Making your diet and exercise routine work for you (again) is simpler than you think. We asked fitness and nutrition experts to zero in on the challenges that surface after 40 (sluggish metabolism, hormonal shifts, changing body composition), and they came up with 28 small, doable changes. We’ve grouped their suggestions into four broad categories: strength training, core work, cardio, and nutrition. Choose just one tweak — the one that seems easiest — and try it for a month, about the time it should take you to notice an effect. Then try another, and another. Before you know it, you’ll be seeing the results you want.
If you’re not doing any weight training, start now. If you are, ramp it up. "Between ages 30 and 50, women can lose 10 pounds of muscle mass. For every pound of muscle you drop, you lose the ability to burn 35 to 50 calories a day," says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women. "This means you have to take in 300 to 500 fewer calories a day if you don’t want to gain weight. But if you strength train with intensity, you build muscle and preserve your ability to eat with a little more freedom."
"Instead of working individual muscles, choose exercises that target more than one muscle group at a time," says Kathy Smith, developer of The Matrix Method: Ultimate Sculpt DVD. Multi-muscle moves, such as lunging while pressing weights overhead or doing a squat with a biceps curl, are more time-efficient and burn more calories than single-muscle-group training. Plus, when you work arms and legs simultaneously, you’re using your core muscles as stabilizers, so your abs (a prime 40-plus problem area) get worked, without crunches.
Beginners need to start with light weights. But if you’re still using the same weight you’ve been lifting for years, now’s the time to increase it. Don’t worry about bulking up. "In fact, the more you lift, the leaner and smaller you will be, because muscle is more compact than fat," says Kathy Kaehler, author of Fit and Sexy for Life. Start with eight reps of an exercise, using a weight that’s slightly heavier than you’re used to. As soon as you can comfortably complete 12 reps, increase the weight the next time you work out.
Try an easy-hard program: "If you give your muscles time to totally recover, you’ll get better results," says Douglas Brooks, an exercise physiologist in Mammoth Lakes, California. One week, limit your usual strength workout to one set for each exercise. The following week, go back to harder multi-set sessions, doing two to three sets of eight to 12 reps with heavier weights. Then switch back.
"Instead of doing extra sets or more exercises for the same muscle groups, do back-to-back training," says Wayne Westcott, PhD, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA, in Quincy, Massachusetts. That means making your muscles work to fatigue — twice. For example, if you’re doing a chest press and you normally do 60 pounds for three sets, try reducing the weight by about 10 percent, to 50 pounds, after the first set; without resting, do as many reps as you can until you work your muscles to fatigue again. "When you do the second set immediately, you’ll target the slow-twitch fibers of your muscle, because you’ve already worked the fast-twitch ones to exhaustion," Westcott says. "This stimulates better muscle growth."
"When you move through weight-training exercises too quickly, you’re using momentum instead of muscle to lift the weight," Westcott says. This not only decreases the effectiveness of the exercise but also increases the risk of joint injury. "Aim to do a set — eight to 12 reps — in a little over a minute, about six seconds per rep," he says. Slowing your pace can also be an intensity technique: By adding a one- to two-second pause in the fully contracted position, or the "top" of the move, "You’ll get stronger fast," says Westcott, whose research on superslow lifting showed 50 percent strength gains.
"Changing exercises and the tools you use — bands, kettlebells, medicine balls, cables — helps you target different muscle fibers since you use a different range of motion and have to stabilize differently," Brooks says. "Because they offer variable resistance, bands and cables don’t feel the same as dumbbells or a bar, so they’ll work the muscle differently. Change exercises every three weeks or so to avoid a plateau." Consider hiring a trainer for a monthly routine update.
"In three different studies, we’ve found that if you combine strength training with flexibility training, you get 19 percent better strength gains," says Westcott, whose book Specialized Strength Training has stretches for every muscle group. Adding in stretching doesn’t mean you’ll have a longer workout: "If you stretch the muscle for about 30 seconds right after you train it, it gives you something to do while you rest between exercises."
Strength training causes microtrauma in the muscle and the connective tissue, stimulating the cells to start rebuilding, which is what increases muscle mass. "The old advice was to rest for 48 hours," Westcott says. "New research says that it takes 72 hours to accomplish repair and rebuilding, so instead of strength training every two days, switch to every three and you’ll actually see better results." If you want to work out more often, train different muscle groups at each session.
