Courtesy Sherry Greenwald
About half of all Americans who are overweight or obese are actively trying to lose weight, according to a study published last year in the medical journal JAMA. But while it may seem daunting, especially if you’re over age 50, it’s eminently doable. Check out these five inspiring stories from men and women who successfully shed weight in their 50s, 60s and beyond.
Sherry Greenwald, 57
Cliffside Park, N.J.
Pounds lost: 42
What spurred her to lose weight: her health. Greenwald had always been active and healthy, but as she got older and put on weight, she developed high cholesterol and prediabetes. But what really galvanized her efforts was seeing a photo: “I went to a wedding in the south of France, and when I looked at the picture of myself, I was mortified,” Greenwald recalls. “I’d never thought of myself as being overweight, but I looked heavy and aged.”
How she did it: Greenwald worked with New York City dietitian Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, author of The F-Factor Diet and The Miracle Carb Diet. One of Greenwald’s problems was that she was on the road all day as a saleswoman, so she often wouldn’t eat until about 4 p.m. — and she’d continue nonstop throughout the evening. Now she eats three meals a day with two snacks, which could be simply a protein bar or a handful of high-fiber crackers topped with peanut butter or chicken. “I found that having these small, frequent meals, each of which had protein and fiber, was really key in keeping hunger in check,” she says. “I especially noticed that days when I skipped my midafternoon snack, I was starving in the evening and much more likely to overeat.”
What seemed hard for about a minute: getting 35 to 40 grams of fiber every day. “That was a big challenge at first, but now I just add vegetables whenever I can — I throw mushrooms and onion and spinach into an egg white omelet in the morning, have a huge salad topped with chicken for lunch and have a grilled lean meat with plenty of steamed veggies for dinner,” she says.
Stay-in-shape tip: Scale back a bit. Greenwald went from doing five hours of cardio a week to simply doing a mix of cardio and weight training twice a week with a trainer. “All that cardio ended up stimulating my appetite, so I ate more and basically negated any calories I burned off,” says Greenwald. She also tries to walk as much as possible for additional exercise.
Motivational tip: Keep living your life. Due to Greenwald’s work, she’s dining out most nights, something she thankfully hasn’t had to scale back on. “I’m very specific when ordering at restaurants — a piece of grilled salmon or steak with no butter or oil on it, steamed veggies on the side and a house salad with balsamic vinaigrette,” she says. Greenwald’s weakness is alcohol, which she indulges in with either a glass or two of red or white wine or a club soda and vodka. “I find that if I treat myself to a couple drinks, I’m much less likely to slip up and order dessert,” she observes, laughing.
Courtesy Arlene Howard
Arlene Howard, 70s
Weight lost: 15 pounds
What spurred her to lose weight: “Professionally, I have to look the best I can,” says Howard, who has been running her namesake public relations firm since 2002. “I have to be alert, on my toes and very fashionable — and I didn’t feel that way when I was carrying around extra weight.” The real turning point, however, was when she saw photos of herself taken last year, on vacation in Hawaii or with clients in Los Angeles. “I just looked so aged and so tired,” she observes. “It was a real wake-up call that I needed to start a healthy eating regimen … not a diet but definitely a lifestyle.”
How she did it: “I just decided to give up sugar,” Howard reveals. “I gave up my beloved cakes, candies and chocolate and replaced them with very sweet fruits, like pineapple or berries,” she says. The first two weeks were tough, and Howard found herself constantly craving ice cream and sugar-sweetened yogurts. But within a few weeks, “the desire to eat these types of foods just disappeared, and I was fine.” Other than that, Howard didn’t restrict calories at all. She ate plenty of fresh fruits and veggies as well as lean protein such as chicken and fish. Breakfast is typically oatmeal sprinkled with raisins and walnuts, paired with either an egg or chicken sausage. Lunch is last night’s leftovers, which is often chicken, veggies, plus a piece of fruit, and cheese. Dinner is a lean protein like turkey meatballs, accompanied by veggies and half a glass of wine. “I mix it with mineral water and it gives me a sense of sweetness to enjoy with my meal, as well as a feeling of sophistication and elegance,” she says. When she feels the urge to snack, Howard munches on fruit and nuts, such as almonds. “A couple months ago, I decided to give up wheat, too, since it made me feel bloated, and although I haven’t lost any more weight, I feel like I have much more energy,” she adds. She also makes sure she’s in bed by 9:30 most evenings. “If I’m asleep, I don’t have the chance to indulge in late-night snacking,” she says with a laugh.
