Middle Management: What to Do About Midlife Belly?

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Here’s an exercise you can do anytime, anyplace to flatten your belly.

I was always proud of my concave abdomen, my belly naturally flat and slightly hollow like a teen-ager’s.  I used to feel lucky and wonder how long it would last. Then one day in my early 40’s, it seemed to pop out overnight, becoming rounder.  Not only rounder, but firmer, too.  I saw the beginning of the belly my mother and grandmother developed with age.

Genetics is one factor that influences the size and shape of your abdomen, as well as other variables like gender, age, abdominal surgeries, hormones, stress – and of course lifestyle habits. With age, a woman’s level of estrogen declines and the male hormone, testosterone, becomes more prominent. This causes fat to migrate to the gut from other parts of the body (the hips, for example).  In a study at Mayo Clinic, researchers compared fat tissue in pre- and postmenopausal women and found that at the cellular level two enzymes that work to store fat were more active in the postmenopausal women, primarily because of the drop in estrogen.

“Toxic” Fat

Middle Management: What to Do About Midlife Belly?

Stress has a similar effect on fat distribution as it releases another hormone, cortisol, which also encourages fat storage in the belly. Fat found deep in the abdomen (visceral fat) is the real culprit.  The enzymes in abdominal fat cells are very active, allowing fat to move easily into and out of the cells.  The greater amount of fat in the abdominal cavity, the greater amount that can be dumped into the bloodstream, contributing to high cholesterol levels and heart disease.

Additionally, a stress response increases enzyme activity and can cause fat to be released into the blood.

The dangers of belly fat, as recently reported by Jane Brody in the NY Times, can actually be assessed by an honest waist measurement.  Stand up straight, exhale (without sucking in your gut) and with a soft tape measure record your girth an inch or two above your hip bones.  If your waist measures 35 inches or more for women or 40 or more inches for men, you are at risk for developing diseases like heart disease, cancer and dementia later in life.

The good news is that exercise can help reduce toxic fat. Visceral fat is easier to reduce than subcutaneous fat that lies beneath your skin at typical trouble spots around your thighs, upper arms and at your waist -fondly known as “love handles” or “muffin top”.  It responds more rapidly to exercise and diet because it is more active and breaks down more quickly.  Research shows that exercise reduces the size of fat cells in the belly more effectively than dieting alone.  It also prevents fat from being stored in the organs and muscles.

The Surest Way to Shape Up the Midsection

 Despite what you read and may be tempted to try, there is no magic bullet for losing belly fat. It’s been documented that women gain an average of ten pounds as the metabolism slows down around the time of menopause and that hormonal shifts cause fat to accumulate in the belly. Studies also show, however, that you can shed abdominal fat through diet and exercise.  It takes focused work and dedication, and most likely a re-vamp of your current routines.


As published in the journal Menopause in 2012, one study randomly assigned 17,000 postmenopausal women to either a control group or one that was put on a healthy diet emphasizing foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  After a year the healthy diet group had fewer hot flashes and was three times as likely to have lost weight.

Another study called the Women’s Healthy Lifestyle Project followed 535 premenopausal women as they went through menopause.  About half of them were assigned to follow a low-calorie diet and to burn an extra 1000 to 1500 calories a week through physical activity.  After five years the women in the diet and exercise group saw greater reductions in their waist lines and were more likely to have remained at or below their starting weight.

My Tips for Beating Belly Fat

After 30 years of working with women, listening and learning from them, I can share with you what has worked for them and what I know professionally.

1) “Non-responders”:  As we age, we can’t expect the same routines that worked in our youth to still be effective.  If you have become a “non-responder,” meaning your diet and exercise habits are no longer producing your desired results, you need to change the program.  Create a lifestyle routine to cut unnecessary calories, make healthy food choices, rev up your cardio exercise in terms of both volume and intensity, and lift weights to boost your metabolism.

2) Cardio exercise burns calories.  As you exercise rhythmically, you reduce fat stores from the whole body. However, you can’t continue to do the same cardio routine you’ve always done and expect to see results.  The body adjusts to the level of conditioning and stops improving.

You need to change the variables, such as the type of cardio exercise, the intensity and/or duration of your workout.


3)  HIIT or “Burst Training”: To burn the most calories, you need to work at higher intensities.

According to new research high intensity interval training (HIIT), short bursts of intense exercise alternating with recovery periods, may also have the potential to lower abdominal fat by creating a surge in hormones that have been shown to drive fat breakdown, especially deep abdominal fat.

4)  Strength training revs up the metabolism. Weight training develops your muscles and increases your lean body mass, which is metabolically more active than fat.  As you develop more lean body mass, you raise your resting metabolic rate, the number of calories you burn at rest.  A lean body is more power-hungry, burning more calories just to breathe, circulate blood, digest food, even as you sleep!  Studies show that women who lift weights gain less abdominal fat than those who don’t.

5)  Firm up with abdominal exercises: Targeted exercises can help you lose inches even if you’re not losing weight.   Get in touch with your deep abdominal muscle, the transversus abdominis (TVA), which is a flat, horizontal band of muscle that encircles the midsection from front to back.  Strengthening it narrows the waist, flattens the belly and supports the lower back, just like a corset! Strengthening the muscles in your abdominal wall improves your posture and could result in a slimmer waistline regardless of belly fat.

6) Use your abdominal muscles consciously. “Zip up” your abs, just as if you were closing a tight pair of jeans. Take a deep belly breath, then exhale as you draw your naval back toward your spine.  At the same time, lift your muscles up from the pelvic floor, making your belly as flat as possible.



  • Joan Pagano

    Joan Pagano has specialized in strength training for women since 1988 – training, teaching, and writing books on the subject, including Strength Training Exercises for Women (DK, 2014). When the health benefits of strength training started making headlines in the 1990s, and in particular how weight training could protect the bones and prevent osteoporosis, it was a natural segue for her. At that time, Joan was developing and delivering fitness training guidelines for osteoporosis to national audiences of exercise professionals. Currently Joan is recognized by the industry as a leading authority on exercise program design for osteoporosis. She is certified as an Exercise Physiologist by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and is on the Ambassadors Leadership Council for the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Visit Joan at: www.joanpaganofitness.com/

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