The science of male middle-age spread and how to get rid of it

And while they’re often the butt of jokes, moobs can also lead to lack of body confidence, low self-esteem and even trouble in forming relationships. “Man boobs in middle-aged men are not uncommon,” says Dr Velusamy. “An unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle and excessive alcohol consumption can all increase your likelihood of developing them.”

He’s right about the alcohol. When you drink, your body converts booze into acetate, which has the knock-on effect of turning carbohydrates and proteins into fat. And drinking leads to poor food choices, whether late-night snacking or fat-rich foods to mop up the hangover. Studies also show that taking an alcoholic drink with a meal can increase your food intake by up to 30 per cent.

Drinking also disrupts your sleep, both in terms of quality and quantity, which, according to new research just published by the Mayo Clinic, can lead to weight gain. In a controlled study led by Dr Naima Covassin, a cardiovascular medicine researcher, it was found that those participants who did not sleep well, had a nine per cent increase in their total of abdominal fat and an 11 per cent increase in abdominal visceral fat, compared with those who slept more soundly. It’s thought that inadequate sleep results in a higher calorie intake and, consequently, an increase in weight and fat accumulation, even in relatively fit people. And if people are awake longer, they will usually eat more but not generally engage in additional physical activity.

As our case studies show, ditching alcohol really can work wonders, not just for your mental well-being and sleep quality, but, crucially, for your waistline. Look at the Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge. He knocked booze on the head and lost an astonishing 12 stone.

He’s not the only one. Former Labour MP Tom Watson dropped from 22 stone to 14 and succeeded in putting his type 2 diabetes into remission, while music mogul Simon Cowell is a shadow of his former self, thanks largely to a new vegan diet. Even MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace, a man who eats for a living, has a six-pack these days. Wallace used to drink seven days a week, often starting at 10am. “It got so bad at one point the owner of the local pub used to let me in when he was still in his dressing gown,” he said in November 2020. When he drastically cut back, thanks largely to the help of his fourth wife, Anna, he lost four stone.

And while the sight of Boris Johnson jogging along the sands of Blackpool beach prompted much ridicule recently – one critic said he looked like the Honey Monster escaping from the Sugar Puffs factory – the Prime Minister is to be commended for at least trying to keep middle-age spread at bay. After being hospitalised with Covid in April 2020, Johnson concluded his excess weight had played a part in his inability to cope with the virus and immediately went on a diet, shedding a stone.

So it can be done – but often it’s the middle-age mindset that’s preventing men from committing to making a real change, as Dr Andreas Michaelides, chief of psychology at behavioural- change specialists Noom, explains. “The secret is to start small because you’re not the same person you used to be,” he says. “Finding and maintaining motivation is one of the most difficult aspects of trying to lose weight after a period of being overweight or obese,” Michaelides points out. “You have to build on the small successes, but once you go from that external feeling of doing something because you have to do it – to tick it off your list, if you like – to a more internal feeling of doing something because it makes you feel good, you’re well on your way.”

James Heagney, gym director at KX, a health and fitness club in Chelsea, agrees. A personal trainer with more than 20 years’ experience, he specialises in sports therapy and nutrition and has also coached athletes to Olympic gold. He’s noticed a real uptick in the number of middle-aged men seeking his expertise. “When men are north of 50, they tend to be driven by information or a health scare – it could be a worrying cholesterol reading or maybe their blood pressure is too high. They tend to be driven to do something because they’re concerned not so much by longevity or the quantity of life but the quality of it.”

For Heagney, the process of tackling middle-age spread begins with understanding why your body is the way it is. Typically, as we age we all slow down, whether that’s in the number of steps we do each day or the frequency, and the type of sport and activities we tend to engage in. It’s why golf and bowls suddenly seem attractive as you slip into middle age and beyond. “In that respect, it’s not so much over-consumption that’s the problem with middle-age spread, it’s under-activity,” he says.

By the age of 40 you are already beginning to lose muscle mass naturally, even if you’re relatively active, and when that happens, fat will begin to form instead of muscle, slowing down your metabolism in the process. Genetics and hormones will also have an impact on the rate your metabolism changes and, therefore, the rate at which you will be able to lose that abdominal fat.

Finding the right kind of exercise is often what stops someone succeeding in losing weight. I’ve tried most things: cycling, swimming, running – I could be a triathlete if I didn’t hate each and every one of them. Now I do a few spin classes each week with maybe one or two gym sessions, if I can be bothered. It helps that my wife accompanies/drags me there too, otherwise I’d still be at home rooting in the cupboard for that third packet of Wheat Crunchies.

