After the age of 45 most people body shape begins to change as fat migrates away from the buttocks and thighs and begins to accumulate around the belly. Both men and women awake one morning and find what appears to be an inner tube tire around their belly. Jeans can no longer be closed and the butt which at one time resembled a bumper becomes a shrunken prune– all without gaining a pound, eating more or exercising less. What is happening is middle age fat redistribution, part of the inevitable aging process. Whether it’s hormonal, due to increasing insulin resistance or simply a cellular process, most of us don’t like it, understand it or know what to do about it. The first step is to recognize bad from good fat (or not so bad fat).
If you awake one day with a big belly, and it is soft to poke or jiggles like a bowl of jelly you are safe (or at least for awhile) because it suggests predominantly subcutaneous fat (fat below the skin). On the other hand, if that same big belly is hard – think pregnant woman – than you have fat inside the belly and there is trouble ahead, sooner or latter. The difference is good vs. bad fat deposits.
A French doctor in 1956 was the first to discover that the amount and location of fat deposits were associated with adverse health. Since then, it has clearly been established that chronic disease complications of weight gain are directly associated with the location and the amount of fat. The concept that an apple shape body, with most of the fat around the belly is far more dangerous than a pear shape body with most of the fat in the thighs and buttocks is well accepted.
The fact that fat depositions change as we age, is not so well known. A preferential increase in abdominal fat, especially with fat inside the abdomen and decrease in lower body fat has become the hall mark of aging. This can be independent of total fat content, body weight or even waist circumference. Fat deposits seem to have a life of their own and almost rearrange themselves. The changes are not readily apparent when weight is evaluated the scale, BMI or even waist circumference alone. If you can pinch a large area of fat around the belly, then it’s the safer subcutaneous fat.
Body aging in animals and humans is associated with body composition changes and related functional decline. Population studies in humans suggest that body weight and fatness increase fifth and sixth decade. Then begins a gradual decline in body weight, muscle mass and minerals in the bones.
In a study of men from 24 to 31 years, and from 60 to 82 years the amount of SQ (subcutaneous, below the skin) fat was not significantly different between the two groups, although arm and thigh measures were smaller in the older men. The greatest difference was in the IA (intra-abdominal) fat deposits, with the older men having twice the amount of IA fat as the younger men. The ratio of IA to abdominal SQ fat was more than two and a half times greater, and the ratio of IA to thigh fat was four times greater in the older men.
Exercise is able to reduce total fat and visceral fat, as well as dramatically improving metabolic risk and functional health in aging men and women. A combination of aerobic and resistance exercise is the ideal strategy for improving both metabolic and functional health.. It doesn’t have to be intense but it can have a large impact on your quality of life. Remember – no matter what your age, it’s never too late to improve your health with a little exercise.