On my 40th birthday, I joined a gym. “I want to be fit and 40, not fat and 40,” I quipped to my husband, mother, and friends. I hit a high of 180 (at 5’4”), and wanted to lose 40 pounds to reach my ideal weight, which I had easily maintained for years before and between my two pregnancies.
When women hit their late 30s and early 40s, they often report that it’s harder to lose weight either by dieting alone, or relying on the diet and exercise routines that worked before. “Typically, this happens when a woman with a normal or fast metabolism could eat without gaining much weight,” says Rachel Myers, a NASM-certified personal trainer in Atlanta. “After having children or becoming premenopausal, her metabolism slows. This is why it’s important to maintain a balanced diet, and cut added sugars and processed foods because your body doesn’t handle them like it did.”
Friends of mine who embrace the body positivity movement (supporting bodies of all shapes and sizes) discouraged my weight-loss crusade, saying I should accept myself: “Your new decade means your body has naturally changed. Love it.” But my 40-pound weight gain was due to stress-eating during a year-long recovery from injuries I’d sustained in a car accident when I was 37. And I wanted to look and feel healthier.
So, I enlisted help from a personal trainer, a Weight Watchers coach, and a nutritionist to win the battle of the bulge. Here are four important things I’ve learned along the way.
1. Quick-Fix Diets Are Just That.
I lost my first 15 pounds (down from 180 to 165) in two-and-a-half months by quick-fix dieting and doing regular workouts. Then, I joined Weight Watchers. At first, I was gung-ho about tracking everything I ate through an online app, excitedly logging in my handful of chocolate-covered almonds or serving of pesto. Then, I stalled out and stopped tracking.
Sometimes, women (like, well, me) alter their diets drastically to lose weight—cutting gluten or dairy, switching to a low-carb or ketogenic diet, or following a fad or crash diet. My 41-year-old friend with three young kids and an overnight job always searches for the holy grail of diets to finish off that last 10 to 15 pounds. Recently, she dropped 10 pounds on the Egg Diet (lots of eggs, grapefruit, and not much else for two weeks). She looked great in her smaller jeans, but within a month, the weight came right back as she fell into old habits.
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“Many people look for a quick fix,” says Renee Angelucci Cancelliere, personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Williamstown, NJ-based Rush Fitness. “Bottom line: They don’t work. Change your lifestyle and educate yourself on eating clean. Treat yourself to a cheat meal to satisfy a craving. Cut it in half, since portion control is a big factor in healthy eating.”
Ultimately, my Weight Watchers coach suggested the Weight Watchers Simply Filling plan, which works for me. Quick summary: You can eat as much lean protein, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and good grains as you want, and you track foods not on the recommended list. Because I generally eat unprocessed and gluten-free, this lifted a mental burden. I lost 17 more pounds, down to 148 in four months.
2. find the right workout for you—and stick to it.
When I’m at my goal weight (sporting chiseled arms and a V-shaped torso), working out is a pleasurable must-have. When I struggle to lose weight and build endurance again, it’s a nightmare.
My personal trainer recommended rigorous high-intensity interval training. “HIIT has many benefits,” Angelucci Cancelliere says. “You burn fat more efficiently and increase your metabolism. You can incorporate cardio and weights into the same workout. I always say, ‘If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.’ Interval training is challenging: That’s why I use it for myself, my clients and my classes.”
My endurance has grown from strength and cardio HIIT training. It has also grown from treadmill use; I walk at a 4.2 speed on a 15 incline for 35 to 60 minutes. It’s killer, but it’s enabled me to start jogging and then running. Nowadays I can run a good length of beach with my kids and not get winded. It pays off to work hard.
3. The Scale Doesn’t Always Matter
“I don’t focus on a number,” Angelucci Cancelliere says. “Most women obsess over the scale – you can be 150 pounds untoned or 150 pounds of toned, defined muscle. Which would you rather be?”
Instead, she recommends focusing on body composition. “By reducing overall body fat and increasing muscle, you improve your quality of life,” she says. “Other benefits: normalizing blood pressure levels, reducing joint pain, improving sleep quality, and upping your mood, energy levels, and self-confidence.”
I had lost 32 pounds—hitting 148. Then, the loss stopped cold. But at that point, my primary measurement and motivator was the scale; as the 149, 148, 150 winked back at me week after week, I fought the idea that the number suddenly didn’t matter.
When my nutritionist checked my body composition, she found that my fat had gone down a few percentage points and that my muscle had gone up the same amount. “If you lift weights, remember one pound of muscle takes up less space than one pound of fat,” Myers says. “Focus on body fat percentage.”
I now focus on how my body looks and performs (while tracking muscle growth), rather than the number on the scale.
4. healthy habits are not optional
Along the way, I’ve hit rebellious days and weeks where I’m just done with food tracking and workouts. That said, eating clean and going to the gym are must-dos. These healthy habits are not contingent on whether I want to or not.
“Negativity sabotages success in all aspects of life,” says Angelucci Cancelliere. A big mistake people make after losing some weight is relaxing and letting bad habits creep back in. “They lose 10 pounds and ease up,” she says. “It becomes a yo-yo of lose-gain-lose.”
When I reflected on habits I developed through Weight Watchers (not stress-eating at night, not eating after 8 p.m., avoiding trigger foods like cheese and chocolate, eating clean with only some cheat meals), I realized many were second nature, and they would get me to my goal weight in time.
“Expecting fast results will sabotage you,” Myers says. “If it were easy, everyone would be in great shape.”
While I work to lose the last few pounds, I know what works for me. So whether I lose more weight or continue to replace fat with muscle and stay the same weight, I can be comfortable with who I am and rock my awesome body.