Many positive perks often come with age: wisdom, disposable income and feeling more comfortable in your own skin, to name a few. But there are some drawbacks, too, like the fact that it can be harder to drop extra pounds.
One big culprit is sarcopenia, or the natural loss of muscle tissue, says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, dietitian and associate clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. We begin to experience sarcopenia around the age of 30 and generally lose 3 to 5 percent of our muscle mass every 10 years, making it more difficult for us to maintain our weight (muscle burns more calories than fat, after all).
When you couple this with the fact that most older folks don’t move around as much as they used to, it’s easy for the pounds to add up. “Less active lifestyles then lead to less muscle being laid down, so it’s sort of a catch-22,” Ayoob says. “Exercise preserves and builds muscle and boosts the metabolism, but if you can’t be as active, the muscle gradually atrophies or is lost, and so is the metabolic activity it required to maintain it, so you need fewer calories.”
The good news is there are accessible strategies for older adults to lose weight and improve their state of health. Here, a helpful guide from the pros.
1. First, Figure Out How Many Calories You Actually Need
If you’ve experienced an uphill battle in losing added pounds, you’ve probably turned to tried-and-true methods you’ve used in the past. Though these were effective then, they don’t seem to be making a difference now. What gives?
As you age, your body composition and metabolism change, says Traci Fields, RD, CDN, dietitian and owner of TLF Functional Health, which means that your body burns calories differently. So it stands to reason that your eating habits also need to change to prevent weight gain.
“I have found in my experience that most people eat far more calories than what is required for their bodies, thus resulting in weight gain,” Fields says. “Additionally, most tend to overestimate the number of calories burned during a workout, therefore taking in more than they need and often ‘canceling out’ the calories burned during the exercise session.”
To calculate your calories for weight loss, you need to first tally your maintenance calories, aka the amount you need daily to maintain your current weight. You can do that by keeping a food diary for a few weeks to track your food and activity along with your weight. You can also use an app like LIVESTRONG.com’s MyPlate, which will calculate your calorie goal for you.
Once you’ve determined your maintenance amount, try slashing about 500 daily calories — this is the “magic number” that most experts agree is safe for sustainable weight loss. By creating a 500-calorie daily deficit, you can expect to lose about a pound a week.
Cutting calories below 1,200 for women or 1,500 for men could result in nutritional deficiencies, according to Harvard Health Publishing, and isn’t recommended unless you’re being supervised by a physician.
2. Move More, in Whatever Way You Can
Ayoob urges older adults to simply move more, in any way you can, every day you can. Though our joints may be tighter and our bodies not as nimble with every lap around the sun, he says there truly isn’t a substitute for exercise.
“Moving those muscles keeps the metabolism from slowing down, repairs and builds muscle tissue and has benefits that go way beyond weight management, like helping to lower elevated blood sugar levels, bad cholesterol and blood pressure and helping to prevent bone loss,” he explains.
While injuries and other conditions may prevent you from running a 10K anytime soon, even a five to 10-minute walk is worth the energy output, Ayoob says. And while the official recommendations laid out in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans say that adults should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, that doesn’t mean you have to do five 30-minute sessions in the gym. Moderate-to-vigorous physical movement of any duration — even if that’s climbing a few flights of stairs — counts toward that goal.
3. Add Resistance Exercise
Maybe you can’t do as many push-ups as you did 20 years ago. That’s OK, Ayoob says, since there are plenty of low-impact resistance (aka strength-building) exercises that are doable for older adults.
He suggests incorporating this type of fitness into your life two to three times a week to help you build and maintain muscle mass, which is in line with the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. In addition to raising your heart rate and burning some calories, Ayoob says resistance training also prevents muscle loss and builds strength.
And bonus: It can help prevent bone loss, which is an unfortunate but common side effect of weight loss as we get older, according to a study published December 2019 in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.
4. Cut Down on Alcohol
We get it: It’s always 5 o’clock somewhere. But when it comes to drinking, too much of a good thing can sabotage your health goals. And Monica Auslander Moreno, RD, LDN, dietitian and nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition, says many older adults have alcohol-intake levels that are unhealthily high.
“This can lead to not only weight issues, but diseases that can cause death or prolonged illness,” she warns. Generally speaking, she says cutting back on alcohol is a health-enhancing behavior for our waistlines — and our happiness.
If you don’t want to nix booze entirely, make sure you’re at least factoring it into your weekly calorie goals. And try to limit yourself to about one drink per day, which is recommended by the American Heart Association.
5. Don’t Skimp on Protein
Getting adequate protein in your diet is important at any age, but it’s especially important for older adults who are trying to lose weight, Ayoob says. Eating enough protein is key to helping you build and maintain muscle, which, as we’ve mentioned, can help keep your metabolism chugging along at a good clip.
Ayoob recommends limiting protein from red meat, which can be high in calories, and opting instead for lean protein sources like Greek yogurt, eggs, lentils and nuts.
Generally, sedentary adults aiming to maintain their weight should aim for about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, according to Harvard Health Publishing. But for those who are reducing calories or strength training, the goal should be closer to 1.3 grams per kilogram, according to a December 2019 review and meta-analysis in Advances in Nutrition.
To put that into perspective, a 160-pound person would need to aim for about 95 grams of protein each day (a 4-ounce serving of boneless, skinless chicken breast has about 27 grams, for reference).
Protein is also a boon for weight loss because it helps you feel full, requires more energy to digest (read: ups your calorie burn) and increases satiety hormones, per an April 2015 paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.