Anyone past the age of at least 40 knows that growing older means weight loss is harder to achieve. Not impossible, but rather more of a challenge than in your twenties. Why is that? There are multiple reasons why pounds can accumulate as you age and why attempting weight loss is tough. No one says you’re doomed to weight gain that won’t budge, but understanding the “why” makes it easier to formulate a more effective plan.
Loss of muscle mass
A primary impact hindering maintaining a healthy body weight as you age is losing muscle mass. Age-related loss of muscle mass has a name – Sarcopenia – and it can begin as early as late thirties and then continues to escalate as the decades go by. By age 80, it’s estimated that up to 50% of adults have this condition.
Besides the loss of strength and tone, losing muscle mass makes it more difficult to keep your weight in check. That’s because the more muscle mass you have, the more calories burned thanks to muscle mass’s higher metabolic rate than fat mass.
To prevent loss of muscle mass, there are two things you must do: lift weights and eat sufficient protein spread out evenly at each meal. Let’s start with lifting weights. The saying, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” is especially true for muscle mass. Lift weights 2-3 days each week for at least 20-30 minutes. Then be sure to eat between 25-30 grams of protein at each meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner and about 10 grams of protein at a snack. Protein breaks down into amino acids, needed for building muscle mass. By spreading it more evenly throughout the day, makes it available when the body needs it to nourish muscles preventing or at least slowing muscle breakdown.
You’re burning fewer calories as you age
The rate at which we burn calories, what we call metabolism, decreases by 10 percent each decade after the age of 20. Metabolism is the amount of energy (calories) your body uses to maintain itself and keeps you alive – your heart beating, hormones being released, nerve activity, digesting food, breathing, and so on. The number of calories your body burns when it’s at rest is determined by your basal metabolic rate (BMR) as well as how much you exercise and your muscle-to-fat ratio. Again, the more you maintain good muscle mass, the easier it’ll be to achieve a healthy body weight and to maintain it. Regular, consistent exercise is also necessary to boost metabolism for burning calories even when at rest.
Increased stress with age
Life is stressful enough but for some of us, getting older may mean additional stress. From family issues to medical problems, increased stress can contribute to weight gain. When under a mountain of stress, you’re less likely to exercise, eat right, or sleep well. Add to this mix, stress also increases your level of the hormone ghrelin, aka the hunger hormone, making you hungry and increasing fat storage.
Since stress is always present, rely on stress-reducing techniques. This might include meditation, exercise, reading a book, having a hobby, anything that helps drive down stress levels, helps.
Both men and women will experience a change in hormone status with aging. For men, testosterone levels may take a nosedive beginning around age 40. This important male hormone is necessary for regulating fat distribution, muscle strength and muscle mass. Testosterone helps men feel virile, in charge and energetic. But as this hormone dwindles and fat mass accumulates, the get-up-and-go energy a man once had has now plummeted.
Women also ride a hormonal rollercoaster. Menopause brings many changes and one is a drop in estrogen levels. Estrogen is the female hormone and as it reduces, women often complain of weight gain in their belly region, increasing their risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Add to this mix, menopause can trigger mood swings and hot flashes. Staying on track following a healthy diet and being physically active can become more challenging during this time.
Then there is a hormone released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland called growth hormone. Growth hormone helps to maintain metabolism but as you age, your body will produce less of this hormone making it another factor contributing to gaining weight.
Taking steps to prevent weight gain with age
Ideally, practicing good health habits supporting a healthy body weight should begin early in life. But, there are still steps you can do slowing down further weight gain or at least stabilizing your weight where it’s currently at. Here are steps to put into practice today:
- Stay well-hydrated: A good rule of thumb of how much fluids (mostly water) to be consuming a day is to divide your weight in half and that’s how many ounces on any given day you likely need. Many people tend to be mildly dehydrated which can cause symptoms similar to feeling hungry. If you find yourself feeling hungry between meals, drink a glass of water instead. Both obesity and a higher body mass index (BMI) have been linked to dehydration.
- Make every bit count: We only have one body so let’s feed it well. Skip highly processed foods – chips, cookies, TV dinners, frozen pizza, candy, etc. These foods lack valuable nutrients along with fiber and antioxidants. Instead feed your body nutritious, health-promoting foods. Stock your kitchen with healthy foods making it easier to eat healthy to begin with. Choose the least processed foods as possible every time you go grocery shopping – fresh or frozen fruits and veggies, fresh meat, whole grains, dairy, eggs, unsalted nuts and seeds, and beans.
- Be mindful of portion sizes: Your dinner plate should be no more than 9 inches in diameter – half of the plate should be filled with vegetables, cooked or raw, and the other half with a protein source and a healthy grain or starch such as corn, beans, or brown rice. Portion size matters because the bigger the portion size, the more calories you’ll be consuming which your body will store as fat.
- Exercise but mix it up: Physical activity is a must for achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight. But challenge yourself by having a variety of exercise moves you do. Mix in aerobic exercises (walking, jogging, hiking, swimming) with weight training (lifting weights, pushups, pull-ups), and stretching/flexibility moves (yoga, Pilates, Tai chi).The idea is to get your heart rate up with aerobic exercises, build and maintain muscle mass with weight training, and protect balance, agility, coordination, and stability with stretching/flexibility activity.
- Reduce stress and improve sleep habits: It’s important to have stress reducing techniques when stressful times happen otherwise you may find yourself reaching for comfort foods which only add on extra calories resulting in weight gain. Adequate sleep is necessary not only for feeling well-rested but also for having energy to exercise and to make better food choices.