likely to want s'mores in place of spinach. If you want to keep your weight within a normal range, you're going to have to make sleep a priority. Don't downplay it with an attitude that you can subsist on four hours a night. Eventually, it will catch up.

You may need to double-down on protein
A 2013 study found that women who attempted to lose weight maintained more muscle and were able to achieve more fat loss when they consumed double the amount of protein that is recommended through general guidelines. This study may be significant for older women who struggle with weight maintenance due to a decrease in muscle mass. The key is focusing on the right protein, though. Getting your protein from plants over animals is associated with greater health benefits.

Get real about where your calories are coming from
Health experts constantly debate the theory that "a calorie is a calorie." Although I see a tremendous difference between 100 calories of broccoli and 100 calories of licorice, the hard truth is that if you eat too much of either of those foods, the excess will be stored as fat. Couple those excess calories with a decreased metabolic rate (due to loss of muscle as we age) and you've got the dreaded 40-year-old muffin top. A recent study, however, challenged the notion of a calorie being a calorie and showed that focusing on a low glycemic diet may be the key to losing weight, and more importantly, keeping it off. In fact, a low glycemic diet (when portion-controlled) provided benefits similar to a low carb diet without the adverse effects on long-term health and sustainability.

You have to schedule exercise -- and then you have to do it
Becoming a mom taught me the true value of scheduling. If I didn't schedule things, like doctors' appointments, haircuts and play dates, they would never happen. The problem was, I wasn't scheduling anything for myself. My days as a brand new mom were spent with the intention of getting out for a run or taking a resistant training class. But far too often, if I had a chance to sit on the couch and enjoy a nice glass of wine, I took it. So long good intentions, the need for couch time prevailed!

My inactive lifestyle phase was short-lived thanks to my best friend who got me the most envied jogging stroller out there. I had to show if off the world. I started walking with my baby, then running, and then, finally, scheduling it into our routine. Every mom knows that babies and dogs do best when there is a routine set in place, and the same is true for adults. Studies have shown if you want to stand a chance at body preservation, you have to get out and move. Planned exercise should include at least five days of aerobic activity and at least three days of muscle building resistance training.

I recommend scheduling your daily exercise into your calendar and doing whatever it takes to stick to it. Get workout "outfits," schedule a regular babysitter, get a great jogging stroller, put your favorite '80s tunes on your smart phone or even equate your exercise time as your "play" time. Just stop making excuses and do it. If you can sit on your deck for 30 minutes with your pinot grigio, you can get out and get your heart rate up too.

It's time to get real about your body
Muscle loss is not the only change that occurs in your body past your mid 30s -- baby making changes your body as well. As an adoptive mother, I can't relate first-hand to struggles of keeping your pre-baby body, but I can relate to the frustration of gaining weight and not being able to take it off. Not enough studies have been conducted specifically on weight loss after baby. The few that do, however, preach that diet and exercise are both "musts" if you want to achieve your pre-baby weight. While breast feeding may drop the pounds after the first pregnancy, additional modifications make the difference after the second and beyond. Two areas that have been researched focus on the impact of how much weight you gain during the pregnancy as well as how much you gain directly after as greater determinants of long-term weight regulation.

What does this all mean? It means that you'll need to go back to the basics and focus on diet and exercise to keep your weight in a healthy range. That means no fad diets, no pills, no cleanses and no starvation. None of those tactics have shown promise long term. It also means you'll need to embrace the body you have today, rather than obsess over the body you had yesterday. That doesn't mean you should go ahead and become overweight (there may be no such thing as "healthy" obesity ). But it does mean that your post-baby weight may differ from your weight when you got your driver's license. Accept it and focus on making today's body the healthiest one possible.

Start focusing more on your gut to avoid getting a gut
Now more than ever, scientists are unlocking the mysteries behind gut health and weight. A 2014 study found that healthy gut bacteria could be the key to regulating weight. Researchers found that a bacterial enzyme played a pivotal role in the quest towards avoidance of weight gain. Another study also showed the promise of probiotics in the diet to assist in weight loss efforts. Finally, an earlier study found that the emergence (and consumption) of "designer" probiotics could also help individuals attempting to lose weight (delete). We'll continue to see research on gut flora and what it means for our weight, but why wait for more evidence? How about getting some healthy bugs in you today?

Don't be afraid to tap into your inner self
I never thought of myself as someone who practices meditation, but over time, I realized that I meditated all the time; it just didn't look like what I thought meditation was. I believe (and the research supports it) that this has helped me in maintaining my pushing-40 healthy weight. Numerous studies have shown the stress-, inflammation-, and disease-reducing benefits of mindfulness. For you, meditation may be praying in church, having a clear brain on a run, practicing yoga, or just having quiet time before bed. Regardless of how you do it, make sure you do it daily. It will impact all other areas of your life.

I'm 18 months away from my 40th birthday and, to many individuals, I am still a baby. Despite the fact that I can't follow the crop top trend and can easily, upon demand, find a grey hair, I am grateful for 38 amazing years of life. Looking forward, I am committed to making healthy lifestyle choices that will help me in aging gracefully, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding disease. My hope is that by sharing my story, I can inspire you to take control of your health and vitality. If you are frustrated with your own middle-aged weight gain, I encourage you to take a new route. Figure out what isn't working and leave your old habits behind. Start to incorporate more activity and meditation into your routine and plenty of fresh produce, whole grains, healthy fats, and plant-based protein into your diet. I know that these changes won't be easy, but I can guarantee that they will be worth it.

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