Getting Fit After 40
For me, the final straw was the picture. My mental self-image was that of a fit fortyish woman, but when a neighbor sent me a photo of the two of us and our kids at a party, I wondered who the porker was. Then I realized it was me.
I tried a new low-fat, low-cal diet but couldn’t stick it out for more than a few days. I pledged to exercise more but failed to carve out the time to create a real routine. I admitted I didn’t have the discipline to jump-start this change on my own, so I started investigating structured support systems: Weight Watchers, my local gym, spas, boot camp. Then I heard that MORE was recruiting volunteers for a fitness makeover that would specifically address the challenges women face after 40. The three-month program would include weekly sessions with a top personal trainer; access to Chelsea Piers, the biggest gym in New York; and advice on nutrition. I jumped at the opportunity — I had a lot to lose.
Real Women with Real Issues
Three other recruits were chosen because they, like me, struggle with the same obstacles most 40-plus women face. Marcia Wood, 46, a single mom with a four-hour commute to a Wall Street human resources job, couldn’t find time for exercise. "Last summer a group of friends started walking, but then scheduling got difficult and we stopped," she says. She was naturally thin when she was younger, but the pounds crept on after she turned 40. With a family history of arthritis and type 2 diabetes, she needs to work out to stay healthy.
Elizabeth Baller had moved to New York to care for her father. The 51-year-old nurse took a home-based job reviewing medical records, and that left her sedentary and stressed. No exercise and frequent fridge runs added up to about 30 pounds. "I used to be able to drop weight by dieting for a month," she says. But at menopause, she discovered that this strategy no longer worked. She hadn’t used a gym in years, and the new machines were foreign to her. She was concerned she would hurt her weak ankles.
Medical problems were the primary motivator for Karen Auerbach, a 49-year-old book publicist. Her total cholesterol was 229, and her doctor threatened medication if she didn’t lose 40 pounds. Weight Watchers helped her shed 26 pounds, but then she hit a plateau. She hoped serious exercise would be the key to the last 15 pounds; five 40-minute walking workouts on a treadmill every week hadn’t made a dent in her weight. But she felt out of place in the gym and was scared of intense workouts.
As for me, I’d always used exercise to balance a love of food. But like Marcia and Elizabeth, I felt as if the complexities of midlife were conspiring against my waistline. Back surgery, complications from pregnancy, and other conditions combined with motherhood and long work hours meant less exercise, more stress eating, and more pounds — 50 of them. By my 40th birthday, I had little muscle tone, a chocolate habit, and the return of some back pain.
The four of us met with Jan Griscom, a trainer at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center, one morning last July. Instead of focusing on physical benefits, as she might have done with a younger crowd, Jan started with our mind-set: We each had years of experience trying to get fit and not succeeding, so our expectation was that we’d fail again. "Starting today," she said, "we are going to let go of the guilt and start fresh. As of right now, think of yourselves as active women."
Four hours of exercise a week? It sounded like too much until Jan broke it down: one weight-training session, one weekend outing, and two other alternatives — walks, yoga classes, whatever. The key, she said, was to make exercise a habit. (To try the some of the exercises Jan recommends for midlife, see "The Workout" on page 5.)
We each sketched out a plan. In addition to meeting with Jan, Elizabeth would take two aerobics classes and do an extra training session, and she would cycle to and from Chelsea Piers, one mile each way. Marcia would walk, do weights at home, and meet with Jan when she wasn’t traveling on business. Karen promised to increase her treadmill pace, add strength training at the gym, and bump her five weekly workouts up to six. And I signed up for physical therapy twice a week for my back, yoga once a week, and at least one weekly solo strength-training or walking session.
The first results were psychological. "I feel better, and I’m able to exercise longer," Elizabeth said after just three weeks. Marcia dug her treadmill out of the basement and installed it in her bedroom. "Seeing it there morning and night, I started walking more, making excuses less," she said. Karen sweated on the cardio machines at paces she’d never before considered. "My body truly craves movement and getting stronger," she said. I had the same feeling. It was glorious to be moving again. I was sleeping better too. And we all committed ourselves to eating better. Who wants to do all that work and then blow it over dinner?
30 Days In: Getting into the Groove
After one month, I showed up at breakfast in a sports bra and shorts. "What happened to your belly?" my husband asked. I beamed. My abs, arms, thighs, and posture all looked better, my face was slimmer, and my clothes felt looser. That was fast! I hadn’t lost much weight, but I’d probably replaced some fluffy fat with muscle. My back didn’t hurt. I was trying harder yoga poses, like pigeon, and holding them longer. I hopped on my bike one day, got lost and came home two hours later — and felt fine the next day.
