Maintaining a healthy weight is not something you achieve for a week or month and then slip back into “normal” living. Maintaining a healthy weight is a lifestyle change – it takes conscious effort day in and day out. It requires you to think and act differently, to understand and listen to your body, and to educate yourself (and others) about what works for you. And maintaining appropriate body composition – the amount of body fat and muscle mass for your frame size – is especially important as we age.
Some adults experience no change in body weight as their muscle mass and bone density decline and their body fat increases. For others, however, body weight slowly creeps up with changes in fat and muscle mass.
Why is weight so hard to manage?
Body composition changes with every year of life. Growth charts show the expected sharp increases in body weight and height in early years that taper off through the teen years. By early adulthood, weight and body fat should fluctuate only minimally from year to year. So why is it that our weight creeps up with each passing year, even if we are living a healthy lifestyle?
On average, throughout the mid-30’s and above, most people gain one pound a year. It may not seem like a lot, but that translates to 10+ pounds each decade.
There are several things that contribute to age-related weight changes:
Changes in muscle mass
With age, we experience a gradual decrease in skeletal muscle mass for various reasons. Hormones, low activity levels, and slowing mitochondrial function all play a role in muscles shrinking. This leads to a decrease in our resting metabolic rate, which decreases the number of calories needed to support everyday function. This problem is exacerbated if we continue to consume the same amount of calories daily.
Sedentary or convenience lifestyles
Advances in technology have contributed to everyone moving less. We used to physically walk in a mall to shop; we now shop by clicking a mouse. Same goes for food – it’s delivered to our home while we wait on the couch. We are all living a more sedentary lifestyle because of modern-day conveniences. Combine this with more daily stressors and less exercise and sedentary behavior is worse than it has been in decades.
The endocrine system includes numerous hormones that affect body weight. Estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and growth hormone production all decrease with age. These hormones are important for maintaining muscle mass and are responsible for changes in body fat accumulation, metabolism, and energy levels. Thyroid hormones can also decrease as we age – contributing to slowing of metabolism.
Unchanging exercise or dietary habits
Even if we do purposeful exercise and continue to eat healthy, because our muscle mass and hormones are changing, we need more exercise and fewer calories to maintain the same amount of muscle, body fat, and weight. Paradoxically, we also need more recovery time. So your exercise and diet today won’t work for you in 10 years.
Decreased ability to regenerate after daily damage or oxidative stress
You have probably noticed your average sleep has changed for the worse since you were younger. Not only does poor sleep affect the ability of muscles to recover, muscles are more susceptible to damage as we age. Aging also results in a greater risk for exercise-induced skeletal-muscle damage and a tendency for slower repair and adaptation following exercise.1 Nutrition, sleep time, and proper exercise play a huge role in maintaining the ability to recover.
What makes up your body weight?
Bone density, fat-free mass, and fat mass are the three primary components that make up body composition. With age, we will see changes in all three components. Without resistance exercise and healthy dietary practices throughout life, as time passes we can experience a decline in bone mass density and a slow but progressive increase in fat mass. Although changes in bone density won’t affect the bathroom scale, increases in fat mass will. Fat-free mass comes from a variety of components. Basically, it’s most everything in your body that isn’t fat or bones. Therefore, fat-free mass includes water, protein, minerals, muscles, and energy-expending organs like the brain, stomach, liver, and kidneys. Muscle mass, which only makes up a portion of the body’s fat-free mass, declines in volume naturally as we age.
Energy balance theory
It is generally accepted that changes in body composition happen because of changes in the body’s energy balance – from either a surplus or a deficit of energy. Simply put, when you consume more calories than you need, you store these calories as fat, and when you under-consume calories, you burn stored calories for energy.
However, when it comes to weight management, research focuses not just on the volume of calories you consume, but also the macronutrients the calories are comprised of, when those calories are consumed, what quantities those calories are consumed in, and how those calories impact our hormones, genetics, physiology, and microbiome.
For example, an 80-calorie brownie is not the same as an 80-calorie glass of milk. Current wisdom no longer supports the old adage that “a calorie is a calorie.” Nor is it true that a 3,500-calorie deficit automatically results in the loss of one pound of body weight. It’s just not that simple. For any one individual to understand how many calories it takes to achieve a healthy weight, it is important to recognize the individual impacts of calories.
The balance of macronutrients in the diet, for daily living needs, should be personalized based on genetics, metabolism, and goals.
What does poor weight management put us at risk for?
Poor weight management puts a person at risk for becoming overweight and having obesity-related conditions like diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and cardiovascular disease. And we are now seeing these issues occurring in younger populations.
As we age and as we gain body weight from fat, this fat tends to deposit around our body’s midsection. Fat accumulation in the region of the heart and its blood vessels can put significant stress on the cardiovascular system. Fatty accumulation in the liver – “fatty liver” – is becoming more and more common, and is even seen now in children.
Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of muscle mass, and it leads to a gradual slowing of movement and reflexes, a decline in overall strength and power, and an increased risk for falls and related injuries. Muscle loss can also cause changes in hormone levels, metabolism, independence, and quality of life.
What can we do to support managing our weight?
Healthy weight management is something everyone should consider – and the earlier in life, the better. Daily habits and practices can lead to better quality of life and a longer lifespan through the decreased risk for weight-related conditions.
Are you over consuming foods? Before eating something, stop and think – are you truly hungry? Or are you just bored, tired, grazing, or not thinking? Mindful eating is a technique practiced by some and mastered by only a few – it takes practice, diligence, and consistency. Write down everything you eat and drink in a day to help identify mindless eating, to help stabilize blood sugar, and to minimize excessive caloric intake.
Support energy balance
Be mindful about adding movement to your day. Can you be doing more right now? Start by walking more during the normal course of your day – take the stairs instead of the elevator, park farther away, escape bad weather by walking around the mall. Start adding more endurance exercise – try the elliptical, cycling, or jogging for at least 150 minutes a week.
Add pushups or weight-lifting exercises during television commercial breaks or for 10 minutes before getting into the shower. Ten minutes a day, seven days a week, for a full year is more than 60 hours of exercise. It's these small lifestyle changes that add up and take no time at all.
No more “cheat days.”
When you get a flat tire, you don’t slash the other three, so if you have an indulgent meal, then don’t blow it the remaining meals of the day. An occasional indulgence is enough, so consider it a “cheat-meal” or a “cheat-snack” instead of a whole “cheat day.”
Fill up on fiber
Non-starchy vegetables are loaded with fiber and other nutrients to help maintain a feeling of fullness, support stable blood glucose, and positively impact gut health. Try preparing them different ways – get creative with chopping, slivering, spiraling, how you cook them, and in what combinations you combine them.
Thirst is often mistaken as hunger. Next time you think you’re hungry, think about how much you have recently drunk. Drink eight ounces of cold water and then eat a nutrient-dense meal.
Reduce stress, increase sleep
Take time for yourself to unwind and relax before you sleep. Take a bath or shower, read, stretch for 10 minutes, or try some new breathing techniques, but for sure avoid electronics. A good night's sleep combined with reduced stress levels can support weight goals.
- Fell J, Williams D. The effect of aging on skeletal-muscle recovery from exercise: possible implications for aging athletes. J Aging Phys Act 2008;16(1):97-115.