How Much Does Weight ACTUALLY Fluctuate with Age?
Is packing on extra pounds inevitable while aging? Experts weigh in on this common belief.
It is not uncommon to steadily gain five to ten or more pounds with each passing year. But is this really an inevitable biological and physiological phenomenon or a product of typical lifestyle and health habits as people age?
Ahead shines light on the most common causes of weight gain related to aging and also discusses why it is not necessarily written in the stars like many believe.
Why Am I Gaining Weight As I Age?
According to the ether, the most common reason people gain weight as they age is related to a slowing metabolism. While this is true to some extent, it does not elucidate the full picture.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no code written in our DNA that programs unavoidable weight gain after 40 or an inability to lose weight after 60. Rather, metabolism typically slows as one ages because cells are overworked and unable to keep up with energy demands due to lifestyle habits.
That old saying "Enjoy it while you are young!" often backfires, and is a common case with metabolism. Those who "enjoy" life, or namely eat a diet void of much nutrition in their adolescent years, often fare worse in the long run because their metabolism has already been working in overdrive. By the time 30 or 40 rolls around, their cells are not functioning properly and conditions like insulin and leptin resistance, plaque build-up, and over or under hormone production can happen.
On the other hand, those who nourish themselves well while young may be able to maintain a high metabolism throughout their lifespan. Although aging induces some inevitable slowing of metabolism, these folks may only gain 5 to 10 total pounds throughout their 40s, 50s, and beyond. In essence, they have bolstered their cells well enough that they preserve their proper function and avoid unnecessary weight gain.
Nonetheless, take a look at the most common reasons adults gain weight as they age.
Altered Lipid Turnover
Some newer research suggests lipid turnover, or in other words the ability to burn stored fat decreases with age independent of other factors. In one particular study, researchers studied fat cells of males and females over a 13-year period. Results showed decreases in lipid oxidation (burning fat) whether subjects gained or lost any weight, and those that didn’t compensate with fewer calories gained an average of 20% of their starting weight.
Although more research is needed to fully elucidate this phenomenon, the research suggests understanding lipid dynamics and what regulates fat mass in humans is more relevant than ever.
Loss of Muscle Mass
Muscle tissue is one of the most metabolic tissues within the human body. This means that the more muscle mass one has, the higher their metabolism, the more calories they burn at rest, and the easier they will be able to maintain a healthy weight range.
The natural aging process decreases muscle mass– a process called sarcopenia– but much can be preserved through proper exercise. All in all, adults tend to lose muscle mass more because of altered lifestyle and health habits and less because of biological aging.
After college, many adults begin careers and families and make less time for consistent exercise. Instead of walking the halls of high school or the campuses of college, adults are confined to small offices with tempting goodies in every break room.
In addition, health complications like arthritis, major injuries or surgeries, and other chronic illnesses may make it harder to engage in activity that builds or preserves muscle.
Some hormonal changes are inescapable as the body prepares to stop childbearing ability. Although we often associate this phenomenon known as menopause with females, hormonal changes that encourage fat storage also occur in males.
The first hormonal hiccup for females typically occurs during perimenopause, the few years before full-blown menopause. Significant fluctuations in estrogen can affect mood and the motivation to eat a healthy diet and exercise.
During menopause, the severe drop in estrogen likely shifts fat storage and typically promotes fat storage around the stomach area. In addition to those more well-known symptoms of menopause like hot flashes, the risk of insulin resistance also increases. However, maintaining healthful eating, lowering calories and carbs slightly, and consistently exercising can prevent unnecessary weight gain.
On the other hand, men experience significant drops in testosterone as they age, with the onset typically beginning around age forty. This hormone is responsible for regulating fat distribution and muscle mass and strength, thus, drops in testosterone often deem the body less effective at preserving muscle tissue and burning calories.
In addition, the production of growth hormone, responsible for building and maintaining muscle mass typically decreases as well. Although symptoms of this process are potentially less obvious than menopause, it is very similar.
Poor Eating Habits
Of all the reasons adults tend to gain weight as they age, poor eating habits reigns first on the list. As much as people do not want to take responsibility for their worsening health, poor eating habits in adulthood will almost always consistently lead to weight gain throughout the years.
Because cellular function decreases with age, it is even more important to support them through healthful eating so that they can maintain function. High consumption of refined carbs, processed and packaged food, and inflammatory fats will inevitably cause weight gain in most people. Other habits like more alcohol, eating takeout often, and prioritizing convenience over nutrition also contribute to this weight gain phenomenon.
To support optimal cellular and metabolic function, adults typically need to reduce total calories and increase lean protein and fiber consumption.
As has been mentioned and scattered throughout this article, various lifestyle changes or experiences may make it harder to maintain a healthy weight. Many of these factors induce emotional states that make unhealthy eating appealing and put exercise and often sleep on the backburner.
Some factors include:
• Less natural movement in the workplace
• Less walking in general after college
• Weddings, divorces, and deaths
• Increased stress
• Sporadic exercise
• Heavy alcohol consumption
• Less time to prep healthy meals
• Caring for kids or sick loved ones
How to Preserve Metabolism
Metabolic rate might seem challenging to preserve in both middle-aged men and women. However, paying attention to diet, physical activity, and other factors can make all the difference.