Elizabeth reported that she had shifted from being "the fat middle-aged woman in the back of the class" and was "reconnecting with the fit person" she once was. She felt stronger, but her pants were just as tight. Though she was burning thousands more calories a week, she’d lost just one pound. Jan suspected that Elizabeth had unknowingly increased her eating and suggested that she watch the calories of her snacks and meals. Marcia was having trouble squeezing in workouts between traveling for work and getting her son off to his new boarding school. Jan worked with her on finding ways to exercise during her commute (small seated moves she could do on the train) and at hotels (find a gym, climb the stairs, walk outside). If Marcia could find time for short sessions throughout the day — 15 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at lunch, 20 minutes after dinner — that would add up to a significant 45-minute workout by day’s end.
Karen, on the other hand, was going strong every morning at 6:30 a.m. Jan coaxed her onto an arc trainer that uses both arms and legs in a simulated hiking motion, thereby working more muscles for optimal toning and calorie burning. Karen bought an iPod and, in cardio rapture, cranked up her favorite tunes.
60 Days In: Stepping Up the Routine
Two months after we started, I’d gone down a pants size. I was keeping up with the workouts and squeezing in exercises here and there — a few squats while folding laundry, pliés as I brushed my teeth — anything to move more. (See tips from trainer Jan Griscom on page 6.) A heavier workload made it harder to carve out workout time, but I bought a bike seat so I could tote my toddler around town. And thankfully, my scheduled physical-therapy appointments were marked on the calendar. (Funny how you keep an appointment you have to pay for.) Those got me going a few times a week, so I never wandered too far off track.
Karen wasn’t happy with the scale, so Jan suggested she cut out her Weight Watchers bonus points (extra food you earn by exercising) and stick to her core diet. Elizabeth, feeling fit, was even more frustrated that she hadn’t lost another ounce. And Marcia was doing what she could. She took a longer walk to the train instead of her usual shortcut and exercised about half an hour a day on weekends.
It was clear we needed to reenergize our programs. Like most women who exercise to control weight, we’d focused on the activities that were most convenient for us without giving much thought to what we would enjoy. Now that our bodies were used to our routines, they weren’t being challenged enough to drop pounds.
Jan had a fix: She gave each of us a quiz from The Chelsea Piers Fitness Solution, a guide for using sports to make exercise enjoyable; our scores would match our personalities with sports. Elizabeth’s results showed that she loves learning new skills. She likes to compete with herself but also enjoys the camaraderie of group activities. So Elizabeth went rock climbing with Jan. It’s Jan’s favorite sport for midlife women because many think they can’t do it; scaling the wall builds confidence that is often lacking after years of unsuccessful attempts to diet and exercise. When Elizabeth e-mailed us her on-the-wall photos, we cheered her accomplishment.
Marcia’s quiz results showed that she strives to be an ace player. Golf and yoga are excellent options for her personality type and practical alternatives when she travels. Jan suggested she take a beginner-yoga DVD to play on her laptop in the hotel room.
Karen scored as semicompetitive. Her results suggested golf, ice-skating, swimming, tennis, boxing, and yoga. My quiz results showed me to be more competitive and in need of a challenge. I’d never tried boxing, so one Saturday morning Karen and I found ourselves the only virgins in a class of 16. We jumped rope, put on gloves, and learned to throw a few punches. After some bag work, the instructor sent us all side-skipping around the track, then put us through sets of killer abs exercises. We were sweating rivers but happy and never bored. Call me crazy, but I felt 20 years younger.
Final Move: Shaping Up Our Diets
"The age-related decline in metabolism, coupled with any decrease in activity, makes it much harder to lose weight after 40," says Theresa Kinsella, RD, the registered dietitian at Chelsea Piers. Ten weeks into the program, she asked us all to keep three-day food diaries and gave us a form with questions next to every meal or snack: If you’re not hungry, why are you eating? "Stress, boredom, or procrastination are common reasons for non-hunger eating, which can lead to extra pounds," Theresa says. "The food diary lets you look at your patterns."
Karen was eating the right foods in the right portions, thanks to the Weight Watchers points system. Theresa advised her to learn to eyeball serving sizes so she could maintain her weight loss when she went off the program — to note, for instance, how full her bowl was after she poured in one cup of cereal and a half cup of milk.
