As the years add up, so do the pounds, it seems. Even if you maintain the same diet and the same physical activity level, you may still see the number on the scale creep up as you age.
Adults in the U.S. gain an average of 1 pound per year, according to a September 2019 study in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health. And while that doesn't sound like much, it can add up over the decades, increasing your risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.
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Why We Gain Weight as We Age
1. Slower Metabolism
With age, our bodies tend to burn calories at a slower rate, according to Piedmont Healthcare. In fact, the speed at which we break down food decreases by about 10 percent for each decade after age 20.
Most people tend to blame a slowed-down metabolism for age-related weight gain. But that's not the whole story, says dietitian Megan Wong, RD.
2. Loss of Muscle Mass
"The problem is, we naturally lose muscle mass as we age," Wong tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Muscle is more metabolically active than fat. This means that if there are two people both at rest, the person with more muscle mass will be burning off more calories."
Indeed, people generally start to lose lean tissue and gain fat after age 30, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Older people may have about one-third more body fat compared to when they were younger, and this fat tends to accumulate around the belly.
3. Less Physical Activity
Nearly a third of adults older than 50 are physically inactive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When we move less, we burn fewer calories.
The recommendation for all adults is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (think: walking, biking) each week.
4. Hormone Changes
Changing hormones also play a role in age-related weight gain. For people assigned male at birth, the years come with a drop in testosterone, according to Harvard Health Publishing, which causes the body to lose muscle and gain fat.
Estrogen in those assigned female at birth also decreases with age, per the North American Menopause Society. This lack of estrogen causes the body to hold on to fat in the least desirable place — the midsection.
With all that said, age-related weight gain isn't totally inevitable. Here are five simple things you can do to help prevent it.
How to Stop Weight Gain With Age
1. Get More Sleep
A good night's rest does wonders, including improving your metabolism and hunger levels, according to Wong. The Mayo Clinic recommends adults get seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night. Most adults, however, are hardly getting that, especially as more life happens.
"Unfortunately, as we get older, we tend to have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep," Wong says.
About 1 in 3 Americans don't get enough sleep. Such sleep deprivation is linked to reduced insulin sensitivity, which causes insulin-resistant hunger and leads to overeating and weight gain, according to Wong. The National Sleep Foundation recommends sticking to a sleep schedule, exercising regularly, turning off electronics before bed and avoiding caffeine at night to help you catch better shut-eye.
2. Count Those Calories
"We need to take a step back and assess our eating habits. Are we still snacking on processed foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt? Do we eat whatever we want whenever we want?" Wong says. As we age, it's more important than ever to make every calorie count, she adds. That means making nutritious choices as often as possible and staying away from empty-calorie foods like chips, soda and sweets.
User-friendly apps can help take some of the guesswork out of planning meals by suggesting healthy foods based on your recommended calorie goal. Balancing the number of calories you consume and the number of calories you burn will help keep your weight stable despite the effects of age.
3. Snack Sensibly
Nuts are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber to keep you feeling full between meals. Despite the fact that nuts are also high in fat and calorie-dense, they are excellent little snacks for weight control.
The September 2019 study in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health found that increasing any type of nut consumption by just half a serving of nuts, or about a half ounce, per day is linked to less weight gain over time.
In other words, snacking on a handful of nutrient-dense nuts as opposed to chips and other processed and refined snacks may help curb the scale creep associated with aging.
As a bonus, eating raw nuts twice a week is associated with a 17 percent lower risk of death from heart disease, according to the European Society of Cardiology.
4. Release the Stress
With age comes a little wisdom and a lot of stress. According to Harvard Health Publishing, our bodies have a harder time recovering from stress as we age. This makes it harder to maintain a healthy weight for a variety of reasons.
"Not only can stress cause you to have poor sleep quality or make poor dietary choices, it can also increase levels of a hormone called cortisol," says Wong. High cortisol levels are linked to increased abdominal fat, reduced insulin sensitivity, inflammation, indigestion and more — all of which can contribute to weight gain.
Studies have shown that stress management can help with weight management. In a small December 2018 study in the Journal of Molecular Biochemistry, 45 adults with obesity were enrolled in an eight-week healthy lifestyle intervention. The participants who were concurrently enrolled in a stress-management program had a significantly lower body mass index at the end than the group without the stress intervention.
Nicholas Rizzo, personal trainer and fitness director for RunRepeat.com, emphasizes taking time for yourself to counteract the stressful lives many of us lead.
"Whether it is a personal hobby, community-oriented or activities with friends or family, finding time to enjoy yourself will help reduce your stress levels and improve your overall life satisfaction," he says.
5. Start Strength Training
"When you mention weight loss, most people drop the weights and dash over to the closest cardio machine," Jackie Wilson, certified personal trainer and founder of NOVA Fitness, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "However, resistance training is one of the best ways to combat age-related weight gain."
Remember, the natural loss of muscle mass with age is one of the major culprits of age-related weight creep. Build more muscle, and in turn burn more calories, by adopting a resistance training regimen.
Wong recommends working out different muscle groups, with sets of eight to 12 repetitions, at least twice a week.
"If the gym and dumbbells aren't your style, that's OK! Use anything that resists your movement, like resistance bands, a milk jug filled with water or even your own body weight," she says.
Squats, burpees, push-ups and pull-ups using the body's own resistance are some of the most effective weight-training exercises for weight loss.
So, while you can't control aging, you can adjust your physical activity to help control how your body responds to it.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Treating low testosterone levels"
- The North American Menopause Society: "Midlife Weight Gain—Sound Familiar? You’re Not Alone"
- Mayo Clinic: "How many hours of sleep are enough for good health?"
- National Sleep Foundation: "NSF Tool to Get the Right Amount of Sleep"
- BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health: "Changes in nut consumption influence long-term weight change in US men and women"
- European Society of Cardiology: "Eating nuts linked with lower risk of fatal heart attack and stroke"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How stress affects seniors, and how to manage it"
- Journal of Molecular Biochemistry: "Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Adults Need More Physical Activity"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Aging changes in body shape"