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How to Beat the Fat-and-Forty Syndrome

by Ruby Bayan

The Fat-and-Forty Syndrome is the result of a natural maturation and aging process. On a woman it's a slow, almost unnoticeable shift from the muscle-to-fat ratio during her twenties (normally 2.5 pounds of muscle to 1 pound of fat) to that during her forties (less than 2.5 pounds of muscle to more than 1 pound of fat!).

From her twenties to her forties, the average lady loses half a pound of muscle a year. If she manages to maintain a constant weight over that period of time, what actually happened, through the natural course of things, was her muscles were simply replaced by an equal quantity of fat. Effectively, that's 10 pounds of muscle taken over by fat over the twenty years.

Happening very gradually, this shift from muscle to fat content in the body becomes obvious when she reaches the big "four-o." She still fits into a waist size 28 but the curvy buttocks muscles that used to fill up her denim pants' behind have been replaced by the tummy bulges that now fill up the front. Same size, but not same shape!

People generally grow fat at forty because of the deterioration of aging muscles, caused by the tendency to slow down on overall activity, not to mention the hormonal changes that cannot be deterred. Body fat builds up because the calorie-burning muscles are wasting away.

Some middle-aged women will desperately engage in crash diets -- but that only upsets the body's metabolism. The body thinks that because there's not enough food to burn, it's starving. It burns muscle together with the fat. Then, as soon as there is a bit of an abundance of food, the body compensates by storing fat, just in case there's another shortage of food. Not everyone understands this natural mechanism.

So, the Fat-and-Forty Syndrome ultimately sets in -- backed up by ignorance and myth, and compounded by social practice (i.e., "the good life"). Fortunately, this disheartening situation can be beaten. Here's how:

  1. Exercise not to burn calories but to strengthen muscle. Dr. Ellington Darden, Founding Director of Research for Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries, says, "The first purpose of exercise is to force the body to increase, or at least maintain its calorie-burning muscle mass. When calorie consumption is below its daily expenditure, the body will just as likely burn muscle as fat for energy, unless there is a demand placed on the muscle to increase in size and strength." In other words, because you are exercising to keep your muscles firm and strong, your body will burn the expendable fat in order to maintain the muscles.

  2. Concentrate on fat loss, not weight loss. A woman weighing 130 pounds wearing a size-medium is very different from one weighing 130 pounds wearing a size-large. The difference is in body-shaping muscle, which can be achieved only through an effective strength-training program. Emphasis must be placed on body composition -- the ratio of muscle to fat -- and not weight. Inches and firmness, not pounds. Shape, not dress size.

  3. Forget crash diets and quick-and-easy solutions -- they don't work. Excess fat results from overeating a little bit for a long time, coupled with a lifestyle that makes little or no effort to at least maintain muscle mass. Crash diets may tip the scale for a while, but eventually, it messes up the body's metabolism, and leads to what everyone knows as the yo-yo syndrome. On the long-term, a messed up metabolism leads to accelerated storage of fat. The key is to eat the right kinds of food, and always in moderation. Little excesses add up. And you can't just stop eating to get rid of them.

  4. Be conscious of the aging process and deal with it accordingly. No one can stop the clock -- at least not yet. Forty WILL come around. So will aging muscles, deteriorating bones, and tiring vital organs. The slim, fit, energetic body proportions of the twenties will soon give way to the saggy, lumpy, sluggish disproportionate shape of the forties. Unless... unless there is conscious, persistent, and patient effort to keep the muscle-fat ratio at its ideal 2.5 to 1. This can be achieved through a healthy lifestyle of a moderate-calorie, well-balanced diet, and regular strengthening exercises.

The bottom line is this: the Fat-and-Forty Syndrome is a result of ignorance and negligence. If you are aware of the basic tendencies of the human body, you will know how to optimize them to your benefit. So, by the time you reach your prime, you will be happy to note that fat-and-forty has become firm-and-fit.

[Also published in PowerHouseGym.com, 2001]

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