This season's must-have is not a sky-high pair of Louboutins nor a ruinously expensive Vuitton bag. It’s something far more difficult to get: washboard abdominals. They are the only way you can show off the cropped tops that have been all over the catwalks. My heart sank when I saw the succession of toned midriffs on display in advance copies of the spring glossy magazines.
My stomach-flaunting days are definitely over, but those lithe tummies made me survey my three bellies with even more dismay than usual. Can a middle-aged mother of three banish her muffin top? At 40, after three pregnancies and a lifetime avoiding exercise, my tummy has the consistency of Play-Doh and an unsightly roll of flab spills over the top of my jeans and skirt. Mission accomplished!
Charlotte before, left, height: 5ft 4in, weight: 9st 2lb. Underbust: 29in. Waist: 29in. Muffin (2in below waist): 35in. Hips: 37in. And after, right... weight: 8st 8lb. Underbust: 27in. Waist: 27in. Muffin: 30.5in. Hips: 35in
Like many of my friends, I’ve learned to cover up the lumpy bits with loose tunics and jumpers.
The fact I’m not the only mum with a saggy middle is little comfort, but it is one of the cruel twists of middle age, says fitness and lifestyle trainer Janey Holliday. ‘After the age of 35, many women who never used to store weight around their tummy area suddenly do,’ she says. No wonder, then, that tummies are often cited by the over-40s as the most hated part of their bodies. A bulging waistline can be a health risk, too — a study by Nuffield Health last summer found that women with thicker waists are at higher risk of various cancers as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Working mothers are particularly at risk of the dreaded muffin top. ‘Increased stress levels mean the blood supply to the gut shuts down and years of sugar, caffeine, wine and toxin intake lead to bloating and water retention,’ says Janey. Well, that all sounds familiar. But is there any hope for me? Will I ever have a waist again? Yes, says Janey. In fact, she promises I can go from muffin to washboard in just six weeks — but I will have to make some drastic changes to my diet and need to start exercising nearly every day to strengthen my core muscles.
I feel exhausted at the thought of it. Pass the cupcakes someone. But if I don’t give it a try, this barrel body will be here to stay. So let the six-week challenge begin...
Week one: To shift my spare tyre, I need to work on my overall fitness, says Janey. Running around after my children is not enough. I need 45 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular training six days a week — that’s just one rest day a week — plus stretching and toning exercises.
I don’t have the time, money or inclination to join a gym. But that’s OK, says Janey. She’s not fazed when I admit I haven’t worn trainers for ten years and I don’t own a sports bra. Instead, she listens to my current daily routine and makes a few useful suggestions. Instead of ambling along when I take out the dog for its early morning walk, I can power walk or jog. By power walk, Janey means taking big strides and pushing forward with my arms. ‘Imagine you are really late for a train. You need to walk as fast as you can without running,’ she says.
To whittle my waist and work my arms and back muscles, she suggests using Nordic walking poles. Pushing back on these with every step will work my upper body. I’m banned from doing any sit-ups or crunches (that’s the good news) because my stomach muscles have split after my pregnancies — this is when the muscles at the front of your middle are pushed apart to allow your tummy to grow. In 39 per cent of mothers, they don’t come together again, leaving the area slack and wobbly. Janey discovers this by pressing her fingers into my tummy as I make a feeble attempt at a sit-up.
But the damage is not irrevocable, she insists. The muscles probably won’t ever knit together completely, but I can start strengthening my weakened core by pulling in my tummy all the time and working on my posture. I can move on to targeted tummy exercises later.
Week two: Janey is convinced that much of my problem is linked to poor gut health. Though I try to eat healthily, I am often in a rush during the day, so I survive on snatched sandwiches or crisps, milky coffee and sugary pick-me-ups. This means I have a sluggish digestive system and a build-up of toxins.
Fat cells then wrap around the toxins, causing weight gain. Janey is also convinced I’m eating too much wheat, which can aggravate the gut, and that I’m probably intolerant to sugar, too. My penchant for fizzy water, chewing gum and cappuccinos could also be causing bloating. So from now on there will be no bread, no cakes, no biscuits, no chocolate, no sweets, no frothy coffee and no crisps (sob!). Even couscous, which I always thought was a healthy option, is out.
Instead, I need to eat more vegetables to reduce the toxic build-up in my digestive system. 'My skin looks amazing, thanks to all the vegetable juice, and my digestion is so much better. But much of the time, I am starving' Janey also recommends swapping my daily pinta of semi-skilled for oat milk (an alternative to dairy produce, made from oats soaked in water then strained) and eating feta rather than cheddar, as these are easier to digest.