The more you enjoy a particular activity, the more likely you are to form an emotional attachment to it and achieve your goal. And while cardiovascular activities, such as running or cycling, will always be of benefit, research suggests that these can be even more effective if combined with weight training. A Harvard University study of 10,500 men over a 12-year period discovered that those who added just 20 minutes of weights to their usual cardio workout were less susceptible to gaining age-related fat around their stomachs than those who chose to only use the treadmill, as it helped to build and retain muscle mass, thereby reducing the likelihood of fat replacing it.

Consider the impact of your “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” (NEAT) as well. Put simply, this is the heat your body produces when doing all those everyday things that aren’t necessarily structured or formal exercise, such as walking, gardening or even taking the dog out. They will all help in your battle of the bulge.

When you exercise might also play a part in your ability to lose weight. In 2018, researchers at the University of Bath found that men who worked out before eating burned twice as many calories compared with those who exercised after eating, largely because the absence of any food in the body means you’re more likely to burn off your fat stores. Try taking your last meal of the day before 6pm, too, as the metabolism slows during sleep, making it harder to burn off those calories that have been taken onboard later in the evening, increasing the chances they will be stored as fat in your body.

But exercise is nothing without the right diet. To lose weight and belly fat, you will have to create a calorie deficit, or expend more calories than you consume. And don’t attempt crash diets, which will leave you more open to putting the weight back on again as your blood sugar will drop rapidly, causing greater hunger. You will also find that a sudden reduction in calories will trick the body into thinking it’s starving, slowing your metabolic rate and actually preserving its fat stores, rather than burning them. Heagney, for instance, recommends gluten-free and largely vegan diets as they tend to be allergen-free and anti-inflammatory in nature, which means they are digested more easily, and will fill you up and give you more energy.

Above all, though, remember the mantra that you can’t out-train a bad diet, especially if there are Wheat Crunchies in the cupboard. In other words, move away from the cookie jar.

Five things you can do to get moving this weekend

Confront reality

It’s a big step, but pluck up the courage to weigh yourself and commit to losing some weight. Don’t set a target. Take small steps and weigh yourself at the same time each day (first thing in the morning is best), so you get a better idea of the progress you’re making and can make any necessary adjustments to your diet or exercise plan as you go along.

Strike the right balance 

Personal trainer James Heagney says that too many men try to do too much too soon when it comes to losing weight “which makes it all the more likely you’ll fall off the exercise wagon”. Instead, ask yourself when you can exercise each week and if it’s only two or three times, then tailor your schedule to suit. Remember, you want to make it a sustainable habit. “It’s all about making the exercise fit your lifestyle,” says Heagney.

Team up

Hitting the gym on your own isn’t always the most beneficial – or sociable – way to work out. Find a like-minded friend to join you. You may well find that introducing a little competition into proceedings can make it more interesting and you’ll also be able to spur each other on.

Get ready

If you’ve scheduled in some exercise, make sure you prepare all the kit you are going to need the night before so that when you wake up you’re good to go. As psychologist Dr Andreas Michaelides says, it’s all about removing those potential obstacles which might prevent you from following through with your plan.

Look beyond the gym

Exercise doesn’t have to be structured or formal. If you can build extra activity into your everyday life then you’ll benefit even more. Everything from gardening to walking up stairs to dancing will burn more calories and all help in achieving that crucial calorie deficit.

Making some key changes to your diet can reap huge benefits in your quest to lose the lard

Learn to eat

The way that you eat can impact the way you digest your food and, in turn, impact your weight. So make sure you sit down at a table (not on the sofa in front of the TV), put your meal on a plate, chew properly and, above all, slow down.

Eat more

You don’t have to eat less to lose weight, you can actually eat more – as long as it’s the right thing. According to a study from Harvard University, people who upped their consumption of low-calorie but vitamin- and mineral-rich foods such as cauliflower, kale, berries, pears and soy, were more likely to lose weight.

Go nuts

Snacking can be the downfall of a diet, but not if it’s nuts you’re nibbling on. Research shows that people who eat nuts regularly are less likely to gain weight over time and become obese.

Go low

If the idea of a drink after a hard day’s work is something you can’t imagine giving up then do as our case study Mike Harris (right) did and swap your normal pint for an alcohol-free one. “There are some incredible ones on the market now and you just would not know the difference,” he says.

I thought because I did 10,000 steps a day and ate a lot of broccoli, I wasn’t unhealthy

Mike Harris, 51, a content director from Hampshire

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