Stay-in-shape tip: Squeeze exercise in, however you can. Howard’s schedule doesn’t leave her much time to work out, other than on weekends. Still, she’s up at 6:30 every morning to fit in some leg squats and gentle stretches before a day at the office, and if she and her husband can sneak in a walk on the beach before or after dinner, they will. “He takes such long strides, it’s a workout for me to keep up,” she notes. On Saturdays and Sundays she hits the gym for an hour. “I’m proud of that because I don’t like the gym and it’s always such a struggle to get there,” she says. “But I go there, do 35-45 minutes on the elliptical, some weights and 15 tummy crunches, and that’s it. I’m done, and I can go home and start my day.”
Motivational tip: Seek out social support. Howard credits her husband of 15 years for providing the emotional support and stability that help her succeed. “A lot of people eat because it’s soothing to them, but I find that being in a wonderful relationship provides that same level of comfort,” she says. “When you’re really happy," she adds, you're less likely to eat as a way to "boost your mood.”
Courtesy Donald Mazzella
Donald Mazzella, 75
Weight lost: 28 pounds
What spurred him to lose weight: Seven years ago, Mazzella was having trouble controlling his type two diabetes, a condition he’d suffered from since his 40s. “My wife kept telling me she was worried about my health and that she wanted me to lose weight so I could stay alive until my 90s,” he recalls. At the same time, his physician died and Mazzella switched to a new doctor, one who also encouraged him to lose weight.
How he did it: Mazzella cut down on his ultimate favorite food, spaghetti. “It’s my Achilles' heel. I don’t crave sweets or snacks, but even since I was a teenager, I could go through a whole pot of spaghetti drenched in tomato sauce,” he says. Now his wife, JoAnn, shoots for meals with at least three colors: white for lean protein such as shrimp, chicken or pork, as well as reds, yellows, purples and greens from various veggies. If Mazzella wants spaghetti, he eats it as a very small side dish, sprinkled with garlic, clams and a drizzle of olive oil. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day and usually consists of a large salad topped with a protein, like chicken or fish. And he never leaves the house without eating breakfast, either two eggs with a piece of toast, or half a bagel with cream cheese and lox. “It’s the one meal older people tend to skip, but if I don’t eat it, I backslide,” he notes. Mazzella's physician also switched him from metformin to another diabetes medication, Victoza, that can promote weight loss (it mimics hormones in your brain that help you feel full).
Stay-in-shape tip: Work out with a companion. Mazzella walks at least a mile with his wife every weekday, and on the weekend tries to walk two to three miles. “I definitely noticed that as the weight initially came off — and it fell off gradually, only a pound or two a month — and my blood sugar got under better control that I had more energy,” he says.
Motivational tip: Focus on the long term. When Mazzella was first trying to lose weight, his wife bought him ‘9’ and ‘7’ birthday candles — a goal to healthily reach at least his 97th birthday. “Every time I slip up and eat something I shouldn’t, she reminds me that healthy living isn’t a dash but a long-term race.” Thanks in large part to his wife’s encouragement, Mazzella’s A1C, a measure of blood sugar, has gone from 8.2 to 6.4 — a sign that he's in good control of his diabetes.
Chuck Underwood, 69
Weight lost: 22 pounds
What spurred him to lose weight: Underwood had always been physically fit, working out five days a week, alternating weights and running. But two years ago, he was forced into a one-year caregiving situation to help his sister recover from brain surgery. “I still ate healthy foods, just too much; emotional exhaustion stripped me of my energy to work out,” he explains. All 22 pounds settled around his waist. “I’m slim elsewhere, so I looked eight months pregnant, which is a hideous look for a man,” he notes. Since Underwood travels the world as a motivational speaker and hosts the PBS television series America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood, losing weight was important for professional reasons. “My career, my livelihood, was at stake.”
