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Whether you’ve battled the bulge for what seems like forever — or just since your last birthday — it’s true that age can have a lot to do with the number on the scale. As with crow’s-feet and varicose veins, you’re simply more susceptible to gaining weight once you hit the big 5-0. And it’s not your imagination: It also becomes increasingly more challenging to shed those pounds once they’ve settled around your hips.
“The two big reasons people tend to gain weight as they get older are loss of muscle mass and decreased activity,” explains Caroline Apovian, M.D., a weight-loss specialist at Boston University Medical Center. People experience a 5 to 10 percent loss of muscle mass each decade after age 50, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. As a result, your resting metabolic rate declines by an average of 2 to 3 percent every decade.
And this means you can be eating the exact same amount that you did at 40 — not a morsel more — and still gain weight.
Becoming more sedentary with age can also skew the equation, especially if you begin to develop arthritis or other joint issues that restrict activity. “As we get older, we spend less time running around and physical activity decreases,” Apovian points out. “But as you get older, if you don’t use your muscles, you’ll lose them.”
And while these facts are sobering, there’s plenty you can do to take control. “You’re not doomed to failure! I’m 60, and I have more muscle on my body than I did when I was 30,” Apovian says with pride.
It's true that few of us may have the time or energy to follow Apovian’s grueling workout schedule (she rises at 5 a.m. most days to either swim for an hour or run six miles on her treadmill), but we can follow her advice, as well as that of other leading obesity specialists, on how to fit into our jeans once we enter our sixth decade and beyond.
Pile on the protein
“Protein supplementation can help build back muscle mass, which reverses the decline in metabolism,” explains Apovian. She recommends making sure that between 30 and 40 percent of your daily calories come from protein, depending on your body weight. (Imagine a lean piece of meat or fish taking up one third of your plate, and you get the idea.) By contrast, the average American gets about 16 percent of his or her food intake from protein, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You’ll also build more muscle if you spread your protein intake out evenly throughout the day. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming an equal amount of protein at all three meals is linked to more muscle strength in people over age 67. To even out your intake, try adding an egg or yogurt to your breakfast, a glass of milk or a handful of nuts to your lunch, and scaling back on your protein source at dinner.
Join the resistance
While any sort of exercise can help you shed girth, it’s very important that you lift weights at least twice a week to build muscle mass, which will help you lose weight. In one study, 60-something overweight adults who pumped iron lost more weight and lost less muscle mass over 18 months than those who just hoofed it for exercise. “Any sort of opportunity to build muscle — even if it’s just working with light resistance bands or swimming in a pool — will raise your metabolism and, thus, help you burn calories,” explains Reshmi Srinath, M.D., an endocrinologist and obesity specialist at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
And keep in mind that you don’t have to do much to see results. People who lifted weights just twice a week gained about three pounds of muscle after 10 weeks, according to a review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports.
Beyond strength training, if you can take your overall exercise program up a notch, do so. Older adults who did high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which entails short spurts of high-intensity exercise, not only lost weight but also had less DNA damage to muscle cells. And this helped trigger growth of new muscle.
Get enough shut-eye
“Research has consistently shown that people who are overweight or obese get less sleep than those of normal weight,” stresses Apovian. “When you’re sleep deprived, your body ramps up its production of hormones that increase hunger, like the stress hormone cortisol and the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin.” Older men (over age 67) who get less than five hours of sleep a night are almost four times as likely to be obese as those who get between seven and eight, and older women are more than twice as likely, according to a Case Western Reserve University study.
It’s also a good idea to keep your sleep schedule consistent, meaning you get up and go to bed at roughly the same time every day. Older men and women who don’t follow this healthy habit add another risk factor for being obese into the mix, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity.
Try occasional fasting
We’re not talking juice cleanses. Rather, research now shows that a specific type of intermittent fasting, known as fasting-mimicking, can trigger weight loss as well as improve your overall health. People who followed this type of diet plan — where they consumed only 750 to 1,000 calories five days out of each month but otherwise ate normally — lost, on average, six pounds, shed one to two inches of their waistline, and saw both their blood pressure and levels of IGF-1 (a substance linked to increased cancer risk) drop significantly, according to a University of Southern California study published last year.
How might it work? “When you gain weight, the nerves in your hypothalamus that conduct signals from your fat cells to the rest of your brain become damaged,” says Louis Aronne, M.D., director of the Center for Weight Management and Metabolic Clinical Research at Weill Cornell Medical College. “As a result, your brain doesn’t realize that you’re full, so it keeps signaling you to eat.”
But when you take a day to not eat very much, he says, “you’re reducing stress on your hypothalamic nerves, so it gives them time to recuperate.” That day of rest for your nerves could be especially important for older people, he says, because of the damage that oxidative stress can further do to your weight-regulating system.
As for how to start, “I tell patients who want to try it to eat only about 800 calories twice a week, focusing mainly on vegetables, protein and healthy oils such as olive oil,” he says.
To help yourself feel fuller longer on days you’re not fasting, Aronne recommends following a low-carb diet in which about 30 percent of your calories come from protein and the rest from nonstarchy veggies, nuts and beans. Craving bread? “I tell patients that the best time to eat these types of starchy carbohydrates is at the very end of the meal, after they’ve had their veggies and protein,” he says. Aronne’s research shows that people who eat this way not only have lower levels of blood sugar and insulin after eating but also have bigger boosts in hormones like GLP 1, which help keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Practice mindful eating
If you think your weight gain may have something to do with midlife stress (aging parents, college tuition bills and managerial responsibilities at work, anyone?), this approach may be especially helpful to have in your weight-loss toolbox. “A lot of times eating, especially mindless eating, can be stress related, and meditation techniques can be helpful in terms of both alleviating anxiety and making you more conscious of how much you’re consuming,” explains Apovian.
People who practice this technique — which involves paying attention to how hungry or full you feel, planning meals and snacks, eating as a singular activity (without, say, also reading the paper or watching TV), and zeroing in on how your food really tastes — may be more successful at weight loss. People who participated in an online mindfulness-based weight-loss program, for instance, lost more weight (on average, about 4.2 pounds) than a control group, according to a North Carolina State University study presented last year at the European Congress on Obesity.
Need some tips to get you started? Eat slowly (put your fork down between bites, and chew your food well), try to have meals without any outside distractions, and follow the one-bite rule when it comes to favorite but fattening foods like desserts. You can find more suggestions here.