Is weight loss as we age a risk or a benefit? An October 2019 study in the BMJ, which claims there's a link between weight loss and the risk of premature death, has caused a lot of buzz and confusion on this topic. But don't toss your weight-loss goals aside just yet, experts say.
"It's never too late to lose weight, especially if you have a health indication for it," Avigdor Arad, PhD, director of Mount Sinai Health System's PhysioLab, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
For those who are overweight, weight loss — and fat loss specifically — at any age is important to reduce the risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). And the benefits of reaching a healthy weight don't stop there! Maintaining healthy weight loss can improve energy levels, physical mobility, general mood and self-confidence.
The October 2019 BMJ study evaluated 36,000 people age 40 and older, and asked them to share their weight at age 25 and then again at 10 years prior to study enrollment. The main flaw in the study: The researchers didn't account for the difference between intentional weight loss and unintentional weight loss. Which means there's no way to know if someone lost weight due to a medical condition or because they were actively seeking weight loss.
"The study has a lot of limitations, and these data points matter when determining cause and effect in a study," says Arad. "If you have a chronic condition that's causing the weight loss, that's a problem and that can skew the statistics."
But the idea that it's not good to lose fat as we get older just doesn't hold any water, Rand McClain, DO, a family medicine and sports medicine doctor, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It does get more difficult to drop weight as you age, though."
Why? Normal age-related factors, such as a loss of muscle mass and a decreased metabolism can impact weight loss, he says. And as you age, it can also be difficult to change long-standing, negative lifestyle habits or unhealthy aspects of the environment where you live.
Still, weight loss for older individuals is healthy and doable. Here, experts share five ways to achieve weight loss as you age.
5 Tips for Losing Weight Later in Life
1. Ditch Fad Diets
Instead of falling for the latest craze, remember that weight loss can and should happen at a slow-and-steady pace. The CDC suggests gradually adding in vegetables, reducing processed foods, cutting back on carbs and adding more lean proteins to your diet.
2. Sleep Is King
Pay more attention to your nightly hours of slumber — it might help you maintain a healthy weight! A November 2014 study published in the journal Obesity found that adults who got four hours of sleep per night versus adults who got 10 hours had a lower resting metabolic rate and were at heightened risk for weight gain and obesity.
"For the older generation, there's not an understanding that sleep and rest is an important component to let your body recover," says McClain.
Another study, published September 2019 in the Journal of Lipid Research, found that sleep restriction, even just for a few days, can alter how we metabolize fats and changes how satisfied we are by a meal.
3. Find the Fun in Functional Fitness
Your daily indoor cycling class is a great habit to continue, but if you're dormant the rest of the day, then it's basically a wash, says McClain.
The fix: Add functional movements into your lifes. What does that mean? Peruse the aisles of the grocery store instead of getting your groceries delivered, clean your house instead of paying for a cleaning service or walk to your favorite lunch spot instead of driving five minutes. "It's important for your muscles and joints to continuously stay active throughout the day," says McClain. Plus, you'll burn extra calories!
4. Pump Some Iron
A big issue as we age is the fact that our bodies don't hold onto muscle like they did when we were younger, says McClain. As you age, muscle tissue shrinks and you lose muscle mass, a process called sarcopenia.
One study, published in the February 2014 Muscles, Ligament, and Tendons Journal, showed a decline in muscle strength in adults age 40 and older versus 40 and younger that ranged from 14 to 60 percent.
How to counteract this loss? Hit the weight rack at the gym. Strength training offers the benefits of exercise while preserving muscle mass — plus, it can help maintain metabolism, says McClain. "If you're inactive and lose that muscle mass as you get older, you also run the risk of falls and having a lack of mobility."
5. Boost Your Protein Intake
Adding more protein-rich foods to your diet can also help maintain muscle mass as you age and can maintain metabolism, according to a November 2014 study in the Journal of Nutrition & Metabolism.
Adult men should aim to consume about 56 grams of protein per day, while adult women should get 46 grams, according to the National Institutes of Health. Stock up on these lean, protein-packed foods: legumes, eggs, chicken, seafood, nuts and seeds.
- BMJ: "Weight change across adulthood in relation to all cause and cause specific mortality: prospective cohort study"
- Obesity: "Resting metabolic rate varies by race and by sleep duration"
- Journal of Nutrition & Metabolism: "A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats"
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: "Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight"
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: "Losing Weight"
- Journal of Lipid Research: "Four nights of sleep restriction suppress the postprandial lipemic response and decrease satiety"
- Muscles, Ligament, and Tendons Journal: "Strength and muscle mass loss with aging process. Age and strength loss"
- National Institutes of Health: "Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Total Water and Macronutrients"