Research at San Diego State University showed that the bicycle (lie on your back, right leg extended and left knee bent toward chest; touch your right elbow to your left knee; repeat on other side) works a large number of abdominal muscles at once, so it’s one of the most effective exercises you can do.
Lie on the floor on your side, legs stacked on top of each other. Prop your torso up on your bent forearm, with legs bent (easier) or straight (harder). Lift your hip off the floor so your body forms a straight line from shoulders to legs. Hold for a count of three; lower to floor. Repeat five to eight times; then switch sides and repeat. "You really have to use core muscles and obliques to do this, but you won’t think about the fact that you are working your abs," Kaehler says. "It’s a great way to sneak in some abdominal work."
"If you’re not doing cardio three times a week, you need to start," Peeke says. "And if you’re up to three weekly workouts, try to add more sessions. After 40, you have to try to do it every day to keep your metabolism humming: Deliberately knock out 300 to 400 calories on an elliptical trainer, a treadmill, a Spinning bike, whatever. Walking also counts." Cardio workouts, unlike strength training, can be done every day. "It’s a lower-intensity stimulus on your muscles for a longer period of time," Westcott notes. "But if you want to take your cardio training to the next level, you have to alternate hard-training days with easier walking days so your muscles have time to recover."
Try a new activity, class, or machine to shake your muscles out of complacency. The more you repeat a certain activity, the more efficient your muscles become, so you burn fewer calories. Can’t sever your attachment to the treadmill? Change the incline to increase intensity and vary the movement: "You get the same results from a three-mile-per-hour walk on a treadmill at a six percent incline — and get the same calorie burn — as from running on a flat surface at a quicker pace," Brooks says.
Reality check: Do you bring stacks of stuff to read while you’re on the bike? "If you can focus on something else while you’re working out, you’re not doing it hard enough," Kaehler says. Listening to music is fine, however; the tunes you pick can actually help you kick up your effort.
"Get it out of your mind that cardio has to be 30 to 50 minutes every time to be meaningful," Kaehler says. Alternate two vigorous 20-minute workouts with three or four longer workouts every week. On the two days a week you strength train, do a 20-minute interval workout after you finish the weights. Increase the speed, incline, or resistance every five minutes to keep yourself working. On cardio-only days, break those longer sessions into three or four 15-minute bouts on different machines.
"I see women who walk at the same pace every day," Smith says. "To really see results, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone at least 10 to 20 percent of the time. I explain it in terms of expressions: You’ve got your happy face on when you’re walking with your girlfriends. Every once in a while, you need that determined face, where you’re almost breathless and thinking, ‘I can do this for only 90 seconds.’ It’s those 90-second spurts that really improve your fitness level."
"My secret psych-up for circuit training is that I feel like I can do anything for 30 seconds or a minute, so I push myself much harder when I work out in a circuit," Kaehler says. Since you’re constantly changing activities, you tend not to slow down, the way you would if you were on the treadmill for 30 minutes. "When you’re doing a circuit, you burn about seven calories a minute," Westcott says. "That’s about 200 per half hour."
Circuits are easy to create at home: Just alternate a cardio move with a few strength exercises, as in the following example:
Jump rope (or do jumping jacks) for 30 seconds to one minute, then grab some weights and…
Do as many biceps curls as you can in one minute, then…
Do as many lunges (alternate legs) or squats as you can in one minute, then grab some weights and…
Do as many overhead triceps extensions (work arms one at a time) as you can in one minute, then…
Jump rope for 30 seconds to one minute, then rest 30 seconds. Repeat this circuit two or three times.
There’s nothing like using a stopwatch to assess your intensity. Make one of your weekly workouts a timed one. If you’re a runner, find a hill and run repeats: Run up, timing yourself, and then jog back down. Repeat eight to 10 times, trying to continue running up the hill in the same amount of time. If you’re a walker, map out a mile and time how long it takes you to walk it. Now push it: If you walk a 20-minute mile, shoot for 17 to 18 minutes; if you pump out a 15-minute mile, try for 12 or 13.
"These push-the-pace workouts really improve your underlying endurance," Smith says. When you find that they get too easy, try to do them at a faster pace.
