There's no end to promises. Every month, on the cover of every health magazine, there's that promise of flat abs in five days, a yoga butt now, and five pounds and three inches off our waists by the end of the week. Research shows that most women actually have lower self-esteem after reading health and fitness magazines, but guys, you are not immune either to the ideals of youth and beauty. Boys and men now account for 5 to 15 percent of patients with anorexia or bulimia. You might not be influenced by an 18-year-old selling age-reversal face cream, but many women in their 40s, 50s and beyond focus on unachievable weight loss and body image goals. Coming to terms with biology, preventing chronic disease and understanding how fat cells are impacted as women age is the focus of a new program called Embrace Your Range at the University of California at Davis, led by Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition.
"Body fat shifts as women age," Applegate said. "We still have that prehistoric wiring to store fat." Although there are at least 10 genes that regulate fat distribution in women and men, once a women turns 40, the fat that was once in the hips and thighs in her 20s and 30s shifts towards the belly. As she approaches menopause in her 50s, even without a change in body weight, abdominal fat increases due to a decrease in estrogen. Applegate helps the women in her program find acceptance through a diet and exercise plan that accounts for the changes that accompany age.
Although there is no halting the aging process, physical activity is one aspect that women can control with a balanced exercise program. The Women's Healthy Lifestlye project, for example, is a strong example of the benefits of lifestyle changes on avoiding weight around menopause. In this four-and-a-half-year study, the intervention group participated in various sessions, including recipe modification, social support, restaurant eating, food labeling, a 1,300-calorie reduced-fat diet and physical activity goals of 1,000-1,500 calories per week, along with ongoing consultations. Although this group only lost about two pounds, their waist sizes decreased by almost an inch. The control group gained about 5.3 pounds.
A look at Healthy People 2010 data reports that less than 30 percent of women engage in regular exercise, and only 17 percent engage in strength training, both well-documented benefits to women with menopausal symptoms. Many women in Applegate's program, prior, through their logs, had reported that they weren't strength training. In another study, postmenopausal women were expending 130 calories per day less than premenopausal women, tipping their positive energy balance towards dreaded extra pounds.
The eating plan in Embrace Your Range emphasizes increased protein intake as well as fiber derived from fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains rather than supplements. Many of the women in her study weren't getting the recommended 2010 Dietary Guidelines for protein, particularly in the morning, as they skipped breakfast. The guidelines allocate 25 percent of the plate to lean sources of protein, or about 70-90 grams a day. Three pieces of fruit and three cups of vegetables with three different colors are emphasized for enough fiber to control body mass and perhaps also prevent Alzheimer's. There is some evidence that dairy, such as yogurt, may block fat storage, as well as play an important role in preventing osteoporosis, says Applegate, as half of all women are prone to the disease. It also turns out that certain foods, such as empty calories and alcohol, prompt fat cells to fill up, creating more of a fat droplet in the cell. But those very same fat cells are willing to shrink with enough exercise.
More than 80 percent of the participants in the program reported feeling more energetic on the eating plan, enjoyed the camaraderie and improved body image. Her program was recently presented at the American College of Sports Medicine's 15th annual Health & Fitness Summit in Anaheim, Calif.
Connie Aronson is a health and fitness specialist and certified personal trainer in Ketchum.