Madonna and Michelle Obama seem to have little in common. But together, they have awakened American women of a certain age to the allure of tight, toned arms. They've sent the message that those arms and toned, taut bodies may be within reach for other 40-somethings and older.
That message has been helped along by a legion of other celebrities who have passed their 40th birthday, yet remain virtually flab-free. The list includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Barkin, and Mary Tyler Moore.
As she neared 40, Rachel Silber Korn knew that her health was out of control. The mother of two, doula, and childbirth educator from Potomac, Md., weighed 285 pounds, rarely exercised, binged on ice cream -- even though she had been diagnosed with type II diabetes -- and had to take medication to control her diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
At her annual physical, her doctor let her know things did not look good. "My doctor told me I was already dead on paper,” she says.
After a couple...
But leading the trend, clearly, are the first lady and the material girl. Mrs. Obama, of course, posed in a sleeveless sheath for her official White House photograph. Recent photos of Madonna's very toned upper arms -- with so little fat her veins were bulging -- triggered debate about how much is too much.
The trend to get or stay super-fit and super-toned after 40 is a double-edged sword, health experts say. On the plus side, it encourages women to get exercise crucial to maintaining overall health and bone density, not to mention toned upper arms. But is getting the arms and bodies of Madonna and Obama really realistic for many working older women who don't hire trainers and who have a difficult time squeezing in even a brief workout? WebMD asked the experts to weigh in.
Let's Get Real
Madonna aside, can a determined 51-year-old pump her way to 30-year-old arms? Probably not, says Noel Bairey Merz, MD, medical director of the Women's Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.
And that's probably true even if they spend equal time in workouts, she says. An aging body can be toned up, for sure, but an aging muscular body will look different than a younger muscular body, she says.
That is partly because with age, the skin and the connective tissue start to lose elasticity, Bairey Merz says. "You have more sagging."
If you weight lift enough, or do other types of strength training, you can produce a tight, firm muscle, she says. "If you pump the muscle, it's tighter," she says. But there is likely to be more flab underneath a 50-year-old bicep than a 30-year-old one
Bottom line: the muscles in your arms and elsewhere may look good, she says, but not like they're 30 again.
And, as active as a 40-, 50-, or 60-something might be, Bairey Merz says, it's a good bet they're still not as active as active 30-somethings who are often running after children in addition to squeezing in formal workout time.
On average, older women tend to have more overall body fat than do younger ones, she says. "The average 50-year-old woman has gained 20 or 30 pounds since the age of 20, is much less physically active, and is well on their way to sarcopenia,'' she says. Sarcopenia refers to the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength.
Hormonal factors come into play also, Bairey Merz says. An older woman has less estrogen than a younger woman. That means less estrogen is converted to testosterone, which is crucial for muscle-building. "You will have to work harder [when you are older] to maintain the same muscle mass."