‘You need to get your gut working more efficiently,’ says Janey. That means lots of fish and a bowl of salad or raw vegetables with every meal. My body needs fewer calories now that I’m older (Janey estimates 1,600 rather than the recommended 1,940), so to lose weight, she suggests reducing my daily total to 1,350 for six weeks, which doesn’t sound much. Most importantly, I must start the day with freshly made vegetable juice rather than a cup of tea. ‘This will give your body what it needs and decrease your appetite. Most people are over-fed but undernourished and that is why they feel tired, sluggish and hungry,’ she says.
Week three: I am eating so much spinach I feel like Popeye. I drink it, I munch on it for lunch with feta cheese, avocado and a scattering of seeds. I have it cooked in the evening with fish. I’m also swigging aloe vera juice every morning to cleanse my stomach. This tastes like washing up liquid, yet in it goes. But I’m really struggling with the no-bread rule. ‘At your age, it’s bread or body,’ says Janey. ‘You need to get out of that sandwich rut and have something more nutritious at lunch.’
A thin slice of rye bread is allowed, but it’s better to choose a wheat-free, slow-releasing carbohydrate to accompany my salad, such as sweet potato, brown rice, wheat-free pasta or pulses. Sugar is another bad habit. ‘If you eat sugar, you get cravings for more,’ says Janey.
My exercise regime is proving just as tough. I’m trying to go swimming twice a week, but my usual 20 laps of breaststroke doesn’t cut it for my new regime. Janey insists I do alternative lengths of crawl, but I find this exhausting. I prefer power walking every morning for 45 minutes, though I spend much of that time fantasising about roast potatoes, cupcakes and baguettes.
I’ve also started having evening baths with a cup of Epsom salts to reduce fluid retention and this seems to be helping because my jeans feel a little less tight. My skin looks amazing, thanks to all the vegetable juice, and my digestion is so much better. But much of the time, I am starving. To keep me motivated, Janey has signed me up for her online Body-blitz programme. Every day, an email arrives with a video link to the day’s toning exercises and there are lots of upbeat messages to keep me on track.
Week four: I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Scotland. This proved the perfect place to power walk as we were in the middle of nowhere. I’m starting to feel so much fitter. But it wasn’t so easy to stick to Janey’s eating regime. Though I managed to drink the juice every morning, I couldn’t resist fish and chips by the sea or a hearty bowl of haggis and mash after a whisky distillery tour. Finding rye bread also proved nigh-on impossible. I don’t like to be fussy round the children and when we’re away they love a slice of cake in the afternoon and snuggling up on the sofa with a bag of Maltesers. So I’m feeling bloated again and I’ve got spots on my forehead.
Week five: A turning point — I’ve stopped craving my morning cup of tea. Instead, I am up at 6.45am for my glass of green slime, then out power walking with the dog by 7am. I can’t always resist carb temptation. When a friend invites me over for coffee, my hungry eyes head straight for the plate of croissants. 'You had got in the habit of rewarding yourself with a sweet snack or glass of wine once the children are in bed,' she says.
My early morning juice keeps me satisfied until breakfast at 9am: an egg on one slice of rye or a small bowl of unsweetened porridge. Lunch at 2pm is a small salad of mixed leaves, tomatoes, cucumber, celery, avocado and seeds with a palm-sized portion of smoked salmon, tuna or a blob of homemade hummus. My lowest point every day is between 4.30pm and 5.30pm when the children are eating their tea.
‘This is a danger time for many women,’ says Janey. ‘If you want to eat later with your husband, then pick something from the evening meal you’ve got planned and eat it with the children instead. ‘This will stave off hunger, but you won’t be eating more overall.’ I give that a go and have a portion of French beans, which I was planning to have later with a baked chicken breast, while the children are eating macaroni cheese (boy, does that smell good). I resist eating their leftovers. When I get peckish in the evenings, Janey recommends a warm glass of oat milk. ‘You had got in the habit of rewarding yourself with a sweet snack or glass of wine once the children are in bed,’ she says.
My tummy and hips have shrunk the most and I am delighted with the results. I have lost 4in around my middle and there isn’t a roll of flab in sight. My jeans not only fit — they are too big. I’ve still got post-pregnancy stretch marks, but Janey says I need to think of myself as a tiger who has earned her stripes. I do miss a nice crusty baguette and a doughnut would be heavenly. But now that my jeans are hanging off me, I’ll save the cupcake for my birthday.