Are you finding it hard to maintain your weight as you get older? Rebecca Moran, MD, a family medicine physician at Banner Health Clinic in Phoenix, AZ, said it’s a common complaint. “I hear over and over again from frustrated patients that they haven’t made any changes to their diet or exercise habits and yet they are gaining weight. They don’t realize that as we age the calories it takes to beat our hearts, digest our food, and blink our eyelids simply goes down,” she said.
Three key factors combine to drive this age-related weight gain, Dr. Moran said:
- Your metabolism slows down
- Your body composition shifts
- Your hormone levels change
When your metabolism slows, you don’t need as many calories to keep your body humming along. That means your older self can eat the same diet and get the same amount of exercise as your younger self. But where your younger self could maintain a healthy weight, your older self finds that pounds are piling on. If you’ve cut back on your workouts, you’re tipping the scales even further. “Unfortunately, most of us also exercise less frequently or with less intensity as we age, so it makes sense that we would gain weight,” Dr. Moran said.
Adding to the metabolic slowdown is a shift in your body composition. As you age, your muscle mass decreases and your fat mass increases. Fat is less metabolically active than muscle—you don’t need as many calories to maintain fat as you do to maintain muscle.
Hormonal changes can also lead to weight gain. Women tend to see hormone levels change quickly, during menopause, while men see more gradual decreases in their testosterone levels over time.
How you can fight back against age-related weight gain
Sure, there are factors working against you and making it likely that you’ll gain weight as you get older. But that doesn’t mean you have no control over it. “It sounds cliché, but you can exercise and eat healthfully,” Dr Moran said. Specifically, here’s what she recommends:
- Choose a diet high in protein and fiber and low in saturated and trans fats. “Protein is the building block for muscle, so getting enough protein is especially important,” she said.
- Add resistance exercise along with your cardio activities, since resistance exercise helps increase and maintain your muscle mass. “As muscle is metabolically more active than fat, increasing lean muscle mass is very helpful in the fight against weight gain,” she said.
- Get enough sleep, because too little sleep can increase your appetite and decrease your daytime energy levels.
- Lower stress levels, since the stress-related cortisol hormone can contribute to weight gain.
It’s important to take steps to maintain a healthy weight as you age, since excessive weight gain can put you at risk for health conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and breast, endometrial, colon, gallbladder, and kidney cancer.
If you gain weight unexpectedly, talk to your doctor. Rapid weight gain could point to heart disease, kidney disease, or abnormal changes in your hormone levels.
The bottom line
It gets harder to maintain your weight as you age, but it’s not impossible. And try not to get frustrated with a few extra pounds, as long as you’re still in a healthy weight range. “Rather than focusing on weight, focus on lifestyle habits that help you feel healthy and energetic as you age,” Dr. Moran said.
A Banner Health physician or dietitian can help you evaluate your diet and lifestyle habits and make healthy changes. To find a healthcare professional near you, visit bannerhealth.com.
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