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A woman started working out in her 20s but didn't get shredded until her 50s. Here's what she wishes she'd known at the start.

Susan Niebergall
Susan Niebergall didn't get ahold of her nutrition until her 50s.Susan Niebergall
  • Susan Niebergall worked out for decades but didn't lose fat until she addressed her nutrition.

  • Niebergall, now 63, prioritizes protein and daily movement.

  • Aging doesn't necessarily lead to weight gain, and it's never too late to make healthy changes.

Susan Niebergall couldn't understand why she struggled to get in shape despite trying all sorts of diets and working out regularly for decades.

It was only when the school counselor turned personal trainer stopped thinking of herself as a victim and committed to learning about nutrition that she started losing weight sustainably and achieving her goals in the gym, she told Business Insider.

Niebergall was surprised that it wasn't until after the menopause — when she thought she would naturally gain weight — that she finally started making progress.

Over the course of a couple of years, she lost around 28 pounds (she can't say for sure because she didn't own scales at the time and was also trying to build muscle, so wasn't focused on her weight) and she's stayed around the same weight for over seven years. At age 57, she was strong enough to do her first unassisted pull-up.

Now 63, she's in the best shape of her life and wants others to know it's never too late to make healthy changes and that age doesn't have to equal weight gain.

"Between proper workout programming and getting ahold of my nutrition, all the results started coming in very quickly," Niebergall said.

While the billion-dollar weight loss industry peddles fad diets, supplements, drugs, and surgery as supposed silver bullets for losing fat, for most people, experts recommend a gentle calorie deficit that's not overly restrictive and includes all foods as a healthy and sustainable approach.

Niebergall told BI how she achieved her goals and what she wished she'd known sooner.

Susan Niebergall
Niebergall strength trains multiple times a week.Susan Niebergall

Getting hooked on the gym but never addressing nutrition

Niebergall started going to gym classes, such as jazzercise and step aerobics, in her late 20s to keep fit, but was always intrigued by the weights section. She hired a personal trainer in her early 30s to teach her how to strength train and was hooked.

"It opened up my world," Niebergall said. "It was all strength training and I loved it. I bought into that very, very quickly. Just learning how to use the free weights area, proper form, lifting heavier weights, even some machines, that's what I was doing. And that sucked me in big time."

Aged 37, Niebergall gave birth to her son but trained consistently before and after despite moving around different gyms and trainers.

During this time, no one ever spoke to her about diet and nutrition, and she wasn't following a structured workout program, so although she was having fun and keeping active, she wasn't making a huge amount of strength progress.

Niebergall's diet wasn't terrible by any means, but she was always slightly overweight and caught in a yo-yo cycle due to trying fad diets.

Becoming a personal trainer

By her 40s, Niebergall was so passionate about fitness that she qualified as a personal trainer and started training clients while working as a school counselor.

"But the interesting part about all of this was I still had a bit of a weight issue," she said.

She lost weight with fad diet plans and meal replacement shakes, but the weight always came back. Niebergall thought that to lose weight, she had to drastically restrict her diet, which wasn't sustainable.

"I thought you had to be miserable and only eat lettuce and broccoli," she said.

"I was hungry all the time," Niebergall added. "I had no idea how much I was eating. All I knew was that I wasn't eating much, I was hungry, and I had no idea how to maintain it."

Weight loss wasn't her main concern — "I was so enamored with getting stronger," Niebergall said — but she didn't feel comfortable in her own skin.

"I didn't want to admit that I needed to have help losing weight, I was in denial," Niebergall said. "I still had some weight to lose, and when I got certified as a trainer, that started weighing on me a lot."

Niebergall wondered if a thyroid problem was stopping her from losing weight

Nothing was changing, and in her early 50s, Niebergall was going to give up on trying to lose weight.

She remembers looking at herself in her bathroom mirror one day and not recognizing her reflection, shocked by how her stomach looked.

"I started thinking, 'Oh, wait a minute, the menopause. Well, I can't do much about that.' And then I was like, 'Wait a minute, my thyroid's probably not working well, oh, this all makes sense to me,'" she said.

So Niebergall went to her doctor for tests, thinking she'd be diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which can cause weight gain.

"She's going to give me the medication and then boom, everything's going to be great," Niebergall said. "I'm not going to have the belly anymore."

But the tests showed that Niebergall's thyroid was fine. Her doctor said she was simply eating too much.

Susan Niebergall
Niebergall before (left) and after learning about nutrition.Susan Niebergall

"I couldn't believe what I was hearing," she said. "I didn't accept it at the beginning, I didn't want to believe her."

