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Boomer Bellies: Can Middle-Age Spread Be Avoided?

It's not easy, but if you want to outsmart your stomach now is the time for a gut check

By Matthew Solan | October 30, 2012
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Matthew Solan is a health and fitness writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla. His website is www.matthewsolan.com.

What is the telltale sign you have entered Boomtown? Gray or thinning hair? AARP application in the mail? No, look down. It is that slight, hardly noticeable little pooch. Whether you call it a beer belly, pot belly, spare tire or “boomer belly” this middle-age spread is more dangerous than you may realize.

Why do we get boomer bellies? Blame Mother Nature. As you age, your metabolism slows and you need fewer calories. "You can't eat like you did in your 40s or 30s because your body is now different," says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian, author of Nutrition & You and a clinical associate professor at Boston University. “If you consume those extra calories and they don't burn off — especially since you tend to become more sedentary as you age — they can settle in your midsection as stored fat.”

(More: Fiftysomething Workout: What Your Gym Can Do for You Now)

There are two kinds of fat: visceral and subcutaneous. About 90 percent of body fat is subcutaneous. You feel it with every pinch or grasp. Visceral fat makes up the remaining 10 percent and sits out of reach deep within the abdominal cavity, padding the spaces between your abdominal organs. Even though you cannot see it or feel it, this is the most dangerous fat. It has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes and associated with poor cognitive functioning among those age 60 to 70, says a July 2012 study in the journal Age and Ageing.

In women, visceral fat is also associated with breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery. This also explains why people with an apple shape are at a higher health risk than those who resemble a pear with fat around the thighs.

So if you can pinch an inch it is a sign that something hazardous lies beneath. (To determine your visceral fat, go to Gut Check at the end of this article.)  

Who Has the Bigger Problem?

Boomer bellies are more common among women. That's because women tend to accumulate more body fat after menopause, especially around the midriff. “After menopause, women experience a drop in estrogen levels and those hormonal changes can alter body composition,” says Jean-Philippe Chaput, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa.

But men are not immune. Metabolism generating testosterone levels drop as men age, and low levels are linked to increased visceral fat.

The good news: You can beat the boomer belly with simple math: Less calories and more movement.

Dialing down your calorie intake sounds easy. But it is not a matter of simply counting calories, but outsmarting your stomach. “Choose more fruits and vegetables that are full of fiber and water, such as apples, grapes, peppers and broccoli,” Blake says. “This fills you up before you have a chance to fill out.”

People who eat plenty of fruit have smaller waistlines compared to those who consume a lot of white bread, processed meat and soft drinks, says Spanish researchers in a 2011 study.

Your daily quota of produce: a minimum of four and a half cups. But don’t wait until dinner to cram them in. Instead, disperse throughout the day.

Don’t forget breakfast. “Think about how you order when you are at a restaurant that has a chef: an egg-white omelet stuffed with veggies. Do that in your own kitchen,” Blake says.

Also, become reacquainted with whole grains that speed up satiety. Increasing your intake of whole grain can lower visceral adiposity in the abdomen, according to a 2010 study that involved women age 32 to 83. Serve brown rice instead of white as well as whole-wheat bread and whole grain cereal, not corn flakes.

When it comes to more activity, the first rule is obvious: get your heart rate up. “Aerobic physical activity has been shown to substantially reduce visceral abdominal fat even in the absence of weight loss,” Chaput says. 

Why Those Sit-ups Aren't Cutting It

But never think you can directly attack your belly. You cannot “spot” reduce — 1,000 sit-ups will not shrink fat. Instead, your exercise routine should be based on calorie-burning aerobics. To expend the most calories, however, you need to increase the intensity and shorten the duration. For example, instead of spending 30 minutes on the treadmill, spend 10 minutes but increase the speed and add a slant. “This is where interval training pays off because your body will continue to use energy after the workout,” personal trainer Marta Montenegro says. She recommends any aerobic activity — walking, jogging, biking, dancing — in which you can easily alternate between higher intensity intervals (up to 60 seconds maximum) with the same amount of time (or double) for recovery. “This will do the trick for both purposes: to lose visceral fat and to shake up your metabolism,” she says.  

Building more lean muscle mass might also help shrink that boomer belly, because enhancing lean muscle mass boosts your overall rate of metabolism and burns more calories.

The best way to build more lean muscle mass is through weight training. A weight-training regime focuses on multijoint exercises, those that work several joints and, thus, muscles at the same time. Montenegro advocates  a total of eight to 10 exercises done in a circuit fashion — one performed after another with minimal or no rest. Perform 10 to 12 reps and repeat the circuit two or three times; do this three times a week with a day’s rest in between.  “Regardless of the weight you use, the last two reps should be hard to finish,” Montenegro says. An easy routine to follow: chest press, back row, squat to shoulder press, lunge to bicep curl and push-up.

It takes some dedication and a new way of thinking, but you can deflate that boomer belly. You may be a boomer, but that doesn’t mean you have to look like one.
              
Gut Check: Determining Your Visceral Fat

How can you keep tabs on your visceral fat? Use a tape measure. Place the bottom of the tape at the top of your right hipbone, then pull the tape around at navel level (not the narrowest part of your torso). Do not suck in your gut or pull the tape tight enough to compress the area. In women, a waist circumference of 35 inches or more is considered a sign of excess visceral fat. For men, it is about 40 inches. But do not focus only on numbers. Monitor whether your pants get snug. This also can be a sign you are gaining visceral fat. 
 
Matthew Solan is a regular contributing editor to Next Avenue (www.matthewsolan.com).
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