How I changed my my health & my outlook at midlife
I’ve had to make many changes in how I care for myself at midlife, and it’s been challenging. But in the process of getting healthy (and fit at fifty), I’ve learned that our midlife bodies just need a little extra love and respect.
Why Was My Midlife Body Betraying Me?
Some unwelcome changes began in my mid 40’s: I gained weight around my waist even though I wasn’t eating any differently. I used to be able to have several glasses of wine at a dinner party and then sleep like a baby (sleep like a baby – my favourite ironic expression), but that also changed. Now, if I had more than one drink I wouldn’t sleep well.
And worse, I developed a problem with my hip that got so bad I could barely walk. After months of searching for an answer, I learned I had hip dysplasia which had led to arthritis – I needed a total hip replacement. (I write more about that in: My Midlife Health Mystery.)
Note: I am a journalist and writer, not a health professional. I am sharing my personal story, supported by facts from medical professionals. If you are a menopausal women who has broader health concerns I suggest you read The Menopause Manifesto by Dr. Jen Gunter. She is an excellent resource and addresses health, exercise and weight management quite extensively with facts and practical advice.
A Hip Replacement at 49
I was 49 and felt like my body had betrayed me. I was frustrated, confused and scared. I had always been healthy – what was happening?
I had the hip surgery and did the required physical therapy so my hip healed well, and I was thrilled to finally be pain-free. But I had low energy, was out of shape and my balance was off, which was normal, apparently.
When I was given the green light to begin more exercise I had to approach fitness in a new way. My hip surgeon made it clear that running was out for me. I was never a serious runner, but I enjoyed it – it relieved stress and put me in a positive mindset. Since my artificial hip, and the hip dysplasia on my other side, would not tolerate running or any sort of high-impact exercise, I had no idea where to start.
From Hip Replacement to Fit at Fifty
How I Got My Groove Back
I began working with a trainer at my local gym. Alecia was amazing. She helped me to understand the types of exercise that midlife women most benefit from.
My new priorities were to increase my strength by building muscle (we lose muscle as we age) and to improve my flexibility. When it came to cardiovascular exercise, Alecia advised that I needed 25-30 minutes of vigorous cardio, three times a week. The guideline for midlife women, according to Dr. Jen Gunter, author of the The Menopause Manifesto is a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week.
Strength Training and Functional Movement for Midlife Women
I learned about the importance of functional movement: the things we need to do every day as we go through our lives, like getting in and out of chairs and squatting to pick something up. Alecia showed me how to exercise to support the way I moved: I loved this practical approach to exercise and joked with her that since I love to travel, one of my goals was to have enough upper-body strength to lift my carry-on bag into the overhead compartment – for the next 40 years!
After six months of the new fitness plan, with less overall cardio, I was in better shape than I had ever been. I worked hard: My exercise routine took about 1.5 hours and I did it four times a week. But that is not necessary to vastly improve how your fitness and energy level. What began as a negative – hip surgery and not being able to run – has made me stronger and healthier than ever.
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To maintain my fitness I now exercise just over an hour, 3-4 times a week. Since I no longer go to a gym, due to Covid, I spend about 30-40 minutes doing strength training, using my own body weight and resistance bands, and another 20-30 minutes riding a spinning bike at home. I did not have the budget for a fancy bike such as a Peloton so I purchased this Joroto Cycling Bike instead. I’ve been using it for almost two years and am very happy with it. I highly recommend it; it’s around US$400.
With the right exercise routine now a regular part of my life, I have the energy (and the new hip) which allows me to do the things I love such as hiking and skiing.
Changing the Way I Viewed Food
I love delicious food. Thin-crust pizza is my favourite thing, perhaps tied only with homemade chocolate chip cookies. I also adore delicious cheese and crusty bread. And breakfast burritos are not only for breakfast, just saying.
Maintaining my weight has always required regular exercise because yep, I love to eat. My weight had fluctuated over the years with two pregnancies, and available time and energy for the gym.
As I reached midlife I found I could no longer exercise the pounds away when I over-indulged. There’s an expression: you can’t outrun a bad diet and that became true for me. My diet wasn’t terrible, but there was room for improvement. And I wanted to be able to fit in to my clothes. Even more important is the research regarding women and brain health.
After my hip replacement, my interest in nutrition grew. The more I learned, the more I saw food in a new way: nutrient dense foods were a source of energy, would regulate my mood, and were one of the most significant things I could do to ensure my long-term health and specifically brain health. We are much more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s disease than men. My favourite overview of healthy eating for brain health is this article by Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist and women’s health expert: What Women Should Eat to Maintain a Healthy Brain.
I also got a subscription to the Nutrition Action “healthletter”. It is published ten times a year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) a non-profit dedicated to providing science-based advice on nutrition and food safety. It is a great source of reliable information and helps keep me motivated to eat well. Harvard University also has a series of free e-publications with useful nutrition info.,
Figuring out how to change the way I ate, that I could stick with for the long haul, required some trial and error. I believe that each of us needs to find the right way to eat that is sustainable long-term, enjoyable and makes is feel great. For me, it meant cutting out most processed carbs (things made with white flour), and adding in more nutrient dense foods, vegetables and healthy fats.