"Pick an activity you enjoy, whether it’s soccer, golf, rock climbing, or cycling, and you have a built-in motivation to do more of it because you’ll want to improve your skills for your sport," Brooks says. "If you’re excited about something, you’re motivated to become proficient at it and to do it more frequently, which will translate into results."
Sometimes it’s not about the calorie burn but about rebalancing your chemistry. When stress hits, adrenaline mobilizes your fat cells to discharge their energy stores into your bloodstream. Cortisol then grabs the excess and stashes it in your abdomen. "Learning to manage our stress response so we’re not draining our systems, which can disturb metabolism and lead to weight gain, is a key factor here," Smith says. Choose the activity that you find most meditative, whether it’s yoga, hiking outdoors, or stretching. Do it regularly.
"Eat every three to four hours, and you’ll find your cravings are under control, and when dinnertime hits, you’re not foaming at the mouth," Peeke says. This pattern gives you the best chance for the lowest body fat, the optimum muscle mass, and the highest level of satiety. If you’re waking up at six a.m. or so, you’ll probably want to eat five times during the day. Wake at eight? Cut out one snack. The following is Peeke’s eat-smart schedule:
Preworkout: A cup of coffee or tea, half a banana or half an energy bar
Breakfast: Egg-white omelet with veggies, or oatmeal with blueberries
Midmorning: Low-fat yogurt (six ounces) with sliced almonds, or one low-fat string cheese and a small fruit
Lunch: Turkey wrap or grilled fish or poultry on a bed of greens
Midafternoon: Hummus with carrots, two Wasa crackers with low-fat peanut butter, or a protein shake with a scoop of whey or soy-protein powder
Dinner: A large serving of vegetables and some protein, plus a piece of fruit
If the body’s cells don’t get enough water, they become less efficient," Brooks says. Drink three to four ounces of water every 15 or 20 minutes during your workout and try to sip frequently throughout the day.
"If you drink, you’ll lose only a third of the amount of weight as someone who doesn’t," says Christine Hart, RD, director of a nutrition consultant service in New York City. "One jigger of alcohol acts like 10 grams of fat in the body." The quickest way to trim down is not to drink for two weeks. "You’ll drop the three to four pounds of fluid that the alcohol retains and lose up to an inch from your waist," Hart says. Once you see results, you can add back one or two glasses a week, max.
"Ideally we should eat approximately 11 times our body weight in calories per day, as well as any calories burned in workouts," says Connie Barnhart, a certified fitness trainer and weight-loss counselor in Park City, Utah. "If you weigh 120 pounds, your baseline is 1,320 calories, plus 350 calories per day in exercise, for about 1,700 calories." It is easy to eat much more than that, so she suggests having six or more servings of fruits and vegetables, three to four servings of protein (10 to 15 grams per serving) and three to six servings of whole grains.
Crave a cookie? Have it. "Just think about what you can cut out of another part of the meal — like salad dressing," Hart says. Want wine with dinner? Order a white fish, like sole, instead of salmon and you’ll balance out your calories and fat. "It takes only 50 calories a day — maybe an Oreo — to add five pounds a year," Barnhart says.
"Carbs are stored as fat if they’re not used for energy within about two days," Hart says. "Be strict with portions, keeping them to a half cup, or the amount that would fill an ice cream scoop just to the top." If you want to maintain your weight, you can eat 180 grams of carbohydrates a day, and if you exercise for a half hour, you get an extra 20. Each slice of bread has about 20 grams of carbs, and a baked potato has 50. The average dessert has 90.
Be mindful of the way that random bites add up. "One french fry can have 60 calories and five grams of fat," Hart says. "If you pick eight fries off someone else’s plate, you’re taking in 500 calories. One forkful of cheesecake, carrot cake, chocolate mousse, or pecan pie is about 60 calories and two to three grams of fat."'
"The data shows that the number one predictor for a healthy life at a healthy weight is — yes — a healthy breakfast," Peeke says. "According to the National Weight Control Registry, 78 percent of those who maintained a weight loss of between 30 and 50 pounds ate breakfast every day. Just do it."
A grand skim latte is just coffee, right? “Nope,” Hart says. “It has 20 to 25 grams of carbs—the same as a bread slice. If weight loss is your goal, get coffee with an inch of skim milk instead.” You get the kick without the carbs.