According to research, the only way to combat the dreaded middle-age spread is to get physical. Many people start gaining a pound a year during midlife -- often because they have become less active as they age.
In addition, you start to lose muscle mass at age 40, and will continue to lose more each year unless you take steps to preserve it. This explains in part why many people today suffer from "sarcopenic obesity" -- they are overweight or obese and have suffered a progressive loss of muscle mass.
USA Today reports:
"There are people who don't gain weight, including athletes and people who maintain their physical activity level, eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and lean protein."
Many people gain weight as they get older, but you don't have to be one of them. One study by Harvard researchers found that women tend to gain an average of 20 pounds in 16 years as they reach middle age. But again these extra pounds are not inevitable.
Weight gain is not a rite of passage into your middle age years!
The problem for many is that weight gain is insidious. It creeps up gradually as you become less active than you were in your 20s and 30s, and suddenly that pound a year has added up to 10, 20 or more extra pounds as you head into your 40s, 50s, 60s or beyond.
Further, if you don't stay physically active you will lose muscle mass as you age, starting around age 40. This loss of muscle means you'll burn fewer calories both when you're active and at rest, plus your body composition will shift to less muscle and more fat.
The solution is remarkably simple, however, and does not require plastic surgery like liposuction or even starving yourself on a diet of celery sticks. All you need to do to stay lean and fit well into your older years is eat healthy (see my nutrition plan for a comprehensive guide) and get moving.
The Best Type of Exercise to Prevent the Middle-Age Spread
Many believe that cardiovascular training is the ticket to staying in shape. I too fell into that trap for over 30 years. It was only after 40 years of running as my exclusive form of exercise that I saw the light and started to open my horizons with respect to exercise.
I learned that cardio is only one aspect of fitness.
Now, in my 50s I am the fittest I have ever been in my life. I certainly could run faster when I was younger (2:50 marathon) but I would never trade that to have the muscle strength, flexibility and proprioceptive balance that a far more comprehensive program provides.
I actually stopped all my running over a year ago and conventional cardio type training last spring and replaced it with the Peak Fitness Exercise Program.
Peak Fitness is a comprehensive program, designed to truly optimize your overall health, and Sprint 8 is a crucial component to this program.
Sprint 8 refers to peak exercises done once or twice a week, in which you raise your heart rate up to your anaerobic threshold for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a 90-second recovery period.
To perform these properly you will want to get very close to, if not exceed, your maximum heart rate by the last interval. Your maximum heart rate is calculated as 220 minus your age. You will need a heart rate monitor to measure this, as it is nearly impossible to accurately measure your heart rate manually when it is above 150.
How do You Perform Sprint 8 Exercises?
I recommend using a recumbent bicycle for the Sprint 8 exercise, although you certainly can use an elliptical machine, a treadmill, or sprinting anywhere outdoors. However, unless you are already an athlete, I would strongly advise against sprinting, as several people I know became injured doing it the first time that way.
Here are the principles:
- Warm up for three minutes
- Then, go all out, as hard as you can for 30 seconds
- Recover for 90 seconds
- Repeat 7 more times, for a total of 8 repetitions
- Cool down for a few minutes afterward by cutting down your intensity by 50-80%.
The first repetition is usually pretty easy as your starting heart rate is low and you can do the entire 30 seconds without stress. But since you only recover for 90 seconds your heart rate gradually continues to climb after every repetition, so hopefully by the time you finish your last repetition it is at or above your maximum heart rate.
Remember to cool down for a few minutes after your 8th repetition.
Unless you work out regularly you will likely need to work your way up to 8 cycles. You can start with 2-4 and gradually increase to 8, but ideally, you should get to 8 cycles. The magic really starts to happen around repetition number 7 and 8.
If you have a history of heart disease or any concern please get clearance from your health care professional to start this. Most people of average fitness will be able to do this, it is only a matter of how much time it will take you to build up to the full 8 reps.
