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Is it harder to lose weight when you’re older?

With a few lifestyle changes, maintaining a healthy weight doesn’t have to be hard as you age, says dietitian and exercise physiologist Caitlin Reid.

Caitlin Reid | Dietitian and exercise physiologist
October 2017

As you get older, you might notice that your body isn’t quite as forgiving as it used to be. Your clothes may begin to feel tight and you might feel like it’s harder to exercise. There is a belief that middle-age weight gain is inevitable, but science tells us that with some lifestyle changes, it doesn’t have to happen to everyone.

What the science says

We start to lose muscle mass in our 30s, but the biggest change doesn’t happen until after the age of 50 when we start to lose muscle mass at a rate of 1-2% per year.

This reduction in muscle mass comes with an increase in fat mass, which explains why you might not actually put on weight. 

But while the number on the scales may not change, your waistline can, with fat more likely to go straight to your stomach. It’s this ‘deep’ fat (stored further under the skin than subcutaneous ‘belly’ fat) that’s more closely associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Over time, these changes can make weight loss harder.

Changes in hormone levels and lower muscle mass can reduce the amount of energy you use at rest, also known as basal metabolic rate. From the age of 20, our metabolism decreases by 1-2% per decade, meaning we have to eat less to maintain the same weight.

On top of this, as we get older we tend to become more sedentary. Moving less means we burn less energy each day, but unfortunately we tend not to eat less to match the fewer kilojoules we burn. Over time, this imbalance not only makes weight loss harder, it leads to unwanted weight gain.

Tips to keep the weight off as you age

Eat more protein

Ageing muscles become less receptive to protein, but you can counteract these age-related changes by boosting your daily protein and making sure each meal contains 20-30g of high-quality protein (proteins that contain all the essential amino acids the body doesn’t manufacture itself). These essential amino acids do things like repair body tissue and break down food. 

For example, you’ll find 30g of protein in 110g of cooked red meat. This amount of protein will provide enough essential amino acids to help you maintain, and over time increase muscle protein.

Non-meat eaters can get protein through foods like dairy, eggs, nuts, wheat, lentils, sunflower and sesame seeds, tofu, soy protein, spinach, turnip greens, broccoli, snow peas, kidney beans and watercress.

Do resistance training

If your exercise regime doesn’t include resistance training, it’s time to start. As we lose muscle mass as we get older, doing weights becomes important to counter this muscle loss. Resistance training is the best way to increase and maintain muscle function. Ways to do this include free weights, weight machines, resistance bands and your body weight.

For the best results, train 3-4 times a week and make sure your program is designed to challenge you. That means increasing the resistance when it stops becoming hard. Known as progressive resistance training, increasing your exercise load will help you improve muscle mass as you age.

Move more

To prevent unhealthy weight gain the Department of Health guidelines recommend getting up to 5 hours of moderate-intensity activity each week. For example, this might be brisk walking or doing gardening. Again, measure the intensity by how you feel.

Few of us realise the Australian exercise guidelines also say to sit less, because sitting for long periods of time is associated with increased health risks like developing type 2 diabetes. Reduce the amount of time you spend being sedentary and break up long periods of sitting by finding opportunities to move about whenever you can.

HCF WEIGHT MANAGEMENT PROGRAMS

The Healthy Weight For Life program is designed to help members with type 2 diabetes, a heart condition or osteoarthritis achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

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