How to beat the baby boomer bulge

Balance calories and exercise, UAlberta experts say.

If you're middle-aged, you probably have rolls at your waistline that didn't used to be there. That daily latte or bag of chips has turned into a problem. What happened?

Call it the baby boomer bulge-the one that sneaks up on people in their 40s and 50s as hormone levels drop and body weight rises.

"It happens to virtually everybody as we get older," said Richard Lewanczuk, a professor of medicine and physiology in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. On average, he said, people gain about one kilogram per year. "We hit that magic threshold and things can take off like a runaway train."

In 2014, 5.8 million Canadians aged 45 to 64 years reported they were overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada.

As hormone levels drop (testosterone in men, and progesterone and estrogen in women), the body's fat distribution shifts from subcutaneous-the fat under the skin that is spread evenly over the body-to visceral fat that protects aging internal organs and gathers around the mid-section. As well, muscle mass, which helps burn fat, starts to shrink. Other contributing culprits to weight gain include genetics-the body's natural instinct to hoard calories-and stress, which also tells the body to store energy for times of need. And if body weight goes too high, visceral fat cells "go rogue" and release inflammatory substances that make it even harder to lose weight, Lewanczuk said.

So what can be done about those unwanted love handles?

It helps to tackle the issue early on if possible,"before you get too much of that fat and into a vicious cycle of low metabolism and a propensity to gain more fat," Lewanczuk advised. The other key, he said, is adopting a balanced, healthy lifestyle.

"It's a combination of physical activity and watching your calorie intake. You can't play a round of golf and then undo all your good work with a burger and a beer."

'Use it or lose it'

"Mostly what we see is a disuse issue," said fitness trainer David McWeeny, team lead at the U of A Hanson Fitness and Lifestyle Centre. "What happens to most people is that around age 40 to 50, they stop doing as much as they used to do physically, maybe stop going to the gym."

On top of more leisurely activities like walking or gardening that Boomers turn to, it's a good idea to include exercises that push the body to burn more calories, he said. Heart-pumping aerobic exercise helps ward off midlife muffin tops and resistance training boosts aging muscles, which lose 30 to 50 per cent of their strength and mass in people aged 30 to 80, he said.

"In general, the rule is, use it or lose it. If you aren't using your muscles to the same extent as when you were younger, you are going to lose important daily functions like balance, flexibility and muscle strength. As people age, balance and gait start to break down, which is why we see a lot of injuries with older people from falling."

Aerobic exercises include jogging, cycling or swimming. For moderate intensity-noticeable increases in heart rate and breathing-people should do a minimum of 30 minutes per day, five days a week. For all-out intensity workouts, 20 minutes a day for three days a week is a good start.

For resistance training like leg lunges, squats, pushups and weight exercises for the arms, a minimum of two non-consecutive days each week is needed, with 10 to 15 repetitions for each exercise.

Even hard-core runners and cyclists should round out their routines to include resistance training as they age, he added.

"You will maintain a level of cardiovascular health, but are still at higher risk of losing your balance and falling, because you don't have that muscle mass and range of motion," McWeeny said.

Whatever you choose to do, it should be challenging, but not painful, he added. "There's no point in hurting yourself. What you want to do is find something you enjoy and stick with that on a consistent basis. Start slow and gradually add some intensity. Doing something is always better than doing nothing and more is always better than less."

Give eating habits a tweak

As our bodies age, it's time to tweak our eating habits, said dietitian Sabina Valentine, with the U of A Centre for Health and Nutrition in the School of Public Health.

"We expend less energy as we age, and especially if you aren't exercising or have a job where you do a lot of sitting, it's good to reduce your calories, bit by bit. When we might have once needed 2,000 daily calories, we may now only require 1,700, so those extra calories you take in over a year can eventually result in an extra five or 10 kilograms."

She recommends cutting back 100 to 200 calories per day beginning at about age 50, while leaving a bit of wiggle room for indulgence. "Eighty per cent of the time eat healthy, 20 per cent of the time indulge a little bit."

Exercise routines are also helped along by good eating habits which help bolster shrinking muscle mass and keep bones strong, she added. Eat two to three daily servings of lean proteins like salmon or other fish, skinless chicken breast, extra-lean ground beef and trimmed pork. Also reach for carbohydrates-energy foods like breads, pasta and rice-in multi-grain or unrefined, whole wheat varieties. Baked potatoes with the skin on are also a good carb. Seven to 10 half-cup servings per day of fruit or vegetables provide vitamins with the added bonus of fibre that makes you feel full.

Valentine also suggests two to three daily servings of low-fat milk, cheese or yogurt for calcium, especially for women, who lose bone density after menopause.

And be sure to count the calories in your cup of java. "Generally, the fancier they are, the more sugar they contain," she said. Sugar-free syrup, artificial sweetener and low-fat milk help knock off calories, or try herbal tea or water infused with fruit.

If you do stray to junky food now and then, don't dwell on it, she added. "Tomorrow is a new day. Don't let occasional poor choices sabotage what you want to accomplish."