Eat a Nutritious Diet
It cannot be reiterated enough that eating a nutritious diet is the single best weight gain prevention method. Because food directly supplies our cells with nutrients, the more high-quality the food, the better cells will maintain function and metabolism.
While there are many foundations of healthy eating, it can be boiled down to three main ones. Think of this as a blueprint for meal building:
1. Lean protein: poultry, eggs, beans and legumes, tofu, red meat, low-fat dairy
2. Healthy fats: omega-3s in fatty fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, olives, and olive oil
3. Fiber: vegetables, fruits with skin or seeds, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains
• 8-16 hours of fasting every night to promote autophagy
• 5-9 servings of vegetables/day to get enough fiber and antioxidants
• 4-6 different colors of food/day to obtain different polyphenols
• 1-2 servings of omega-3 fatty acids per day to decrease inflammation and preserve cells
• Make snacks pure protein and/or fat sources to reduce insulin secretion
• Create clear boundaries around processed foods per day and eating out per week
Hopefully, it is evident that preserving lean muscle mass is vital in adulthood because doing so will naturally keep metabolism higher.
To maintain muscle mass, it is important for adults to practice strength or resistance training. It does not need to be fancy like pilates classes or super intense like cross-fit to benefit. Simply doing bodyweight exercises or using some dumbbells is sufficient as long as the programming is smart and includes progressive overload to avoid plateaus.
However, engaging in some aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, swimming or dance is also effective. It is important for balancing caloric intake and maintaining heart and lung function.
An example of an effective weekly workout plan is:
• Sunday - Walk 30-60 minutes
• Monday - 6-8 sets of 10-15 repetitions of leg exercises (squats, deadlifts, donkey kicks, etc.)
• Tuesday - Rest day
• Wednesday - Walk on an incline for 30-45 minutes
• Thursday - 6-8 sets of 10-15 repetitions of upper body exercises (shoulder press, bench press, pull-ups, bicep curls, etc.)
• Friday - Rest day
• Saturday - 6-8 sets of 10-15 repetitions of full-body exercises (lunges, goblet squats, lateral shoulder flies, tricep pulls, etc.)
Get Enough Good Quality Sleep
Sleep tends to be an underrated factor related to weight gain. People don’t understand how much undersleeping dysregulates hormones that help balance metabolism. But alas, if sleep is not optimized, weight gain is common, and losing weight is difficult.
Undersleeping typically increases the hunger hormone ghrelin and also disrupts cortisol and insulin, which help regulate blood sugar. Thus, not sleeping enough essentially creates the perfect environment for increased calorie consumption and fat storage.
To get the recommended 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep per night, try the following:
• Finish your last meal 3-4 hours before bedtime
• Stop drinking water a couple of hours before bed
• Drink calming teas like chamomile or lavender
• Use lavender essential oils
• Avoid blue light 2-3 hours before bed
• Take helpful supplementation like magnesium glycinate, melatonin, or lavender essential oil
• Reduce stress and only do enjoyable activities after dinner
Hydration is perhaps even more important in adulthood. Not only does plain water bolster cells, but it also helps maintain bowel regularity and flush out inflammatory toxins which can all affect weight.
If getting enough H2O is difficult, try the following tips to drink more water daily:
• Fill up a huge water bottle first thing in the morning
• Get a water bottle with reminders to drink
• Drink with a straw
• Replace soda with sparkling water
• Drink a cup of water before drinking other choices
• Sip water during workouts
Maintain Relationships and Connections
Interestingly enough, maintaining relationships through late adulthood promotes good health. Adults who have close relationships with others are more likely to exercise or be active with each other, learn new cooking methods and recipes, and even journey through creating a healthier lifestyle together.
In terms of healthy lifestyle habits, maintaining connections increases accountability, motivation, and drive.
The Bottom Line
The normal biological process of aging creates enough obstacles as is, but gaining weight can be an especially frustrating side effect. However, while many people truly believe unnecessary weight gain is inescapable, this is not based on fact.
In reality, there are many aging and older adults who easily maintain a healthy body weight range. They typically do so by practicing healthful habits like exercising consistently, eating plenty of fiber, lean protein, and healthy fats, prioritizing connection and mindfulness, and, most importantly, not believing that gaining weight as they age is written in the stars.
While some weight gain for an aging adult can actually be protective against mortality, gaining too much weight in late adulthood often increases the risk for health complications like diabetes and heart attack.
Learn how to cultivate a meaningful life with health-promoting habits to avoid the dreaded weight gain as you age!
Fisher D. Aging Weight Gain. Tufts Medical Center. Published January 2020. https://www.tuftsmedicalcenter.org/news-events-media/news/web/20-in-2020/the-weighting-game.
Karolinska Institutet. Why People Gain Weight as They Get Older. ScienceDaily. Published September 9, 2019. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/09/190909193211.htm.
Lawler M. 5 Reasons It's Harder to Lose Weight with Age and What to Do About It. Everyday Health. Reviewed June 27, 2019. https://www.everydayhealth.com/weight/weight-gain-and-aging.aspx.