Marcia needed to drink less juice and eat more whole fruit for additional fiber and fewer calories. To help prevent diabetes, Theresa suggested she add more vegetables and lean protein to her diet, which contained Jamaican dishes such as fried fish and seasoned rice (high in salt and fat). She also said we could all avoid getting bored with our diets by adding herbs and spices to bland foods: cinnamon and nutmeg to oatmeal and yogurt; garlic to vegetables and stews; chili powder to anything with beans.
Elizabeth needed to make a strong commitment to bone health by adding more low-fat dairy to her meals. Theresa said she could satisfy cravings for rich foods and at the same time give her bones a calcium boost by adding nonfat yogurt to oatmeal or nonfat ricotta to pasta marinara. But Elizabeth’s big hurdle turned out to be the seven daily snacks she used as breaks from the stress of work and her father’s ongoing care. She attempted to make them healthy — fruit and nuts — but she was still consuming an extra 600 calories a day.
My main problem was dinner: I loved trying new recipes and treating myself and my family to comfort foods like lasagna and turkey shepherd’s pie. It was my time to relax with my husband and son, plus cooking was a great break from my home office. "Make one meal for everyone," Theresa counseled, "but fill half of your plate with vegetables and take a smaller serving of the main dish." She encouraged the four of us to eat at least two cups of vegetables a day and suggested we focus on that instead of what we couldn’t eat. I embraced the half-plate veggie plan: I could eat my favorite foods, feel full, and lose weight. Brilliant.
For all of us, Theresa recommended that we eat morning meals high in fiber, like cereal, so we stay satiated and are less likely to overeat later on. For dinner, she encouraged us to try healthy frozen meals on those can’t-cook days, like the brands Amy’s and Kashi, which have whole grains, high fiber, and better-than-average taste. "Most of the prepared meals aren’t very big, so add a side of frozen vegetables, like Cascadian Farm Gardner’s Blends, to fill you up," she advised. Other tips: Choose whole grains, like whole wheat pasta, old-fashioned oatmeal, and brown rice, to stay full longer and provide more nutrients. (Recent research shows a number of health benefits from whole grains for older women, including reduced diabetes risk and staying slim.) "And use fats where you’ll notice them most — like the schmear on your toast — and cut them back in cooking," Theresa said. "Pan-fry using a thin coating of olive oil spray instead of butter, or try nonstick cookware and no fat at all."
How We Did
After three months of guidance and encouragement, each of us had lost weight — though only Karen trimmed off as much as she had hoped. She gave the program her all, getting up early every day and showing true dedication. We all felt that exercise was now a part of our lives — and that you get out of it what you put into it. As Jan had told us at the start: "Exercise is like a college course. You can’t register and skip class, then expect to ace the final." But show up, do the work, and you get great results.
Elizabeth cut way back on snacks: When the urge struck, she got up and did a few minutes of exercise, made a cup of herbal tea, or called a friend. She dropped six pounds and regained her positive body image. "I got back in touch with feelings of energy, strength, and peacefulness," she says.
Marcia attributes much of her seven-pound weight loss to changes in her diet. Her take-home from this experience: She discovered that exercise could be part of her hectic life. Now she even gets on the treadmill and lifts weights at hotel gyms when she travels.
Karen lost those extra 15 pounds, and her cholesterol dropped to 188, with her HDLs at a healthy 50, which puts her in a low-risk category for heart disease with no need for medication.
As for me, my back isn’t miraculously repaired, but I’m no longer afraid to work out, knowing that my stronger abs offer protection. I lost 10 pounds, and I’m feeling better about my body. Most important, I found a program that made fitness a part of my life, and I’m going to stick to it.
Lower Body Toner (works buttocks)
A. Stand with legs hip-distance apart, and rest your left foot on a towel (or a paper plate if you’re on a carpet.)
B. Keeping right knee above right toes, slide left foot back so your body goes into a lunge. Bring left leg back to start. Do two sets of 10 to 12 reps. Switch legs.
Heel Slide (works hamstrings)
A. Lie on the floor, heels on a towel or paper plates. Do a pelvic tilt and raise buttocks off floor so your torso forms a straight line from shoulders to knees. Rest arms on floor at sides, palms down.
B. Slowly slide heels out to straighten legs; don’t let your butt touch the floor. Hold for one count and pull heels back to starting position. Do two sets of five to 10 reps, working up to 20 reps.
