Among the many congratulations, well-wishes, and playful ribbings I received upon turning 40 last summer came this stark declaration from my dad: “It’s all downhill from here.”
While the message was admittedly lousy (wanna snuff out my birthday candles while you’re at it?!), it’s not as if we all haven’t heard some version of that before. Forty is the bogeyman of birthdays—a Rubicon that, once crossed, spells gray hair, wrinkles, and the end of youthful vitality as we know it. Or at least that’s what Western culture would have us believe.
In reality, women’s concerns as they enter their 40s, 50s, and beyond are more nuanced. Sure, there’s the prospect of growing older and the existential biggie of mortality, but there’s also a host of practical issues many of us face, be it divorce, or caregiving for an elderly parent while also raising a child. The convergence of stressors can lead to depression, anxiety, and general unease.
Sounds a bit like a midlife crisis, right? Well, a Canadian psychoanalyst named Elliott Jaques coined the term in 1965 for the period of discontent that he said occurs between the ages of 35 and 65. But his theory was inspired by the “great men,” who experienced a change in their creativity in their mid-to-late 30s. As for women, he wrote that this transition is obscured by changes related to menopause—giving rather short shrift to our complex internal lives and, perhaps, giving us a reason to ditch the concept altogether?
Research estimates that only 10 to 20 percent of people, in total, experience any sort of midlife crisis. For women, those who feel off at this time are often triggered by dissatisfaction at not accomplishing what they wanted. “Many women feel lied to,” says WH advisor Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a New York–based clinical psychologist. “The lie is you can have it all, without compromising.”
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Now for the good news. Life is a moving target, and the goals you set for yourself at 25 probably aren’t—and shouldn’t be—the goals you have at 50. So, reflect and reassess. What do you want? The truth is, most opportunities don’t expire at midlife. And if we can reframe aging into a growth opportunity rather than a reckoning of past shortcomings, there’s no limit to what we can achieve. Get started with science-heavy strategies and motivating stories.…
How you fare mentally and emotionally in midlife can be affected by the mindset with which you approach it, experts say.
Treat this time like any other life transition prior (think: landing your first job or graduating from school), suggests Ann Kearney-Cooke, PhD, a Cincinnati-based psychologist specializing in women’s issues. “There are losses and gains,” she says of entering a new stage, adding that if we can reframe the “midlife crisis” into a “midlife transition,” we’ll be better able to devise a plan.
“Awareness is the first step in transformation or change,” she says. So, for instance, if you always wanted to pursue the arts but were saddled with student loan debt and needed a more practical career and now regret it, make sure to recognize (rather than ignore) your feelings.
The second step is to write what Kearney-Cooke calls a positive narrative. “Don’t have tunnel vision on what you didn’t do or the mistakes you made, but honor what you did achieve,” she says. So instead of “Ugh, I failed at being an artist!” rewrite the narrative to “Wow, I was able to support myself and my family through some tough times!” Once you’ve acknowledged your achievements, moving forward becomes easier. “We often can then let it go to create a new narrative of ‘Where am I going?’”
SURF-AND-SAND SOULMATES Meet Tiare Lawrence (left), 40, and Celeste Paiaina (right), 45, badass BFFs who met more than 20 years ago through Hawaii’s hula community. In addition to their day jobs (Lawrence is a community relations director; Paiaina is a flight attendant), the two are also competitive canoe paddlers. (Paiaina’s team beat Lawrence’s—by one second!—at last year’s state championships.) Water sports hold deep meaning for the duo. “They perpetuate our culture—there’s just a sense of connection,” Lawrence says. “The ocean is so healing, and it really is my church.”
Setting fresh goals (signing up for a drawing class, perhaps?) is a powerful way to create a new path and purpose. And guess what? All of that previous life experience is only going to buoy you along the way.
“[Midlife women] are very open to new challenges,” Carmichael says. “There’s a confidence that happens when you’ve cleared a lot of the basics, like graduating college, starting a successful career, getting married. There’s a willingness and an excitement.”
