Weight Loss In Your 20s, 30s, 40s

Take charge of your weight fate with this decade-by-decade guide to staying fit.

Your 20's

Tip: Beef up your calcium intake to protect your bones and your waistline.

What’s Happening Now:

First, the good news. You’re burning more calories than ever, thanks to a naturally speedy metabolism, and having  more lean muscle mass than at any other time of your life.

But getting pregnant — something many women do in their 20s — can change all that. If you gain more than the recommended 25 to 35 pounds, the extra weight can pose a long-term obesity risk. Another potential pitfall: With children comes an abundance of kiddie food. You may feel compelled to finish your toddler’s half-eaten meals or nibble your way through the day. “Your nutritional habits may have been perfect pre-baby, but post-pregnancy, you may not have the time — or the energy — to devote to your diet,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. 

Weight-loss Rx:

Invest in your health by exchanging your bad habits with a few good ones. “Your 20s should be about setting up your life for the next 60 years,” says Cathy Nonas, R.D., author of Outwit Your Weight. Here’s how.

Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. While you’re at it, cut down on red meat and junk food and boost your intake of whole grains, too, advises Samantha Heller, R.D., clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut. Eating a plant-based diet is one of the best ways to fill up on fewer calories because fruits and vegetables supply fiber, Heller says. They also reduce your risk of a number of age-related diseases.

Lift weights. Strength training offsets the effect of a sedentary job and maximizes your body’s natural calorie-burning power by building muscle. Work out with weights at least twice a week,” suggests C.C. Cunningham, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and a trainer in Evanston, Illinois. Choose a weight that fatigues your muscles after 12 repetitions, and strive for one set of eight to 12 repetitions for each of the eight major muscle groups (chest, arms, back, outer thighs, inner thighs, butt and abs).

Fit in mini workouts. Do what you can around your home or office, using your own body weight as resistance. Take the stairs, instead of the elevator whenever possible. “Try walking up sideways to develop the muscles on the inside and outside of your hips,” suggests Cunningham. Other options: Do a set of 10 squats in your office cubicle three times a day. Or stand and do 30 raised push-ups on the edge of your desk every day. 

Curb cocktail-hour calories. Make every other drink nonalcoholic and steer clear of high-fat appetizers like nachos with extra cheese or fried foods. “Too often, the closest thing you’ll get to something healthy at happy hour is the celery that comes with the buffalo wings,” says Kathleen Zelman, a registered dietitian based in Marietta, Georgia. Eat something before you leave work to stave off temptation, suggests Zelman. 

Get more calcium. Get 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day from low-fat dairy products or calcium supplements or a combination of the two (for best absorption, take a calcium supplement with food). Besides reducing your risk of osteoporosis, calcium can help keep your weight in check. “A low-calcium diet may cause fat cells to hold onto fat,” explains Robert Heaney, M.D., a bone researcher and professor of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Practice portion control. Try putting your portions in perspective. “The palm of your hand is the right amount for meat, chicken or fish,” says Kathleen Johnson, R.D., a consulting nutritionist in Tucson, Arizona. A serving of peanut butter or mayonnaise would be about the size of the last joint of your thumb, and a standard serving of ketchup or salad dressing equals an Oreo. 

Your 30's

Tip: Too busy for a sit-down meal? Choose a healthy meal-replacement bar instead.

What’s Happening Now:

Unfortunately, your 30s are prime time for putting on the pounds. Unless you were lifting weights throughout your 20s, you’re naturally starting to lose muscle, and gain fat, at a rate of about 2 percent per decade, especially if you have a relatively sedentary lifestyle, says Roizen. This subtle muscle-to-fat ratio change makes it tougher to maintain your ideal weight as time goes on. As your muscle mass shrinks, your calorie requirement decreases. Unaware of this subtle change within your body, you’re probably still eating the same way you did in your 20s. Complicating matters, you may also be having your first (or maybe your second or third) baby. The inevitable weight gain from pregnancy, coupled with the added responsibilities of a burgeoning career and a family, makes it difficult to stay in shape.

Weight-loss Rx:

Make time for yourself instead of worrying about everyone else’s life. Exercise. Eat right. Now’s the time to regroup and rediscover yourself and your needs. After all, the happier you are, the happier everyone is. “When you’re strong and healthy, you’ll have more energy to take care of those around you,” says Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Services. What’s more, setting a good example is especially important now if you’ve got others following your lead. 

Make exercise a daily priority. If you’ve got kids, burn calories by joining in on their games. Walk everywhere. Mow the lawn. Do anything you can to get your heart rate up for about an two and a half hours each week. 

Know your body mass index. “Your weight could be at a dangerous level and you might not even know it,” says Fernstrom. To calculate your BMI, log on to the website for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at nhlbisupport.com/bmi. Or do it yourself by multiplying your weight in pounds by 705. Divide the result by your height in inches, then divide that result by your height in inches again. A BMI over 25 is considered overweight; a BMI over 30 is obese. Both classifications can up your risk of chronic conditions like cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Stock your pantry. Make sure you always have healthy food, such as whole-grain bread, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, on hand, says Salge Blake. You’ll be less prone to order takeout for the family on busy nights, which can increase your calorie load and downgrade your diet’s nutritional value. 

Don’t skip meals, even when you’re busy. It only leaves you vulnerable to cravings. “When you’re on the run, a balanced meal-replacement shake or bar is definitely better than fast food,” says Nonas. And, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, meal replacements can promote long-term weight loss because they’re an easy way to keep track of calories.

Your 40's

Tip: Antioxidant-rich meals — like salads and sushi — are required eating.

What’s Happening Now:

Your self-esteem is at its peak — and so it should be. You’re more accepting of the body flaws that drove you nuts in your 20s, and you’re probably pretty happy with the direction your life has taken. All in all, life is good. However, you’re still losing metabolism-boosting muscle mass, only now it’s at a rate of 5 percent per decade. And perimenopause, the eight- to 10-year period before menopause, may be settling in. With it comes declining estrogen levels and, possibly, mild depression, says Dr. Shari Lusskin, director of reproductive psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. Depression can be linked to weight gain. 

Weight-loss Rx:

Fight back! Don’t accept mid-life weight gain as a fact of life. If there’s one thing you’ve learned by now, it’s that for every problem, there’s a solution. Here are four. 

Keep your heart rate up. Moderate aerobic exercise — 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week — is crucial for offsetting your body’s natural metabolism decline. It can also prevent the depression that may accompany perimenopause. 

Build muscle. If you haven’t begun strength training yet, start now. “It will help preserve the muscle you have and build even more,” says Cunningham. To learn proper technique (and avoid the risk of injury), invest in a couple of sessions with a personal trainer.

Protect against soreness. You’re more vulnerable to everyday aches and pains, so don’t push yourself too hard. Gradually work up to a challenging routine, so your muscles and joints have time to get used to the added stress. If you haven’t already done so, boost your intake of protein and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

Take aim at osteoporosis. Unfortunately, if you haven’t been strength-training or eating a calcium-rich diet throughout your 20s and 30s, you may be at risk for this deadly disease. But starting a strength-training program — and taking calcium supplements — now can help prevent further bone loss. Take 500 milligrams of calcium three times daily, with food for the best absorption. And get yourself a set of dumbbells, and use them, today.


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