It is so unfortunate that those of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s were taught that fat was bad. Healthy fats are essential to good health and eating them makes me feel full and satisfied. I focus on incorporating healthy fats in my diet every day: olive oil, avocados, nuts and pumpkin seeds. I have a nut and seed bowl for breakfast every week day (affectionately named the squirrel bowl). Then I eat fun things like huevos rancheros and croissants on weekends.
I had to limit processed carbs and add in more veggies and healthy fats
I now believe that good nutrition can change your life. One of my favourite nutrition experts is Dr. Mark Hyman, a medical doctor and best-selling author who likes to say: “Food isn’t like medicine, it is medicine, and it’s our number one tool for creating the vibrant health we deserve.”
His website is a fantastic resource, and he hosts a health podcast called : The Doctor’s Farmacy. He has also written many books; I am about to read his latest: Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet – One Bite at a Time.
Changing my eating meant I finally lost the pounds that had crept on in my late 40s, and some additional weight as well. Most importantly, I feel better – I have more energy than I’ve had in years.
Sure, I would love to park myself in front of a giant bowl of pasta vongole. But pasta is now an occasional treat. Unless I am in Italy. In Italy I eat whatever I want – Molto Bene! That’s reason enough to plan a trip to Italy.
Alcohol, Not an Ideal Midlife Companion
I really enjoy wine and adore fancy cocktails; whiskey sours are my favourite. And champagne – what isn’t better with a glass of bubbly?
But the truth is that many midlife women would benefit from cutting back on alcohol. It hardly seems fair, but let’s talk about the reasons why. Alcohol is harder to metabolize as we get older, our livers just aren’t as efficient.
It also disrupts sleep because it’s a short-term sedative, when it wears off, you wake up. And if you are trying to lose weight, alcohol will sabotage your efforts. Alcohol spikes your blood sugar, in the same way a chocolate cupcake does. Even worse, there is a connection between excessive drinking and breast cancer, according to Dr. Hyman. Why? “An increased alcohol load means your liver can’t metabolize estrogen well. Increased estrogen in the body can lead to breast cancer.”
He says: “Drinking wine is like a U-shaped curve. A little bit is OK; a little more is bad news. For women, alcohol can be especially damaging.”
I have learned enough about the risks of alcohol that as much as I enjoy it, I have cut back. I will add that it can wreak havoc on your skin. Excess sugar leads to a loss of collagen and skin elasticity. I have very wrinkle-prone skin, so need all the help I can get.
So I’ve created new rules for myself. I try and limit alcohol to the weekend and keep it to a maximum of two drinks at any time. Sure, sometimes I want a third, but I remind myself I won’t sleep well, so try not to exceed two. Except on vacation. Except on girls trips. Except in Italy. (Apparently all rules are made to be broken in Italy.) I try to relax about everything on vacation. That seems to work for me, I know some people need to maintain consistent habits.
Sleep for Midlife Women
I know sleep is a fraught topic and we are all well aware it’s important. Most of us would sleep more if we could. I am as guilty as anyone of finding ten things to worry about at 3 AM, sometimes they are even legitimate concerns. Other times, I lay awake fretting about the fact that I haven’t been cleaning my dogs teeth with that weird tool the vet told me to order. (Update – we had to get our dog’s teeth professionally cleaned).
Sleep is so important to our health that it’s worth our efforts to improve it. And if you are trying to get healthy and fit at fifty, or any other age, being sleep deprived makes it harder to maintain a healthy weight and can lead to sugar and starch cravings.
Sleep apps such as HeadSpace have some free content specifically designed to help you return to sleep. I have used it and like it. Calm is another good option. I have also been experimenting with CBD oil which seems to help me either stay asleep or fall back to sleep sooner.
Even simpler, and a way to avoid your phone at night, is counting backward from 1000 (or 10,000, if you are a math person ;). It may sound overly simple, but counting often works for me; it is enough of a distraction from my thoughts and worries, to fall back to sleep. Another nice option is to think of things you are grateful for, until you fall asleep. The point is to keep your mind from fixating on worries or to do lists which will make you more awake. I also ask our smart speaker to play the sound of rain or ocean waves which helps.
Sleep is a vast and complex issue. The leading expert I have found on sleep, is Matthew Walker who runs the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley in San Francisco. His book, Why We Sleep provides a deep dive on this topic and emphasizes how crucial sleep is to optimizing our health. It is a Sunday Times bestseller in the UK, and a New York Times bestseller in the U.S. He also has excellent and informative YouTube videos, for example: How to Improve Your Sleep.
Healthy and Fit at Fifty: Is all this really worth it?
I look back over this list and think: so many rules, so many restrictions. Who are you? You used to be fun.
Then I think about how I feel now: energized, healthy, happier. And I remind myself that I enjoy the wine and the thin-crust pizza because they are special treats, not coping mechanisms. The splurges bring me joy, rather than leave me feeling guilty and craving more.
I believe midlife presents an opportunity to make some changes. As women, we all give so much to everyone else. We deserve to feel as good as we can; it is a gift we can give to ourselves.
I still have bad days, when I make chocolate chip cookies to soothe difficult emotions. And I might have even had a whiskey sour on a Tuesday, just last week. None of us are perfect, and that’s ok. We’ve made it this far and our midlife is a gift to be enjoyed. So I do the best I can, and forgive myself for everything else.
For me, healthy and fit at any age is about more than being able to button up your skinny jeans. It is about vitality and happiness: feeling energized, calm and optimistic about the future.