Waist Whittler (works abs)
A. Sit on a stool or bench. Place heels on the floor, hip-distance apart, and bend knees. Cross arms across chest. Lean back from hips as far as you can while keeping a natural spine and head aligned with spine.
B. Twist torso to the left as far as you can, keeping knees and legs motionless. Return to center and twist to the right to complete one rep. Do two sets of 10 reps, working up to 20 reps.
Triceps Tightener (works arms)
A. Loop a band around a couch leg. Holding both ends in your left hand, step your left foot back into a lunge. Bend forward from the hips.
B. Pull your left hand back, straightening your elbow as far as you can without moving upper arm. Upper arms should be just above your back. Hold for one count; return to start. Do 10 to 15 reps; switch sides and repeat.
Posture Perfecter (works shoulders)
A. Stand in the center of a band with feet shoulder-width apart, holding an end in each hand. Bend knees into a half-squat; lean forward to create a 90-degree angle between thighs and back.
B. Pull both elbows back and up, using your upper back to bring your hands near ribs. Hold for one count; return to start. Do two sets of 15 reps.
Shoulder Shaper (works shoulders)
A. Stand in the center of a light resistance band with legs shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. Grab an end of the band in each hand so there’s slack when your arms hang at your sides.
B. Tighten your abs and simultaneously lift both arms straight out to the sides to shoulder height (keep wrists straight). Don’t raise your shoulders. Hold for one count and return to start. Do two sets of 15 reps.
Shoulder Molder (works rotator cuff)
A. Hold one end of a band in your right hand, and place right fist on right hip with elbow out to the side. With your left hand, grasp the band so there’s about 12 to 15 inches between your hands. Press your left elbow against your hip and position your left forearm on a diagonal so your left fist is near your right hip.
B. Open your left arm along the diagonal until your left fist is at shoulder height. Hold for one count. Do 10 to 15 reps. then switch sides and repeat.
Trainer Jan Griscom’s Get-Fit Tips for Women Over 40
- Show up. Retrain yourself to make exercise a habit that’s as regular as brushing your teeth. For the first month, just strive to get there.
- Look at your lifestyle. A one-hour daily workout leaves 23 hours for unhealthy habits, such as eating too much and not getting enough sleep. To succeed, think about improving every aspect of your lifestyle.
- Take off 10. Your metabolism is slower now, and it’s easier to gain weight. To counter this tendency, burn 10 extra calories an hour. Two minutes of moderate activity, such as jumping jacks or stair walking, will do the trick.
- Put it in your PDA. If you leave exercise to chance, you won’t fit it in. Make workout appointments that can’t be broken. Either carve out the same times every week and stick to that schedule or, if you don’t have a set routine, plan a week or even a month ahead.
- Permit no pain. The over-40 body needs variation in movement or it will suffer wear-and-tear injuries (and boredom). Vary your routine. And never work to the point where your joints hurt.
The Women Before & After
Biggest obstacle: Fear of intense exercise
Best lesson learned: "I revved it up and didn’t fall apart. Now I have so much energy."
Weight before: 182
Weight after: 167
Biceps before: 13 1/2
Biceps after: 13
Waist before: 37 1/2
Waist after: 34 1/2
Hips before: 43
Hips after: 40 1/2
Thigh before: 29
Thigh after: 22
Biggest obstacle: Back problems
Best lesson learned: "I had to stop dreaming about the past, accept my body, and pick new activities that feel good now."
Weight before: 192
Weight after: 182
Biceps before: 13
Biceps after: 12 1/2
Waist before: 38
Waist after: 35
Hips before: 42 1/2
Hips after: 42 1/2
Thigh before: 27 1/2
Thigh after: 19 1/2
Biggest obstacle: Hectic work and travel schedule
Best lesson learned: "If I’m creative, I can find ways to exercise anywhere — at home, at a hotel, during my lunch break. There’s always a way."
Weight before: 160
Weight after: 153
Biceps before: 12
Biceps after: 11 1/2
Waist before: 32
Waist after: 30 1/2
Hips before: 41
Hips after: 39 1/2
Thigh before: 24 1/2
Thigh after: 22 1/4
Biggest obstacle: A snack habit
Best lesson learned: "I feel younger just by eating better and moving again. Even small improvements really help."
Weight before: 169
Weight after: 163
Biceps before: 12
Biceps after: 12
Waist before: 36 1/2
Waist after: 35
Hips before: 43
Hips after: 42 1/2
Thigh before: 24
Thigh after: 21 1/2
Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2007.