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Losing Weight After 50: Top 20 Expert Tips

Tactics for mastering your metabolism and shaving off those extra pounds

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It’s not your imagination. Losing weight after age 50 really is more challenging. But that doesn't mean you have to accept weight gain as an inevitable part of the aging process. ​​

Why is it harder to lose weight after 50?​

A number of lifestyle and physiological factors conspire to make dropping a few pounds more onerous than it was at 35 or 40 (not that it was easy then). The culprits include arthritis and other conditions that can affect stamina, mobility and balance; sleep and stress issues; dwindling muscle mass; and declining levels of the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.  ​

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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. ​

That’s not to say everyone is destined to battle the bulge.

“Not all people over 50 will experience the same degree of difficulty with weight loss as genes determine 40 to 70 percent of what your weight is at a given time,” says Holly Lofton, M.D., director of the NYU Langone Medical Weight Management Program in New York City.​​

Read on for 20 expert tips on how to lose weight after 50.

1. Embrace strength training

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,” explains William Yancy Jr., M.D., director of the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center in Durham, North Carolina. “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.”​

All exercise is good, of course, but strength training — such as lifting weights — is the secret to building muscle. That goes for both men and women. A review of studies published in 2021 in Sports Medicine shows that strength training (sometimes called resistance training or weight training) isn’t just a guy thing: Women 50 and older reap just as many benefits. Aim for two to three weight training sessions a week.​​

2. Remember the 200-calorie rule

The number of calories you need each day drops slightly as you age, but most people keep eating the same amount of food. The government's dietary guidelines advise that you burn approximately 200 fewer daily calories after age 50. The best way to make that happen? Combine calorie cutting (to get into the habit, try using a calorie-counting app like MyFitnessPal, Cronometer, or MyNetDiary) and strength training.​​

A landmark study published in 2017 in the journal Obesity enlisted 249 people 60 and older 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 about 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.​


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3. Stay hydrated​

Drinking plenty of fluids is important for overall health—adults who aren’t well hydrated may age faster and face a higher risk of chronic diseases than their well-hydrated counterparts — and it plays an equally important role in maintaining a healthy weight.​

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. Aim for eight glasses of water a day, and try to eat more foods with high water content (like fruits and vegetables). ​

4. Break a sweat

Although 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. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio—such as brisk walking—per week.​

5. Curb your sweet tooth​

Cutting back on sweets seems so obvious, it’s hardly worth mentioning. But there’s more at play than just empty calories. ​

With age, declining levels of estrogen and testosterone set the body up for storing fat in just the spot—your abdomen—that makes dropping pounds more challenging. Excess sugar, already a leading cause of belly fat, only exacerbates things by spiking insulin levels. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance, which furthers weight gain and makes weight loss difficult, Yancy says.​

6. Avoid late-night snacking

Not only does eating late increase hunger and alter appetite-regulating hormones, it also reduces the number of calories burned throughout the day, as compared with early eating, found a study in Cell Metabolism. As if that weren’t enough, late-night eaters are also more apt to store fat in their abdomen. ​

7. Check what medication you’re taking

Some drugs — most notably for conditions that are exacerbated by excess weight, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes — can cause weight gain. A study published in Obesity found that more than 20 percent of adults in the United States take at least one medication that causes weight gain, the most common being some beta-blockers and diabetes drugs such as insulin and sulfonylureas.

“Medications such as hormones, steroids and some antidepressants can also cause weight gain,” Lofton says. “The longer you take these types of meds, the more the body can store larger, more stubborn fat cells.”​

If weight loss is challenging and you’re taking any of the above medications, “seek medical attention specifically to address your individual weight management options,” Lofton suggests. There may be alternative meds that don’t cause weight gain. ​​

8. Get plenty of sleep

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 hormones ghrelin (boosts appetite) and leptin (inhibits hunger), too. ​

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.​​

9. Weigh yourself regularly

​Every morning or every week, it’s up to you. Just make sure you step on the scale at the same time of day for each weigh-in so you can get a more accurate picture of how your weight loss efforts are paying off. A two-year study found that frequent weigh-ins and tracking results on a chart were effective for both losing weight and keeping it off, especially for men. ​ ​

