Is it inevitable as you age?
We’ve all heard about the Freshmen 15, but unfortunately weight gain often doesn’t stop after that all-too-common phenomena. Many of us know first-hand how much harder it becomes to lose or even just maintain weight as you age. The same quick-fix diets and workout plans no longer cut it.
But don’t fret. Continued weight gain is not necessarily sealed in your fate. Our bodies may not give us the lenience they once did in our 20s and 30s, but you can battle time and stay trim with a proper understanding of how your body works and the implementation of a few key lifestyle habits.
By Jenna Haines
WHY WE GAIN WEIGHT AS WE AGE
The first step in fighting off the pounds is understanding exactly why we gain weight as we age – both the internal and the external causes. Let’s explore a few:
#1 Changes in Your Body
One biological component is our body composition. As we age, our muscle-to-fat ratio gradually begins to shift as we start to lose lean muscle tissue.
Kristy Brewer, an exercise physiologist at Chattanooga Lifestyle Center, says loss of muscle mass starts as early as age 30 and continues to increase every year. “Starting at age 30, you lose about 1% of muscle mass every year,” she says. “This increases to 1-2% after age 50 and then 3% every year after age 60, so by the time you hit 70, you’ve lost 40% of your strength.”
But that isn’t the only thing you lose. “Corresponding with this loss of muscle tissue is a decline in your basal metabolic rate, or the rate at which your body burns energy through involuntary processes,” says Leslie Cornett, CDE, a registered dietician at Hamilton Medical Center. “A lot of that is based on body composition, because the more muscle mass we have, the higher our rate. As you age the amount of muscle fibers, as well as the size of the muscle fibers, decline, resulting in decreased muscle mass. The cells in our organs also decline, including the mitochondria, the energy portion of the cell. So at rest, we are going to burn less calories per hour.”
#2 A Consistently Unhealthy Diet
Poor eating habits are another huge influence. Whether it’s because you’re on your children’s diet of macaroni-and-cheese, you’re so busy that all your food comes from a drive-through, or you have a hard time getting around to cooking, it’s hard to eat healthy as an adult. Add stress into the mix and yesterday’s plan for salad has been tossed before lunch. While eating well can take some work, you must remember that it’s hard to out-burn a bad diet. At the minimum, try to limit certain foods, such as potato chips, potatoes, and processed meats. Studies have shown that these foods, along with sweet and/or alcoholic beverages, are heavily associated with weight gain.
#3 A Sedentary Lifestyle
Most of us aren’t professional mountain climbers. We work at a desk eight hours a day, and it isn’t doing our waistlines any favors. Our sedentary lifestyles can exacerbate the natural muscle loss that occurs as you age. Our bodies have a somewhat “If you don’t use it, you lose it” policy, and, unfortunately, the “it” isn’t fat. This is compounded by the fact that, without exercise, our excess calories may be deposited as fat tissue. We need to challenge our bodies with regular exercise to stay healthy.
#4 High Stress Levels
While there is some debate on how stress affects our bodies, we know that it affects the release of cortisol, known as the “stress hormone.” When our cortisol levels are out of whack, it may lead our bodies to put on weight in specific areas – hello gut! This is particularly hazardous because abdominal fat has a high correlation to the development of cardiovascular disease.
#5 Low Mood
As we get older, it’s tempting to be less active because we don’t “feel up to it” or because it doesn’t seem like there’s as much to do. But if you are already struggling with low mood, this only contributes to the problem. “It’s really true that the more you do, the more you want to do,” says Frankie Parrott, executive director of Morning Pointe of Hixson. “If you find you are sitting around a lot, that’s likely where you’ll want to stay. Mood and social life have a definite correlation with overall activity.”
STEPS WE CAN TAKE TO PREVENT WEIGHT GAIN
Weight gain doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of getting older. Here are a few key ways to keep off the pesky pounds:
Pick up light strength training.This can help maintain muscle mass, contributing to an increase in your resting metabolic rate. “To counteract the loss of muscle mass that comes with aging, I recommend people start a weight training program at least twice a week,” says Brewer. “If you don’t want to go to the traditional route with machines at the gym, there are so many other weight-bearing activities you can do just using your own body weight like squats, pushups, crunches, planks, and tricep dips.
“Along with this I would also suggest having enough protein in your diet to help manufacture the lean tissue,” she continues. “If your diet is off, your weight training won’t be as effective because your body won’t have the proper fuel.”
Get moving. Whether you’re walking, running, swimming, or climbing rocks, getting cardio exercise in your day helps burn fat and improves your heart health.
Jennifer Willingham, LPN, resident care director at The Bridge at Ooltewah, says that for people who are older or have trouble with more strenuous activities, the value of regular walking can’t be emphasized enough. “Walking is a good, simple exercise that almost anyone can do, and it really does make a difference!” she says. “If you don’t use your muscles, you lose them.”
Alter your diet. “As people age, they should lower their caloric intake and minimize sodium and sugars as much as possible,” says Willingham. “Of course, ideally, your diet should be individualized to your unique needs.”
“My best nutrition advice for people as they age includes pursuing a balanced diet with wise food choices and staying well-hydrated,” says Leslie Cornett. “I also recommend not skipping meals, which can cause you to over-consume later.”
Break the cycle. If you’re in an inactivity rut, challenge yourself with reasonable activity goals every day. “You have to make yourself break the bad habits,” says Parrott. “The initial stage is the hardest, but once you get past that, it’s easy!”
It might be harder than it used to be, but these simple tips can help keep you from gaining extra pounds as you age. “To answer the big question, ‘Is weight gain inevitable as you age?’ I would say that ‘No, it isn’t!’” says Cornett. “Certain natural things that happen to your body as you age are inevitable, but the weight gain that often accompanies them isn’t, because there are things you can do to offset it.”