Many people put on weight as they get older – but it doesn’t have to happen. Let’s talk about why weight tends to creep up with age, and what can you do about it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a patient say to me, “everybody gains a little weight as they get older!” To them, picking up a few extra pounds every year is just something to be expected. And, they figure, if “everyone is doing it” – it must be okay. But truth is, middle-aged weight gain doesn’t happen to everyone. Yes, some adults put on weight fairly steadily in their middle years – to the tune of about a pound a year, on average. But just because creeping weight gain does happen to a lot of people, doesn’t mean that it has to.
Why do we tend to put on weight as we age?
It may seem that weight gain as you get older is inevitable – but it’s not. That’s not to say you don’t need to pay attention though – you’ve still got plenty of things working against you that can make weight management more challenging with each passing decade.
For one thing, there’s often a downward shift in the number of calories you spend when you exercise. As you get older, you may tend to move a bit less, or to exercise less vigorously – all of which adds up to fewer calories burned over the course of the day. If you’re exercising less than you used to – but still eating the way you did in your 20’s – you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re packing on the pounds.
Then there are changes in body composition that are a natural part of the aging process. You tend to lose muscle as you age – partly because your muscle cells just don’t repair themselves the way they used to. When you’re younger, the everyday wear and tear of your muscles gets patched up relatively quickly, but over time, the process slows down – which means you can lose some muscle mass. Natural dips in hormone production – estrogen, testosterone and growth hormone levels all decline with age – can also contribute to some loss of muscle mass.
Since muscle tissue does a lot of metabolic ‘work’ that uses up a lot of calories, the loss of muscle tissue as you age means that you will burn fewer calories per day than you used to – in other words, your metabolic rate slows down.
This subtle shift in your metabolism starts somewhere in your 20s or 30s. You start to slowly lose muscle tissue and gradually pick up some body fat. By the time women reach the age of about 40 and men enter their 60’s, they start to lose about 6-8% of their muscle mass every ten years. That translates into a drop in metabolic rate of about 10% every decade.
Diet clearly plays a role here, too. If the rate at which you burn calories is slowing down, then you need to apply the brakes to your calorie intake, too, if you want to avoid weight gain. In many cases, people are taking in too many calories simply because they are eating they way they did 20 years ago, but moving a lot less. But the other thing that sometimes happens as people get older is that their eating habits change – and not always in a good way. “Empty nesters” who are no longer cooking for a family might stop preparing full, healthy meals. Instead, they might snack more, or rely more on higher calorie convenience foods or fast foods. Some people simply eat more meals out because it’s easier – but calorie control is often sacrificed. And, as people get older and find themselves less busy, eating can also become a calorie-laden form of entertainment.
- Don’t assume that weight gain is inevitable. With that attitude, you’ll be a lot less likely to take the necessary steps to keep your weight in check. Gaining weight in your middle years doesn’t ‘have to’ happen – and if it already has, it isn’t too late to get it under control.
- Strength train a few times a week. Strength training is one of the best things you can do to retain – and even build – muscle. Since muscle cells burn calories at a much faster rate than fat cells do, building up your muscle mass will boost your metabolic rate. And don’t think you’re too old – studies show that with the proper resistance exercise, even people in their 80s can experience increases in muscle size and strength.
- Keep up with the cardio and you could keep weight gain in check. Any exercise that gets your heart pumping is going to burn calories, so aim for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise most days of the week. If the pace at which you walk or jog has slowed over time, keep in mind that you’ll also be burning fewer calories than you used to. To compensate, you’ll need to cut your calorie intake a bit or – if you can – exercise for a little longer. If you haven’t exercised in a while, be sure to get clearance from your doctor before you start out.
- Fill up on low calorie, high-volume foods. Vegetables and whole fruits are “nutrient-dense” – which means they offer up a lot of nutrition for a relatively small calorie cost. Vegetables and whole fruits not only provide a lot of nutrients, they contain plenty of water and fiber, so they help to fill you up – not out.
- Eat protein at each meal or snack. Protein not only helps your body to build and repair muscle mass, it also helps control hunger. The trick is to opt for the leanest sources, so that you get your protein without a lot of added fat that can often tag along. Choose seafood, poultry breast, egg whites, low fat or nonfat dairy products, lean cuts of red meat, and plant proteins such as tofu, beans, lentils, and protein powders which can be made into smoothies.
- Keep a diary. A daily journal can help you to stay motivated. Keep tabs on your weight and write down what you eat, how much exercise you do and how much water you drink every day. That way, you’ll be able to track the results and rewards of your efforts.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife. Herbalife markets protein-based meal replacements, powders, and snacks.