Men blame work and kids for ‘middle-aged’ spread, research finds

As part of my role at YourLifeChoices, I’m often asked to report on newly published studies in the fields of science and health. In each case, I do my best to get my head around the subject matter.

Often, especially in the sphere of science (I devour popular science news), such reporting is a chance for me to build on some basic knowledge and, hopefully, help others do the same.

Today, I have been asked to write about one of the few areas in which I can claim genuine expertise – why middle-aged men believe they’re overweight. It was in response to a report published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) titled, ‘Onset of weight gain and health concerns for men’.

Finally! A topic very close to my stomach – I mean heart.

Joking aside, this is indeed a topic that is important to me, as it will be for others in my age group (I turned 57 this week). Like many in this age bracket, I was once a young, fit man with barely an ounce of fat. In fact, as a 20-year-old at uni I was asked by a friend majoring in biology if I would be part of a study that involved monitoring my heart rate and measuring my body fat.

Read: Changing your diet could add 10 years to your life

So slim was I (probably too slim) that when it came time to do the body fat ‘pinch test’, she was unable to find anywhere on my lower torso to grab with her calliper.

Oh, to have a problem like that now!

The new report published in the IJERPH takes a semi-structural approach. The authors, Mark Cortnage and Andy Pringle (mmmmm, chips – why do you mock me?!) interviewed male participants aged over 35 enrolled in The Alpha Program (TAP), a 12-week football and weight management intervention delivered in community venues in the UK.

The study’s aims were to “provide detail on men’s perceptions for the causes of weight gain”.

It sought to find out the reasons for participants’ weight gain, their health concerns about being overweight, what they had tried to do about it and how they felt about themselves.

Read: A weight loss solution that helps men lose weight – and keep it off

The paper provides numerous quotes from participants, many of which resonated strongly with me. Lifestyle changes such as having children or taking on a busier job featured among the comments. For me, the period in which my two children were growing up coincided with me giving up cricket (as my wife worked on Saturdays) for 12 years, during which time my waistline definitely expanded.

Others were even more direct in their ‘blame’. One participant, Mr E, pointed the finger squarely at crisps. (It is unclear if he was speaking directly to Mr Pringle during this interview.) “If they’re not in the house, it doesn’t bother me, but if they are in the house, I’ll have to have a packet.”

We are all Mr E – well, perhaps not all of us, but I certainly am.

Health concerns included risk of heart attack and constant shortness of breath. The latter also resonates strongly with me. I used to be so fit!

The participants told familiar tales of losing significant amounts of weight, only to put it all back on again – the old ‘yo-yo’ effect; another aspect of the weight control struggle I know too well.

Read: Kids with overweight grandparents twice as likely to be obese

Dr Nick Fuller has spoken on Karl Kruszelnicki’s Shirtloads of Science podcast about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of diets. His analysis reveals that the best chance of achieving permanent change is via interval weight loss, which involves shedding a few kilos, maintaining the new weight for a month, and then shedding a few more.

But back to our participants. Our friend Mr E said he often “walked past a mirror and I think, look at that gut”.

I do not have a full-length mirror to walk past, luckily, but I live his experiences often, walking along my local shopping strip and catching a glimpse of my reflection in a window. Such moments remind me that, when I am walking to a particular destination, my belly is always first to get there.

That sight should be enough to motivate me, but it doesn’t.

I see many men who are probably struggling like Mr E and me. That suggests an easy solution to our weight problems probably does not exist.

But the Cortnage and Pringle research identified various areas that may help provide future answers, although they highlight a need to tread carefully. For instance:

“… social support derived through regular engagement in sport is also proven to be effective in developing self-esteem both of which were utilised with this program [TAP]. However, research suggests that participation in exercise for improvements in image may exacerbate feelings of self-objectification, disordered eating and compromised body esteem and should be used with caution when used for motivational development.”

Messrs Cortnage and Pringle ultimately do not provide solutions but they believe their research can take us a step closer to finding some. “Sharing these findings with services focused on weight loss in men … could be helpful in establishing weight loss goals that were not only realistic and sustainable but also seen as credible and, as such, inclusive of those men who aspired to change their weight loss status and improve their health profiles.”

Let’s hope they’re right. Now please excuse me; I think I can hear a packet of chips calling!

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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