Looking back, Niebergall realizes she was looking for an excuse not to try.

"I had to really digest it because what that forced me to do for the first time is to look at what I was doing — or I guess more importantly, not doing," Niebergall said. "I had to be honest with myself for the very first time instead of trying to bullshit myself into thinking I was doing everything and I couldn't lose weight. I wasn't at all doing everything. I wanted to be a victim really badly."

Menopause doesn't have to mean weight gain

Niebergall said she wanted to be a "victim to the menopause." But she wasn't.

Weight gain before and during the menopausal years is common, but not inevitable. While hormonal changes might mean more fat is stored in the stomach rather than the hips and thighs, weight gain comes through lifestyle changes and being in a calorie surplus, not the changed hormones, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Muscle mass does, however, decrease with age, and the less muscle you have, the slower your metabolism — however, the effect of this isn't huge.

Research suggests that the metabolism doesn't really begin to slow until around the age of 60. However, it's common to become slightly less active with age, meaning people burn fewer calories without really realizing it.

The hardest part of the menopause for Niebergall was the night sweats, which disrupted her sleep and made her tired. Research shows that most people eat more when they're sleep-deprived, and it's also harder to exercise if you're lacking energy.

Strength training actually helped Niebergall with menopause symptoms, including mood swings and brain fog, she said, albeit not the hot flashes.

Educating herself about portion sizes and protein

In her early 50s, not long after realizing she didn't have a thyroid issue, Niebergall became interested in powerlifting and discovered a coach named Jordan Syatt. While Syatt was indeed a great powerlifting coach, Niebergall later discovered he knew a lot about nutrition and fat loss too.

After joining Syatt's coaching club, the Inner Circle, Niebergall gradually learned more about nutrition both for performance and fat loss.

"I started making small changes," Niebergall said. "I didn't track anything, I just started eating smaller portions. I became aware of how much I was consuming, and that started to lead to seeing and feeling a little bit better. I started seeing some differences over time."

After a couple of months, Niebergall realized her clothes weren't feeling so tight.

A little while after, Niebergall started to track calories and protein, which helped her learn how much she should be eating. She realized she could benefit from eating more protein: "At the beginning it seemed like a lot, but I quickly learned that it doesn't take much to increase your protein."

If someone is aiming to eat 100 grams of protein per day, for example, one chicken breast can get you nearly halfway there, Niebergall pointed out.

Now, with every meal Niebergall eats, her first consideration is: Where's the protein?

Protein is beneficial for fat loss as it helps keep you feel full while in a calorie deficit and helps muscles recover and grow after workouts.

Susan Niebergall
Niebergall has been around the same weight for years now.Susan Niebergall

In time, Niebergall lost the 28 pounds, and has in the years since experimented with eating in a calorie surplus to aid muscle growth. Niebergall's main focus was always hitting her fitness goals, and when she started paying more attention to her nutrition and following a structured training program, she made better progress than she ever had.

That's how she achieved her first pull-up at 57.

Niebergall doesn't track her food intake anymore, but she's still focused on her performance goals. She goes to the gym most days, but doesn't lift weights every day so as not to overtrain — sometimes she does low-intensity cardio or jiu-jitsu, she said.

Age doesn't mean you can't lose weight

Niebergall, who now works alongside Syatt and has been called "the mother of tough love," doesn't dispute that losing weight can be harder as you get older.

"But it doesn't mean you can't lose weight if that is your goal," she said. "It just means it's going to be a little bit more challenging for you."

While some people may benefit from going on hormone replacement therapy during menopause and everyone's experience is different, the science of fat loss doesn't change, Niebergall said.

"There's nothing happening that is making our body hold on to fat," she said. "We just have to be extra vigilant about trying to lose it. You're not going to give yourself all the wiggle room that you used to. And I know all of that sucks, but the best part about this is we're not a victim."

Niebergall encourages people to make their health a priority, avoid extreme diets and workout plans, and commit to eating in a sustainable calorie deficit, with enough protein and fiber, and moving every day in some way.

Strength training is particularly important as you age, as it boosts bone density and helps minimize age-related muscle loss.

"Put in the work to learn portion sizes and about calories and protein, because when you put all of this together, you can change whatever you want to change," Niebergall said.

Getting older doesn't mean you can't lose weight or get fit.

"It's never too late," Niebergall said. "It might be a bit harder, but if you are persistent, consistent, and patient with all of that, it will happen for you."

Read the original article on Business Insider