What Makes Sprint 8 so Effective?
Peak Fitness is unique because it is one of the only exercises that can actually increase your human growth hormone (HGH) level, a vital hormone that is key for physical strength, health and longevity. After age 35, your growth hormone levels radically decrease if you don't take steps to increase them.
To fully grasp the benefits of Peak Fitness exercises, you first need to understand that you have three different types of muscle fibers:
We now know that in order to naturally increase your body's production of HGH, you must engage your super-fast muscle fibers.
Neither traditionally performed aerobic cardio nor conventional strength training will work anything but your slow muscle fibers, and hence has no impact on production of HGH. On the contrary, it has the unfortunate effect of actually causing the super fast fibers to decrease or atrophy, further impeding natural HGH production.
Power training, or plyometric burst types of exercises, will engage your fast muscle fibers, but only high-intensity burst cardio, such as Sprint 8 exercises, will engage your super fast fibers and promote HGH.
Plus, when you break your exercise session into intervals like Sprint 8 does -- short segments that alternate high intensity with a rest period in-between -- you can dramatically improve your cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capabilities in a fraction of the time.
This makes logical sense when you consider that, historically, long-duration exercise isn't "natural." Our ancient ancestors never ran for mile after mile without rest or recovery. Their exercise was primarily hunting -- short bursts of exertion, followed by periods of rest.
By exercising in short bursts, followed by periods of recovery, you recreate exactly what your body needs for optimum health, and that includes both the production of growth hormones and the burning of excess body fat.
Since I have been doing the Peak Exercise program I have:
- Lowered my overall body fat from 17.4% down to 11.5%
- Lost 13.5 lbs. while gaining 10 lbs. of muscle
- Lost 2 12/16 inches off my waist
- Gained 1/2 inch on my arms
- Gained 1/2 inch on my legs
- Gained 2 inches on my chest
You can see my before and after photos here, which show my progress from May 2009 to July 2010.
Keeping Your Muscles Strong is Essential, Too
Sprint 8 exercises are only one facet of the overall Peak Fitness program. It also includes strength training, and this is another important facet of preventing middle-age spread.
As you age, it becomes harder to keep your muscles healthy. The older you are, the faster your muscles begin to atrophy if you are not engaging in some form of strength training exercise on a regular basis.
Long periods of muscle atrophy are more challenging to overcome and older muscles do not respond well to sudden bouts of exercise, so the key is to work out your muscles on a regular basis throughout your life.
Maintaining your muscle mass will also help to ward off the middle-age spread. How? The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn because they consume calories around the clock, even when you're resting and sleeping. So, as you gain more muscle, your body naturally increases the amount of calories burned each day, which reduces fat stores.
Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health and weight loss benefits of a regular exercise program.
Keep in mind that during your one set you need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to recover, repair and rebuild.
What Other Types of Exercise are Important?
In addition to the Sprint 8 exercise and strength training, which I explained above, the Peak Fitness program also includes three other forms of exercise. Ideally you will want to rotate all of these on a regular basis to get the full set of benefits that exercise has to offer:
- Aerobic exercises: Jogging, using an elliptical machine, and walking fast are all examples of aerobic exercise. Although standard aerobic exercises can't compete with Sprint 8 exercises for promoting growth hormone or fat burning, simply getting your heart pumping will improve blood flow and increase the release of endorphins, which act as natural painkillers.
Aerobic exercises will also activate your immune system, and help increase your stamina over time, both of which are important for optimal health.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.
Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are great options for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific core exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is actually not formal stretching, but a set of posture based exercises called Egoscue. I am currently evaluating the program and hope to present my summary in the near future.
By implementing a comprehensive exercise regimen like Peak Fitness, and including the Sprint 8 exercises, you will be able to easily ward off the insidious weight gain that will otherwise occur as you get older. When combined with a healthy diet, this is your key to longevity, and a lean body, at any age.