"Middle-age spread" can appear at any age, but women may notice it most as they hit 50. Even if the number on the scale is the same as it has always been, your waistline may expand as your proportion of body fat to lean mass changes. The good news is that you can take measures to minimize belly fat, even after you hit the half-century mark.
With Extra Effort, You Can Lose Belly Fat
Around the time of menopause, estrogen levels drop and fat redistributes away from the lower body, where it served as a fuel reserve for childbirth and breastfeeding, to the abdomen. This fat that expands your belly is likely visceral, or intra-abdominal fat, surrounding internal organs. It increases the risk of disease.
You may think you can't lose belly fat after 50, but really it just takes more exercise and dietary diligence than it did when you were younger. As you age, your energy expenditure lowers because you naturally lose lean muscle mass, which burns more calories than fat. Sarcopenia, this natural loss of muscle, begins in your 30s and continues throughout your later years; you lose about 1 pound of muscle every year.
As a result, your body becomes less efficient at burning fat and calories. Your metabolic rate reduces by about 2 percent per decade after age 25. At 50, your metabolism is approximately 5 percent slower than it was when your were 25. Physically inactive women will see the greatest effects of sarcopenia, but because it's based on factors of aging, even active women will notice its effects slightly. For these reasons, it takes extra calorie-burning efforts and calorie trimming to get results.
Lose Belly Fat With Calorie-Burning Cardio
Becoming more physically active goes a long way in helping to address belly fat in people of any age, including women. As Rush University Medical Center notes, the first type of fat lost in anyone who loses weight with exercise is visceral fat.
Cardiovascular exercise promotes visceral fat loss when combined with calorie restriction better than dieting alone. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that participants over the age of 50 who participated in 90 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise -- cycling indoors -- five times per week lost significantly more visceral fat than those who only restricted calories. Brisk walking or hiking offer similar intensities and can help you lose your belly.
In addition to structured exercise, commit to a lifestyle that's physically active. Take up a hobby, such as dance or golf, that keeps you moving. Fidgeting as well as walking regularly also helps increase your daily calorie burn so you control belly fat.
Weight Training for Women Over 50
You'll also need to weight-train to mitigate the natural loss of muscle mass as you age. A study published in a Brazilian medical journal in 2014 confirmed that post-menopausal women in their 50s who did cardio exercise, weight training and flexibility movements experienced less visceral fat gain and muscle loss than women who did not.
For the weight-training portion of your workouts, target each of the major muscle groups -- hips, back, chest, abdominals, legs, arms and shoulders -- with at least two sessions per week. During your strength-training sessions, choose weights that make you feel fatigued by the last two or three repetitions in a set of eight to 12. Increase weight gradually, as well as the number of sets, when the weights start to become manageable.
Sleep and De-Stress
Inadequate sleep affects your appetite and causes your body to hold onto belly fat. A 16-year study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2006 examined the effect of sleep on almost 70,000 women. Researchers found those who regularly got less than five hours of sleep gained significantly more weight than those who slept an average of seven hours per night. Make getting seven to eight hours of sleep a priority to support your belly-fat losing efforts.
You may face a number of stresses in your 50s: kids in college, aging parents and changes in your career. Chronic stress leads to the secretion of cortisol, a hormone that makes you crave high-fat, high-sugar foods. The cortisol also encourages fat to settle in your middle. Make an effort to adopt stress-reducing strategies, such as yoga and meditation. A small study published in a 2012 issue of Menopause found that women over the age of 50 who added yoga to their weekly routine lost more belly fat, as well as experienced improvements in other health markers, than those who did not.
Eat Right After 50
Sugar, refined grains and saturated and trans fats contribute to belly fat development. A study published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed postmenopausal women who changed their eating behavior to eat fewer desserts, sugar-sweetened beverages and fried foods, and who ate out at restaurants less often, experienced the most weight loss. The AARP recommends cutting out the "five C's" -- candy, cookies, cake, cola and chips -- as an easy way to curb your intake of many of these foods.
Choose lean proteins, such as chicken breast, white fish or tofu, and plenty of leafy greens to fill up your plate at most meals. Opt for just 1/2 cup of whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa, instead of refined grains. Snack on whole foods such as fresh fruit and raw nuts, or enjoy a container of plain Greek yogurt.
A serving of healthy unsaturated fat, such as 3 ounces of fatty fish, an ounce of walnuts or a tablespoon of olive oil provides critical nutrients essential to heart and bone health. A study published in a 2014 issue of Diabetes discovered that overeating saturated fats caused more visceral fat development that eating too much unsaturated fat.
- Harvard Health Publications: Taking Aim at Belly Fat
- Scientific American: Why Does Fat Deposit on the Hips and Thighs of Women and Around the Stomachs of Men?
- AARP: How to Lose Your Spare Tire
- Revista Brasileira de Ginecologia e Obstetricia: Impact of an Exercise Program in Adiposity and Muscular Condition of Postmenopausal Women
- Rush University Medical Center: Is There 'One Trick' to Losing Belly Fat?
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Short- and Long-Term Eating Habit Modification Predicts Weight Change in Overweight, Postmenopausal Women: Results From the WOMAN Study
- University of New Mexico: Sarcopenia
- Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism: The Impact of Exercise Training Compared to Caloric Restriction on Hepatic and Peripheral Insulin Resistance in Obesity
- American Journal of Epidemiology: Association Between Reduced Sleep and Weight Gain in Women
- Menopause: Effects of Yoga Exercise on Serum Adiponectin and Metabolic Syndrome Factors in Obese Postmenopausal Women
- Diabetes: Overfeeding Polyunsaturated and Saturated Fat Causes Distinct Effects on Liver and Visceral Fat Accumulation in Humans
- The Washington Post: Basal Metabolic Rate Changes as You Age