If you’ve noticed a change in your weight, but can’t figure out why, you may be suffering from what is often called the “middle-age spread.” And no, it’s not because you aren’t running every morning anymore. There are definite changes that occur at middle age that compel the body to start storing fat around the abdomen. Not only does this development tend to make us unhappy, it can also create a dangerous health situation

The average American “packs on an extra 30 pounds from early adulthood to age 50.” – Dr. Francis Collins. “Apple-shaped” women, those who hold more fat in their abdomen, are more at risk for heart disease and other illnesses because the fat cells in the abdominal area tend to accumulate around our vital organs. Studies have found that this type of fat is much more likely to promote disease than fat in other areas, like around the hips and thighs.

What is the Middle-Age Spread?

The term is used to describe what seems to be the inevitable weight gain that begins around the age of 40. Compare most women’s pictures when they were 20 to when they are 50 and you’ll see an expansion in waist size. According to Dr. Francis Collins, writing in the National Institute of Health’s Director’s blog, the average American “packs on an extra 30 pounds from early adulthood to age 50.”

Prior to menopause, women tended to gain weight around the hips and thighs, but after menopause, when female hormones dropped, they gained more weight around the abdomen—like men typically do. That signaled a hormonal connection.

There’s no doubt that this is a common change, so if you’re going through it, you’re not alone. The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, which has tracked three generations of women, showed that middle-aged women (defined as those 45-50 years of age when first recruited for the study) gained an average of 7.5 pounds over a period of eight years. On top of that, the number of women classified as overweight or obese increased from 4 in 10 to 6 in 10 over the same period.

You may feel like suddenly everything you eat lands around your middle. Why does this happen?

What Causes the Middle-Age Spread?

There are a number of factors involved in creating the middle-age spread. Below are a few of the most common ones.

1. Muscle loss.

We are all warned about the natural loss of bone mass that can occur with menopause, but we may be less aware of the simultaneous loss of muscle mass that often occurs.

In a 2013 study, researchers stated that the muscular system accounts for about 40 percent of the total body mass, but that the aging process leads to a decrease in muscle mass and strength. We begin to lose muscle in our 30s, but according to this study, the greatest loss comes between the ages of 40 and 60. Researchers associated this decline with hormonal changes, physical inactivity, and health conditions.

2. Hormonal changes.

In women, levels of progesterone start to decline as early as the mid-30s, and will decline even faster as they approach menopause. Of course, during perimenopause and menopause, estrogen levels drop, too.

Scientists found this to be true in a 2012 study, in which they reviewed decades of research to determine that menopausal hormonal changes shifted the distribution of body fat to the abdomen. Scientific author Sylvia Santosa noted: “Taken together, these changes in bodily processes may be more than a little surprising—and upsetting—for women who previously had little trouble managing their weight.”

3. Metabolism rates.

Rates start to slow beginning around the age of 40. Scientists aren’t sure why this happens, is it a natural factor of aging, or is it because our lifestyles change?

Researchers reported in a 2010 study review that most cases, there seems to be a reduction in resting metabolism rate that “cannot be explained by changes in body composition….”

A slower metabolism means that your body doesn’t burn calories as fast as it used to. So that milkshake you eat now is more likely to affect your waistline than it did ten years ago.

4. Stress

Scientists have connected chronic stress with weight gain, and middle-aged women are often stressed out. In addition to the aforementioned responsibilities, they may be facing empty nest syndrome or other stressful life events that contribute to the rise in cortisol levels in the blood.

One study found that women with more abdominal fat had more cortisol circulating in their blood after a stressful session than women who were leaner through the mid-section. Other studies have found similar results, with higher levels of stress associated with higher body mass index and increased odds of being overweight or obese.

5 Ways to Avoid this Middle-Aged weight gain

It’s possible. According to a 2012 study, postmenopausal women who committed to a healthy diet and regular exercise were more likely to have remained at or below their baseline weight.

1. Relieve Your Stressors

It’s not enough to realize that you need to reduce stress, you need to make it a habit to relieve your stress often. Plan a volleyball game with your friends at least once a week. Go get a massage, take your dog on a hike, sign up for yoga, or meditate for 10 minutes each morning. The choices are endless. Pick the ones that work for you and do at least one of them every day.

2. Try to Get at Least an Hour of Activity Everyday

Some days you may not have time to lift weights. You may not be able to take that run, but whatever you do, get 60 minutes of movement in.

One of the best ways to do this is to incorporate more movement into your day. Take a 30-minute walk on your lunch hour. Commit to at least 10 minutes walking after work before you drive home. Make movement something you’re always thinking about. Then, as often as you can, get in some kind of workout, like a run or a jog!

3. Eat Healthy

Researchers looked at the lifestyle habits of about 120,000 adults ranging in age from about 300 to 60. They were all of normal weight at the start of the study. Those with a taste for unhealthy foods, however, gained weight faster than their counterparts who ate more healthy foods. On the other hand, some foods actually helped fight weight gain! For each daily serving of yogurt, participants gained about 0.8 fewer pounds than expected, and for each daily serving of fruits and nuts, they gained about half a pound less.

4. Start Strength Training

This is one of the most effective and most rewarding new habits you can develop as a middle-aged woman. By lifting some weights twice a week, you can not only fight muscle loss, but you can also help rev up your metabolism. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more you have, the better for your overall figure.

5. Get Proper Rest

Scientists have connected sleep deprivation with weight gain. When you don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours a night, your hormones change, compelling you to eat more carbohydrates, which are quickly converted to fat.

If you’re having trouble sleeping because of hormonal changes or other issues, talk to your doctor about your options. Sleeping pills are not a good idea health wise, but there are natural options you can use like melatonin supplements or lemon balm tea (which relaxes the muscles and helps you sleep).