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10. Set S.M.A.R.T. weight loss goals

Research shows you’ll up your odds of losing weight if you set goals that are:​

Specific: Instead of more fruits and vegetables, you’ll eat five servings of fruit and vegetables every day.​

Measurable: You’ll log 10,000 steps per day on your activity tracker.​

Attainable: Rather than promising yourself you’ll go to the gym every day, start with three days a week. ​

Realistic: You’ll curb your soda habit by choosing sparkling water on four out of five occasions.  ​

Time-bound: Mark the start date of your new eating plan on your calendar.​​

11. Set a S.M.A.R.T. goal to swear off ultraprocessed foods

Cured meats, baked goods, pretty much everything you find on the snack aisle—these are all out to sabotage your weight loss efforts. In a small study, participants were put on a diet of unprocessed foods (fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains) or ultra-processed foods. Participants were presented with the same amounts of overall calories, protein, and carbohydrates, and were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. After fourteen days, the dieters switched to the opposite plan. ​

The participants ate 500 calories a day more, on average, when they ate ultraprocessed fare than when they were given whole foods, and—no surprise—they gained, rather than lost weight. ​​

12. Excuse-proof your exercise routine

Pick a gym close to home, enlist an exercise buddy, hire a personal trainer, schedule workouts as you would any must-keep appointment. On the days you’d rather do anything but work out, any—or all—of these will help keep you accountable.  ​

13. Put your eating plan on autopilot

Advance meal prep is one of the easiest ways to stick to any eating plan. Set aside a few hours over the weekend to prep what you need for the week ahead: quinoa or brown rice, beans or lentils, roasted vegetables, grilled chicken breasts—these can all be cooked in advance, stored in the fridge and reheated on the fly.   ​

​14. Try HIIT​

All cardio — including walking, cycling and jogging — counts, 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 (HIIT) in the morning, research shows, you may get the most effective metabolism boost for the rest of your day. ​​

15. Eat more whole grains​

Whole grains such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice contain all the parts of the kernel—even the tougher, harder-to-digest bits—so your body uses more energy to break them down. When study participants ages 40 to 65 consumed the same number of calories, but swapped refined white flour and rice for whole grains, they burned nearly 100 extra calories per day. ​ 

16. Get plenty of protein​

It isn’t just lack of physical activity that leads to a loss in muscle mass; inadequate protein intake also figures in. Seek out high-quality protein sources such as eggs and low-fat meats, as well as possible high-quality nutritional supplements, suggests Lofton. A study published in 2020 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet higher in protein was associated with less loss of muscle mass over three years in women ages 70 to 79, particularly Black women. Another study suggests that eating equal amounts of protein at all three meals boosts muscle strength and, by extension, metabolism in adults over 67. ​

17. Sit less

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

What is surprising: It isn’t just the major sweat sessions that burn calories. In a 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? Wear an accelerometer to track your steps and intensity of daily activity, Lofton suggests.​

18. Eat until you’re satisfied

Many of us wonder, “Should you eat until you are full?” The answer is, “Mind your hara hachi bu point.” In Japanese, this means to eat until you’re 80% full. Your aim should be to feel satisfied and not hungry anymore, rather than full, the Cleveland Clinic recommends. ​

19. Keep your metabolism humming

Conventional wisdom has long held that metabolism slows with age, but research challenges that assumption. According to a study published in 2021 in the journal Science, metabolism actually holds steady from ages 20 to 60 — so long as your muscle mass doesn’t change — then declines by about 0.7 percent a year after 60. Though seemingly insignificant, that less-than-a-percentage-point-per-year slowdown can add up over the years and have an impact, Yancy says.

​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, Lofton says. If we don’t adjust our eating and exercise habits to accommodate that metabolic change, the weight can creep up over the years.​

20. Rethink happy hour​

It isn’t just the calories in that glass of wine that add up over time; research shows that booze can do a number on all your good intentions. One study suggests that alcohol can trigger hunger signals in the brain, leading to an increased urge to eat more.​ ​​ 

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

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