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How To Succeed at Weight Loss After Age 50

Tactics for mastering your metabolism and shaving off those extra pounds

You can overcome weight loss hurdles after age 50.
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| It's not your imagination. Losing weight after age 50 really is more challenging. The reasons are a mix of lifestyle and physiological factors that combine to make dropping a few pounds more onerous than it was at 35 or 40 (not that it was easy then). William Yancy Jr., M.D., director of the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center in Durham, North Carolina, explains that adults in their 50s face a number of roadblocks to maintaining a healthy weight — from arthritis and other health conditions that can affect stamina, mobility and balance, to sleep and stress issues that can derail any well-intentioned diet. 

But that doesn't mean you have to accept weight gain as an inevitable part of the aging process. Read on for some expert tips on how to clear the five most common hurdles for losing weight in your 50s.

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Hurdle 1: Loss of muscle mass

By age 50, you've lost about 10 percent of your muscle mass, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. It's not just a cosmetic concern: Dwindling muscle mass impacts the way you burn calories. “Muscle is more metabolically active — it burns more calories than fat,” Yancy explains. “So having a higher ratio of muscle to fat will mean you burn more energy — just while sitting. To build that muscle, you have to exercise, and that burns calories, too."

How to clear it: All exercise is good, of course, but strength training — like lifting weights — is the secret to building muscle. A landmark study published in 2017 in the journal Obesity enlisted 249 people age 60 and above to compare the effectiveness of diet and exercise on their fat and muscle composition.

The participants were divided into three groups. One group was asked to cut around 300 calories a day from their diets. Another group cut calories and also did about 45 minutes of aerobic exercise four times a week. The third group combined calorie-cutting with strength training. After 18 months, those who combined diet and exercise lost the most weight (20 pounds on average). But the strength-training group lost more fat (18 pounds) and less muscle (only 2 pounds) than the aerobic group.

“Aerobic activity burns calories, but it doesn't build muscle as much as strength training,” Yancy says. 

And that goes for both men and women. A review of studies published in 2021 in Sports Medicine shows that resistance training (sometimes called strength training or weight training) isn’t just a guy thing. Women over age 50 reap just as many benefits as men over 50.

Hurdle 2: Slower metabolism

Conventional wisdom has long held that metabolism slows with age. But new research challenges that assumption. According to a study published in the journal Science, metabolism actually holds steady from ages 20 to 60 — so long as your muscle mass doesn’t change — and then declines by about 0.7 percent a year after 60.

Your resting metabolic rate — meaning the number of calories your body burns when you're doing nothing — can decrease if your muscle mass decreases as you age, says Holly Lofton, M.D., director of the NYU Langone Medical Weight Management Program in New York City. If we don't adjust our eating and exercise habits to accommodate that metabolic change, the weight can creep up over the years.

How to clear it: Muscle mass loss can come from both a lack of strength training and inadequate protein intake. To help remedy the latter issue, Lofton says to seek out high-quality protein sources such as eggs and low-fat meats, as well as possible high-quality nutritional supplements. One study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that eating equal amounts of protein at all three meals boosts muscle strength, and by extension, metabolism, in adults over age 67.

Lofton also suggests keeping up your fluid intake throughout the day. When you drink water, your body goes through a process known as thermogenesis to bring the liquid to body temperature. Since that process requires energy, you essentially burn calories and get a metabolism boost just by drinking H20. Fluid intake is also important to the complex cycle of converting protein and carbohydrates into usable energy, Lofton notes.

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And while strength-building activities help preserve muscle that keeps your metabolism revving, cardio exercise is important, too, says Yancy, who suggests a combination of the two. Any cardio — including walking, cycling and jogging — is better than none, but alternating between low-intensity and high-intensity moves has been shown to provide a greater boost to your metabolism than moderate-intensity exercise alone. If you work in high-intensity interval training in the morning, research shows you may get the most effective metabolism boost for the rest of your day.

Hurdle 3: Hormonal changes

Declining levels of estrogen and testosterone set the body up for storing fat in just the spot that makes dropping pounds more challenging. “The decline in estrogen in women can lead to a change of depositing fat around the hips to more around the abdomen. This can lead to insulin resistance, which furthers weight gain and makes weight loss difficult,” Yancy says. For men, he notes, “decreased testosterone leads to loss of muscle, which slows the metabolism."

Meanwhile, the hormones that regulate appetite and satiety — such as ghrelin from the gut and leptin from fat cells — also have their way with us in middle age, making it even more challenging to stay true to a healthy eating plan. “These can fluctuate over time, causing us to feel hungrier and less full when we attempt to lower our calorie intake and exercise more,” Lofton says.

How to clear it: The best ways to combat all of the above? “Reduce your intake of refined sugars and starches, eat more protein and whole foods, and exercise regularly,” Yancy suggests, echoing the results of a number of studies, including one published in 2018 in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. To get a clear picture of your habits, keep a seven-day log and note your food intake and activity levels. Aim to eliminate sugary foods and liquid calories, and try to get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week.


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Hurdle 4: A less-active lifestyle

Whether it's because of stiff joints, low energy or lack of time, research suggests we become less active as we get older. A study published in 2019 in Geriatric Physical Therapy suggests that older adults spend 60 to 80 percent of their waking hours sedentary. No surprise: That impacts weight loss.

How to clear it: It isn't just the major sweat sessions that burn calories. In a new study published in the journal Nutrients, researchers looked at the effect of walking speed on weight loss in previously sedentary postmenopausal women. Their findings suggest that although total body fat is lost at all speeds, the change is initially greater in slow walkers (defined by the researchers as about 3.5 miles per hour) who are overweight. Not sure how physically active you are over the course of the day? To stay on top of calories consumed and calories burned, wear an accelerometer to track your steps and intensity of daily activity, Lofton suggests.

Hurdle 5: Change in sleep habits

Research consistently shows a link between sleep deprivation and weight gain. One study in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine found that sleep-deprived participants not only ate more the next day, but they also reached for high-calorie fare. A lack of sleep may affect the body's regulation of the aforementioned hormones ghrelin (boosts appetite) and leptin (inhibits hunger), too.

How to clear it: Go to bed and get up at the same time every day because big swings in your sleep schedule can affect your metabolism. If you struggle to make that happen, creating a bedtime ritual to signal the body and mind to slow down may help. This could include turning off all devices, changing into pajamas and brushing your teeth at least an hour before sleep.

Editor's note: This article, originally published June 15, 2021, has been updated to reflect new information.

Kimberly Goad is a New York-based journalist who has covered health for some of the nation’s top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Men’s Health and Reader’s Digest.