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Weight gain—it’s inevitable, isn’t it? Many people put on weight as they get older, but it doesn’t have to happen. Let’s talk about why weight tends to creep up with age, and what can you do about it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a patient say to me, “Everybody gains a little weight as they get older!” To them, picking up a few extra pounds every year is just something to be expected. And they figure if everyone is doing it, it must be okay. But truth is, middle-aged weight gain doesn’t happen to everyone. Yes, some adults put on weight fairly steadily in their middle years—to the tune of about a pound a year on average. But just because creeping weight gain does happen to a lot of people, it doesn’t mean that it has to.
It may seem that weight gain as you get older is inevitable, but it’s not. That’s not to say you don’t need to pay attention, though. You’ve still got plenty of things working against you that can make weight management more challenging with each passing decade.
For one thing, there’s often a downward shift in the number of calories you spend when you exercise. As you get older, you may tend to move a bit less or exercise less vigorously—all of which adds up to fewer calories burned over the course of the day. If you’re exercising less than you used to but still eating the way you did in your 20’s, you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re packing on the pounds.
Then there are changes in body composition that are a natural part of the aging process. You tend to lose muscle as you age, partly because your muscle cells just don’t repair themselves the way they used to. When you’re younger, the everyday wear and tear of your muscles gets patched up relatively quickly. But over time the process slows down, which means you can lose some muscle mass. Natural dips in hormone production (estrogen, testosterone and growth hormone levels all decline with age) can also contribute to some loss of muscle mass.
Since muscle tissue does a lot of metabolic ‘work’ that uses up a lot of calories, the loss of muscle tissue as you age means that you will burn fewer calories per day than you used to. In other words, your metabolic rate slows down.
This subtle shift in your metabolism starts somewhere in your 20s or 30s. You start to slowly lose muscle tissue and gradually pick up some body fat. By the time women reach the age of about 40 and men enter their 60’s, they start to lose about 6-8% of their muscle mass every ten years. That translates into a drop in metabolic rate of about 10% every decade.
Diet clearly plays a role here, too. If the rate at which you burn calories is slowing down, then you need to apply the brakes on your calorie intake also, if you want to avoid weight gain. In many cases people are taking in too many calories, simply because they are eating they way they did 20 years ago but moving a lot less. But the other thing that sometimes happens as people get older is that their eating habits change—and not always in a good way. “Empty-nesters” who are no longer cooking for a family might stop preparing full, healthy meals. Instead, they might snack more or rely more on higher calorie convenience foods or fast foods. Some people simply eat more meals out because it’s easier, but calorie control is often sacrificed. And as people get older and find themselves less busy, eating can also become a calorie-laden form of entertainment.