More from Prevention: 15 Flat Belly Recipes
What Lovitt and Client X were fighting uphill against was what most of us with XX chromosomes know too well: the dreaded middle-age fat migration. While it tends to hit with a vengeance in your 40s and 50s, the slide starts in your 30s, when you begin to lose half a pound of lean muscle a year—resulting in a 5% slower metabolism every decade. Then, in your mid-40s, the hormonal storm of perimenopause kicks in, morphing you into a shape-shifter. As estrogen levels naturally begin to drop, fat that typically lingers on the hips and thighs pulls up stakes and settles in where it’s wanted even less: the belly. “Other than your ovaries, your fat cells—especially those around the stomach—are the only place the female body can produce estrogen,” says Deborah Clegg, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern. “As the ovaries slow down, your belly-fat cells try to pick up the slack and, as a result, swell and multiply.”
As the training sessions rolled by, Lovitt felt the tension building. Client X was getting fitter but her belly, no flatter. Driving home one morning, Lovitt wracked her brain.
Chill out, she told herself. You’re too stressed to think clearly. And then, right in the middle of Route 101, a lightbulb clicked on: What if the stress of trying so hard to eliminate the fat was actually making eliminating the fat harder to do?
Cortisol, a potent stress hormone with a knack for holding on to ab fat, is never not a problem for women. (Name a decade when you weren’t stressed out about something.) But starting in your 40s, levels naturally climb. Just as our aging joints don’t work as well as they did in our 20s, researchers say, the part of the brain that helps regulate the hormone (for science types, that’s the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) stops performing at its peak. That up-tick in cortisol might make as big a difference in the waistline as taking up a nightly glass of wine: Yale researchers found that women with high cortisol levels had more abdominal fat even if they were slender elsewhere. And Client X, Lovitt realized, had multiple drivers of cortisol creep built into her life. She was driven. She exercised like a fiend. And she was on a chronic diet.
“When you want to shed fat, the natural instinct is to adopt an ‘eat less, exercise more’ mentality,” says Jade Teta, an integrative physician and the author of The Metabolic Effect Diet. “But this may cause metabolic stress and raise cortisol levels, which only compounds your problem.”
Of course, any physical activity can create stress on the body, resulting in the production of cortisol. “The problem arises when you train too hard too often and don’t take enough time to rest and recover,” explains performance coach and exercise physiologist Pete McCall.
As Lovitt connected the dots, a theory started to percolate: Perhaps when you hit your 40s, the trick isn’t always to push harder—sometimes it could be doing less. The solution was counterintuitive, and Client X wasn’t easily convinced to give it a try. (Mind you, this was before short training programs like HIIT and Tabata had become mainstream.) Finally, Lovitt leveled with her: “I realize how crazy it sounds, but let’s see what happens.”
Lovitt knew that if her hunch didn’t work, she’d be out of a job. Even worse, she would have no recourse for future clients (or herself) when the after-40 hormone change locked in. She also realized that her scaled-back plan had to hit the perfect note: intense enough to burn fat, but not so wicked that cortisol levels spiraled upward. To achieve that, she decided to watch her client’s heart rate like a hawk.
The program itself wasn’t hard to construct. She broke Client X’s long runs into shorter intervals, alternating between running at 85 to 90% of maximum heart rate and walking at 60 to 70% of MHR. To keep heart rate in the Goldilocks zone (not too high, not too low) during resistance work, Lovitt cut back on burpees and favored moderate standing core moves like lunges with knee lifts. Instead of 1 day off a week, Lovitt built in 2. She also added calories, swapping her client’s previous “breakfast” (a latte) for sprouted bread with avocado and egg whites.
Then she waited, the fate of Hollywood and womankind not exactly in the balance, but at least open to change. Within a few weeks, Client X noticed her first shift. Her abs—after months of effort—showed glimmers of definition. Then, a few weeks after that, it happened. Her belly fat began slowly, visibly falling away. “Not only did it work,” says Lovitt, “but it was something she could stick with long-term.”
Lovitt never monitored Client X’s cortisol levels. She couldn’t prove that allowing the woman’s body to de-stress was critical. But, confident in her theory, Lovitt began using the tone-down-to-tone-up method with all her clients humbled by the 40-plus roll. Eventually that included herself. “I’ll never forget thinking, ‘Sh*t, this really does happen,’ ” she says. As remarkable results rolled in, Lovitt learned it wasn’t a fluke. Client X had proved to be a harbinger of a sustainable, effective solution.
Lovitt’s routine, which she has crafted into our new fitness DVD,Ultimate Flat Belly: Amazing Abs, Gorgeous Body, is not for the naive. Like any routine, it requires work and discipline. But, with nothing more than a resistance band, light hand weights, and a few feet of space, it will help anyone feel more confident and at ease with her abs.
And so: Start with the workout and move on to the full routines on the DVD. While your middle may never be up to Hollywood standards—we know it’s as much about feeling good as looking good in a bikini anyway, right?—Lovitt promises that you’ll get as much out of your age and genes as Client X eventually did. “Whether it was Lauren Graham, Julianne Moore, or Courteney Cox, what does it matter?” asks Lovitt, never one to break the trainer-client code. “The point is that they all make 40-plus look as amazing as it is.”
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