Growing Older (and Fatter?)
In 2030, the last Baby Boomer will turn 65, and we will have 72 million people 65 and older in the U.S. In addition to more free time, travel plans, and grandchildren, growing older can also mean changes in body composition—specifically more fat mass and less lean mass. Indeed, age-related metabolic and hormonal changes, reduced physical activity, and decreased energy expenditure can conspire to pack the pounds on us, usually right where we don’t want them (e.g., hips, thighs, belly).
But it’s not our destiny. This blog focuses on lifestyle habits, particularly related to nutrition and physical activity, that can help counter these challenges.
But first, what’s happening as we age, and why is it so hard to stave off weight gain? Research, though still not definitive, seems to be converging on the aforementioned factors:
- Metabolic and hormonal changes, particularly for women. As we age, metabolism slows in part through loss of lean muscle mass. This loss alters our body’s lean-to-fat ratio in the wrong direction. Because muscle is more metabolically active than fat, having less muscle slows metabolism. Menopause can also bring hormonal changes that foster weight gain.
- Being less active. I know that doesn’t apply to my friends and clients (), but many people do actually slow down as they age (see chart).
- Burning fewer calories. Unfair though it is, as we age, we need fewer calories. Slower metabolism? Yes in part, but also, well, see the previous bullet.
- Write it down. People who monitor what they eat raise their own awareness and accountability. You can track your food on myfitnesspal.com. C’mon, everyone’s doing it! Monitoring food intake is also a lifestyle habit of people who’ve lost weight and kept it off.
- Think “Mediterranean diet”: big on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and “good fat” (e.g., plant-based oils, avocado, nuts and seeds). Look at your plate: 1/4 should be lean protein, 1/4 a source of complex carbs (legumes, whole grains, tubers), and the rest—half—fruits and/or vegetables (see picture).
- Eat smaller portions and share at restaurants, or make taking half home a lifestyle habit.
- Eat more fiber. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds. We do not get enough of these foods. Keep the skin on them and drink water to move fiber through your digestive track. According to the Mayo Clinic, women over 50 should aim for 21 grams of dietary fiber daily; men over 50 should aim for at least 30 grams.
- Do a minimum of 30 minutes a day on 5 days of the week. Walking is a great choice. You don’t have to do the 30 minutes all at once; 10-minute increments are just as effective, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). It is worth noting that while diet is more effective in losing weight initially, exercise is more pivotal in keeping it off. Doing some form of physical activity daily is another habit of those who’ve lost a lot of weight and kept it off. Also, exercise helps reduce belly fat, even if body weight stays the same.
- Add some strength training to your exercise options. When you try to lose weight through diet and cardio alone, you lose muscle mass along with fat. You need to build lean tissue to counter muscle loss and stoke your calorie-burning furnace. Combining aerobic activity with strength training tends to be the best way to reduce weight and overall fat. Besides, having muscle makes everything easier (e.g., lifting luggage into the overhead) and prevents many diseases, leading to a vastly better quality of life overall. Aim to work each body part 2-3 times a week (trainer recommended).
So, while we’re not destined to gain weight as we age, it’s a pretty good bet we will unless we take the time to establish and maintain healthier habits with exercise and nutrition. Next blog in this series will be on “portion distortion,” a major problem in the current culture.
Woolfe K. et al. “Promoting Healthy Lifestyles During the Menopausal Transition-Benefits of Physical Activity and Nutrition. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 20(1): 20-28, January/February 2016.
Special Report: Supplement to Mayo Clinic Health Letter: “Weight Loss, New Understandings, Better Results.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education, November 2015 [pp. 1-8].