Sunday 27 May 2018

Is it harder to lose weight in midlife? Inspirational mum-of-three who'd crept up to 21 stone sheds her excess weight

Most of us have heard the mantra that it's harder to lose weight in midlife; some of us may even hide behind that view as we dive into the biscuit tin. Kathy Donaghy talks to the experts who are keen to debunk that notion.

Susi Lodola (56), says her weight gain happened over 20 years.
Susi Lodola (56), says her weight gain happened over 20 years.
When we get to our 40s, weight gain tends to be around two pounds a year. Stock photo
Donal O'Shea
Sarah Keogh
Paul Byrne

Kathy Donaghy

Losing weight when you are in your 40s and 50s may feel like a tough grind. Working hard, raising kids and eating on the go can all play havoc with our weight - but with some sensible action, shaping up in midlife can be fun and you'll reap the rewards for decades to come.

The habits we build up in our 20s and 30s usually come home to roost in our 40s and 50s. If we've made poor food and exercise choices when we were younger we can expect them to come back and bite us in midlife.

According to the country's leading obesity expert, Professor Donal O'Shea, in our 20s and 30s we should be trying to keep the basics of healthy diet and exercise going because by the time we get to our 40s weight gain tends to be around two pounds a year.

As our metabolism slows down as we age, this small weight gain can add up to half a stone by the time a person has reached their 50th birthday.

Professor O'Shea says the 50s are typically the time people have their first encounter with illness, for example, type 2 diabetes, low back pain or high blood pressure. And he says the 60s is the decade most chronic conditions begin to appear for the first time.

"If you can get physically active in your 60s, you would maintain your heart health, reduce your risk of cancer and diabetes. The benefits of becoming physically active are there at any age," he says.

Fitness expert Damien Maher who runs Be Fit for Life gym in Sandyford, Dublin, says people's bodies change and the exercises they were doing in their 20s may not be good for them in their 40s. He says the big challenge for people in the 40-plus stage is to start investing in themselves and stop comparing themselves to other people.

"Some people come in and they are chasing a 28-day solution to a 28-year problem. They are chasing this ideal of perfection; the perfect house the perfect kids. They want to progress too quickly," he says.

Mum-of-three Susi Lodola (56), who lives in Firhouse, Dublin, says her weight gain happened over 20 years until one day she realised that unless she changed her ways it was going to affect her future.

Having decided to stay at home after the birth of her third child, Susi says looking back she was not feeling fulfilled in her life and was also guilty about this. For her, eating became an emotional response to how she was feeling and over the years her weight crept up to 21 stone even though she was making healthy dinners for her family.

Ten years ago she went back to college to study psychology at UCD when her youngest child was 14. She followed this up with further training in psychotherapy and she's currently doing a Masters in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and motivational interviewing. She's since developed a ten-week programme providing courses in weight loss using CBT, nutrition advice with the option of taking part in group fitness training with qualified trainers.

Susi says it was only when she was 52, overwhelmed with college and stressed out that she finally realised she had to change. She had tried all the fad diets over the years. Using her own psychological training she says she discovered her "triggers" for going for the chocolate which she describes as her big weakness.

She got a nutritional plan with no quick fix solutions and began to go to the gym. She lost six and half stone and now feels great. While she still gets stressed especially if she's preparing for a new course session, she goes to the gym where she does different classes as well as strength training, walks and does Pilates combined with eating regular, healthy meals and drinking lots of water throughout the day.

Fiona O'Sullivan (50), a civil servant from Santry in Dublin knows all too well how weight sneaks up on you. After having her two daughters Claire (19) and Kerry (17) and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum in her pregnancies - the extreme sickness Kate Middleton experienced in her pregnancies - Fiona developed an unhealthy relationship with food. She joined Weight Watchers and set her goal weight at 9st 2lb. At 5ft 3" tall, she says her target weight was within the healthy BMI range of between 20 and 25. The weight loss took almost a year but involved a lifestyle change that she's been able to stick to.

"I made changes like having natural yogurt instead of flavoured yogurt. I always thought low-fat was good but when you take the fat out of something often it's replaced with sugar so I'm mindful of that. I would have changed how I cooked and while there's lots of sweet things I have, I don't go mad for the chocolate," says Fiona.

She says she now has healthy baked oats and fruit for breakfast or scrambled eggs or eggs for lunch if she didn't have them for breakfast. Dinner is made up of casseroles from the slow cooker and old favourites like spaghetti Bolognese, although she watches her portion size. Having good protein-packed meals leaves her full so she doesn't feel like snacking in the evening.

"Hungry people make stupid food decisions. When you're disorganised or you skip breakfast you don't make good decisions and your body is screaming for high fat foods and sugar," says Fiona.

"Women in their 40s spend their whole lives running around. We forget about ourselves and exhaustion takes over. Then you reach for the chocolate and you regret it. You never regret making the time to go for a walk. I think you need to put yourself on the list of priorities - this is not selfish. Whether we like it or not our weight is tied in with our feelings of happiness and self-esteem".

Fiona now works as a Weight Watchers leader helping others and she says it really helps that she knows what she's talking about. "It's a great community and there's a real sense of empowerment. People support one another," she says.

Dietician Sarah Keogh says the main change that happens as we age is we lose muscle unless we actively work hard not to. Loss of muscle and slowing metabolism means we can begin to notice more weight creeping on in midlife than ever before, she explains. And she recommends weight bearing exercises like yoga and pilates to help keep muscles strong.

Sarah says people also need to pay attention to what they are eating because they are usually taking in way more calories than they think when they include drinks at the weekend and snacks throughout the day.

"Your plate for your lunch and dinner should be the same size as if you spread out your hand. Plate sizes today are almost twice the size they were decades ago. Glasses and plates have all got bigger and you automatically fill them. You need to watch this," says Sarah.

"Watch your snacking too. Some people don't do well when they're hungry and then they overeat. A snack can be beneficial but that's different to eating crisps or chocolate in front of the TV. If you only want treat foods then you're not hungry," she says.

"A lot of people don't eat because they're hungry. They eat just because. If you are not sleeping enough that also has an impact on your weight. People who are getting less than seven hours of sleep at night can struggle with their weight. Getting to bed by 10pm is a really good thing because sleep makes a big difference," says Sarah.

While she says she is not in favour of people constantly keeping a food diary, it can be a useful tool in order to get a handle on exactly what you are consuming.

"It can be helpful if you include all meals, drinks and snacks and include the weekend. Clients will do this and then say to me 'now I know what the problem is'. It is a good tool to get a snapshot of what's going on," she says.

Fitness expert Paul Byrne who trains clients from his BodyByrne studio in Dublin says strength training is crucial over the age of 40 to maintain muscle. He says setting unachievable goals like going to the gym every day is only going to lead to demotivation.

"Go twice a week and stick with it - that way you've got 100pc sustainability. Lots of people come into us saying their energy levels are not what they used to be and they're stressed out. We get them eating and sleeping correcting and then get them exercising," says Paul.

He says often people just spend their time in the gym hammering the treadmill but this only leads to the body eating muscle. He encourages them to embrace lunges, squats and deadlifts to build muscle and increase strength.

Paul also says you can do all the training in the world but it won't pay off if you don't change your habits outside the gym. And he says there's not much point going for a workout if you're going to stop for a cappuccino and a biscuit on the way home.

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