So figure out what your bliss looks like and find ways to start integrating it into your life.
The 40s and beyond are a great time to pursue not only personal challenges but physical ones too.
Whether that means taking exercise seriously for the first time or amping up your routine to meet some heavy goals (hello, 70-pound kettlebell!). Once again, you’ll probably need to muscle your way through flawed thinking about what’s possible, as there’s no shortage of misconceptions about pushing physical boundaries.
Denver-based trainer and WH advisor Lauren Kanski, CPT, has heard them all. “The biggest thing I see among middle-aged women is they come in with a mindset that they’re getting older and they’re less capable,” she says. “If they don’t have a training background, they think they’re going to hurt themselves.”
More often than not, says Kanski, these women are selling themselves short before ever stepping foot in a gym. “Women are really strong—they’re throwing around their 30-pound, 40-pound kids but think they can only lift 10 pounds!”
Now is not the time to be trifling with those tiny pink weights. On the contrary, if you’re looking to maintain or even increase muscle mass (it naturally declines due to falling estrogen levels), you should be lifting heavy, says WH advisor Stacy T. Sims, PhD, an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist.
“It’s important to do heavy-load resistance training, especially as you get into late perimenopause,” she says. “Estrogen is responsible for lean mass development, as well as strength and power; it stimulates the satellite cell for muscle protein development, and it’s critical in the central nervous system for creating a muscle contraction.” Essentially, you can counteract the negative effects of estrogen loss by lifting heavy, which lights up the central nervous system to produce other chemicals that can take over where estrogen left off. Pretty cool, right?
Of course, you’re not going to start deadlifting 200 pounds or enter your first marathon tomorrow. Much like new courses in your personal life, physical goals are smashed one at a time. “I always tell people to find one challenge they’re not good at, and that’s what we’re going to work on,” Sims says. If one of her clients wants to venture out on a challenging hike, she’ll focus on the building blocks—e.g., jump movements for leaping off rocks—one by one. “For three weeks, we work on that one aspect,” she says. “Then we take a bit of a break and focus on another one. Then we’ll come back to the first one.” Small steps eventually lead to big climbs.
Also key is letting your body recuperate between sessions with a rest day, as our muscles tend to heal more slowly as we age. (Triathletes in their 50s had slower muscle recovery than triathletes in their 20s, found a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.) Listen to your bod and integrate restorative walks or yoga sessions or whatever rest sessions you need, so you can keep pushing yourself, sans injury.
Ultimately, says Kanski, your more mature mentality is going to be one of your biggest assets when it comes to pursuing new physical challenges. “I think there’s a new sense of strength in women at this age,” she says. “They know what it’s like to work hard. A lot of them have had kids; they have very high pain thresholds. They’ve been through a lot and can withstand more than the younger women. It’s really cool to see—it’s very powerful.” Love to hear that.
You’ve got a secret weapon on your side.
Now, if you’ve read this far and are seriously thinking about crushing a new goal (hooray, you!) but aren’t sure you truly have what it takes, let us inform you that you have one more big positive working in your favor—and that’s grit.
As we age, we tend to experience decreases in both our passion and growth mindset but increases in our grit, or the ability to persevere, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
“It is very important that grit seems to not decrease with increasing age,” says study coauthor Monika Haga, PhD, a professor in physical education and sports at Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “This could indicate that the ability to keep on being active and have endurance/stamina is still there—both cognitively and physically—if the person finds meaningful activities to engage and participate in. Our research indicates that strong interest is the key for achievement.”
What does that mean for you? If you start working toward a dream, you’re much more likely to stay the course in midlife than you were in your youth. To tap into that can-do attitude, think back on a time when you displayed true grit—whether it was giving birth to your first child or finishing that half-marathon—and harness those feelings of confidence and achievement. With positive thinking and a willingness to succeed, so much is possible in your 40s—and beyond.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Women’s Health.
Amy Wilkinson is an entertainment editor who also specializes in health and wellness. When not editing or writing, she can be found teaching Pilates as a comprehensively certified instructor.