Reaching and maintaining equilibrium is not done by force of heredity; it’s something we cultivate through the way we live. Genetics plays a part, of course, and balance certainly does seem easier for some. But looks can be deceiving; some may actually mask unhealthy habits. Consider the proverbial model who eats nothing but burgers and pizza yet doesn’t gain a ounce. Genetics may be protecting her insides—for now—from this assault (if not from our envious glares.) But, just as likely, such a woman may in fact be less well than one who must pay much more attention to what she consumes, how much she moves, etc. Genetic predisposition to slenderness is not, as I have said, disproportionately distributed among French women. Most who appear to live in healthy balance are actually working at it. But that work has been made infinitely easier by wise cultural conditioning and practice.
Unfortunately for all women—see under “life, unfairness of”—the equilibrium we work to achieve shifts as we age. If we don’t continue paying close attention to our bodies, our healthy balance will be pulled out from under us. But despair not: attention and incremental adjustment throughout life are easier than big corrections following long intervals of imbalance. Alertness and rapid response can allow us to enjoy a long life of pleasures while never getting fat.
Still, it does happen. We can be eating well and staying active, etc. for years, when, bang!: force majeure. This is true for all humans, but especially women, whose weight and silhouette can be radically altered by three major physiological and psychological events, in which hormones run amuck: adolescence, pregnancy and menopause. All three present a serious potential for troublesome weight gain, and it’s better to plan for them, rather than eat first and ask questions later.
“Not older but wiser” is a hollow consolation only for those who expect it to be. French women are proverbially and in fact at their peak in these years—we truly believe it. You can too. If you have cultivated well-being up to this point, you are primed to reap to full advantage the experience and awareness of our pleasures, including food and sex. At the same time, as you must know, there are agents provocateurs conspiring against your hard-won equilibrium, including greater responsibilities of work and family. This may be the time for caring for both parents and children—a big squeeze. Gone is much of our “free time.” And even worse, we face a relatively rapid decline in metabolism. French women recognize this time as both peak and crunch, and the great majority do not surrender.
Denied youth’s seemingly infinite forgiveness, you now face the moment when lack of real commitment to healthy eating and living will show. It is no time for what mass-marketed diet programs offer. Even if you lose weight, you’ll gain wrinkles and look gaunter as tissue loosens with rapid water loss. And sleep beckons as never before. Remember when you could stay out all night and still go to work looking OK? Adieu to all that. Sleep deprivation shows big time in this stage and becomes a major contributor to weight gain. Just accept that the days of burning the candle at both ends with impunity are over.
Beginning at 35, think in terms of a “rule of seven.” With every seven years hereafter, your body is changing enough to require an inventory and overhaul of habits. Don’t wait for round number birthdays, which can often induce paralysis and trauma just when everyone is watching. At 35 digestion begins its slowdown, and you can’t eat as you did in your 20s; if typical, you will start trading a half-pound of muscle for a half-pound of fat every year. At 42 hormone levels begin to drop until menopause, at, say, 49, when the serious loss of bone density also begins. For this reason, now is the time French women, life-long walkers, also pick up weights. Resistance training is the surest way to reverse the muscle-to-fat trade-off that more than anything sets the 20-somethings apart from their elders. It also retards bone loss and the slow down in metabolism (remember: muscle burns more calories than other tissue types, even at rest).
Now, you don’t want to over-do it, as Colette unfortunately did. Start out with 3-5 pound weights and favor slow movements controlled by your muscles through the full range of motion. Momentum does not tone your body; tone comes from slowly controlled reps. Muscle bulk comes only from more serious weights. If you discover the gym as something you can enjoy— never a necessity if you stick to small weights (safe at any speed) and keep up your walking and multiplying your little exertions—engage a trainer for at least a session or two. As I still detest gyms, I have no advice on the ever-more complicated devices they offer; they look like weapons systems. While you treat the upper body with free weights, do morning sit-ups for the mid-section. Do them religiously. And for the legs, I have but one word: stairs.
One mustn’t underestimate the profound psychological and emotional impact of these years, especially if they include the very common traumas of divorce or losing a parent. It’s a stage when thoughts inevitably turn to our own mortality, too. You can either become morose, or you can apply your heightened awareness to cultivating pleasures. (I don’t have to tell you which French women choose.) Having out-grown the youthful demand for immediate gratification puts you at an advantage for losing weight like a French woman. Also, having tried many things by this age, you know better than ever what delights and what doesn’t. No one can appreciate little things as much as someone who has done a little living. But you can’t ignore the debit column: the demands, even the reversals of fortune, may push you toward the zero-degree of pleasures. Don’t go there. If you can’t name your pleasures, chances are you’ve surrendered too many of them. It’s time to start cultivating.
For me, these years saw the introduction of new types of food. I now love soy nuts. There has also been a slight decrease in portions and frequency of certain known “offenders.” I’ve reduced my chocolate fix from daily to perhaps three times a week, and I also eat red meat less often. But doing it gradually, one doesn’t notice a pinch. It’s been during these years, too, that I have added the 15 flights of stairs a few times a week to my scheduled walk. For me those twenty minutes a day have been key to holding my ground.
Dr. Miracle advised that if you look healthy at 20 that’s the weight you should keep for the rest of your life.
Here are the basics for making that perfectly reasonable goal a reality.
- Increase your proportion of fruits and vegetables as compared with other food types, especially fatty and sugary ones, which you should aim to reduce anyway if you consume them frequently. Even a sweet-tooth will re-equilibrate if conditioned slowly. Practice “less is more” more aggressively, avoiding meaningless calories and saving them for real pleasures. Enjoy them with attention.
- Try to pay more attention to the rhythms of your life, daily, weekly, monthly. Bring a mental dimension to your physical movement. Awareness reduces stress, promotes a feeling of well being. Practice more controlled breathing.
- Carry water everywhere you go and increase your intake to at least two quarts a day.
- Start taking a multivitamin with food.
- Learn to say no, with an eye to saying yes to something else.
- Build small rest periods into your day. (I used to go to parties and dinners straight from work; now I go home beforehand, take a shower and do a few minutes of meditation. Result: I face the evening with renewed energy.) Take a breather at your desk: eyes closed and controlled breathing.
- Try to find new interests. Life seems fuller with novelties, and too many women depend on interests of their youth to see them through their middle years. Yesteryear’s novelties may be today’s rut. Relatively few of your possible activities have been closed to you on account of age. Curiosity, no less than openness to pleasure, is not the exclusive property of the young.
- Your skin will get dryer and lose some of its elasticity, but you don’t need surgery or stem cell therapy. You do need plenty of moisturizer and some sunscreen, even on days the sun doesn’t shine. Many French women, myself included, wear dark glasses whenever outdoors. It prevents fine lines while enhancing our mystery