How he did it: Underwood went on Nutrisystem, a commercial weight-loss program that offers prepackaged foods. “I did not have the knowledge of nutrition to guess on a diet, and I didn’t have the patience to do a lot of trial and error,” he admits. “I went online one Saturday morning and googled weight-loss programs, and Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem were the first two that came up. Weight Watchers seemed to focus on in-person meetings, which I didn’t think I’d have time to commit to, as I’m very busy with work and travel constantly. Nutrisystem just seemed simple — they’d send me the food in the proper proportions, I’d eat it, and I’d lose weight.” The eating program's structure worked for Underwood, who is single and believed that he wouldn’t be motivated to cook healthfully on his own. The first week he lost nine pounds; after that he stabilized at about a pound a week. “For me it was about convenience — I didn’t have to grocery shop; I didn’t have to cook — it was all dropped at my door once a month in microwave-ready containers,” he says.
Now that’s he’s lost weight, Underwood still relies on Nutrisystem for most of his meals but has either lunch or dinner on his own every day. “Usually, whether I’m out at a restaurant or at home, it’s the same thing: a grilled chicken breast, a side of rice and a plain tossed salad with vinaigrette,” he says. “Some people might find the same routine boring, but I thrive on consistency.”
Stay-in-shape tip: Underwood set up a simple home gym with a treadmill, a weight bench and dumbbells, so he wouldn’t have to drive to a fitness center whenever he wanted to work out. “The local YMCA was only about five minutes away, but that drive was long enough to be a deal breaker on days when I just didn’t feel like I had the energy.”
Motivational tip: Focus on the health benefits of losing weight. “A couple weeks after starting Nutrisystem, I hopped on the treadmill and noticed that since my two legs were now running with 10 pounds less above them, I had more energy and could run even farther — two and a half miles, instead of two,” he recalls. He was also able to scale back on his blood pressure medication. But the biggest satisfaction was when he attended his 50-year high school reunion, a few months ago. “I was probably the only male in the room who was at his high school weight,” he says proudly.
Dani Mackey, 52
Weight lost: 10 pounds, but her body fat dropped from 31 percent to 17 percent. “A lot of that fat was replaced by muscle,” she explains.
What spurred her to lose weight: turning 50. “All my friends were celebrating this milestone by throwing big parties, but I decided to focus my efforts toward not feeling older,” she recalls. Mackey reactivated her gym membership and spent the next couple of years immersed in kickboxing and cardio barre classes. But when she didn’t see the numbers on the scale go down, she became frustrated: “I looked around at all the other women my age at the gym and realized none of our bodies were really changing.”
How she did it: Mackey hired a fitness trainer, who advised her to switch from an hour of daily cardio to a routine with more weight training. “I still exercise six days a week, but only about 35 percent of my time at the gym focuses on cardio,” she explains. Instead, each day she focuses on a different body part to weight train: Monday may be chest and arms, Tuesday she may focus on her back and delts, and Wednesday, just on legs. “My goal is to do exercises for each body part twice a week.” Her trainer also recommended she eat more protein, to help preserve muscle mass that can decrease with age. “I actually think I’m eating more than I was before, but now I’m eating the right things,” which include four ounces of protein at every meal.
A typical day consists of a breakfast of fruit, egg whites and turkey bacon; a midmorning snack of whole grain bread topped with blueberries and almond butter; a lunch of four ounces of lean protein, such as chicken, shrimp or tuna over a bed of leafy greens; a midafternoon snack of three ounces of chicken or turkey paired with 10 almonds or a tablespoon of nut butter; and a dinner made of six ounces of fish or chicken paired with salad and veggies. Mackey ends her evening intake with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, which research suggests may help with weight loss. One Japanese study found that gulping down a tablespoon of this liquid twice daily caused obese subjects to shed four pounds after 12 weeks.
Stay-in-shape tip: Put yourself first. “I prioritize my exercise time as nearly as important to my life as getting my job done,” says Mackey, who enlists her husband to take on dad duty after school so she can hit the gym. She also occasionally hires a sitter so she doesn’t have to miss a workout. Mackey chose a gym with multiple locations around town, allowing her to visit whichever one works with her schedule. “I have also found fitness and cycling studios around D.C. that let you just book one class at a time, so if I’m near one, I can pop in for a quick workout.”
Motivational tip: Make it easy for yourself. Mackey stocks up on plenty of staples, like packages of four-ounce chicken breasts, which she can easily sauté or throw onto the grill with some veggies and then pack with salad as a lunch the next day. “I try to plan as much as possible, but if I can’t, I make sure I have something portable with me, like a protein bar, so I can eat that instead of having to resort to the drive-through,” she says. Once a week she allows herself a cheat meal, eating whatever she wants.