Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How to Lose Weight as a Senior

Getting More Physical Activity as a Senior

If you're determined to succeed at losing weight, simply cutting calories won't guarantee success. Physical activity is as essential to achieving long-term weight loss as a healthful diet, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). By themselves, neither exercise nor diet can get you to your goal as effectively or as fast as the two of them can together. That's especially true for people over age 50.

Not only is physical activity essential for weight-loss success, the NIH says it's an important factor in maintaining your weight once you've lost the extra pounds. Take comfort in the NIH's use of the words "physical activity," not "exercise."

The message is that you can win the weight-loss game with many different kinds of physical activity. You don't have to do killer aerobics and lift heavy weights at a gym to drop pounds and keep them off. But you do have to do something, and you have to do it regularly.

Anti-Aging Bonus

Researchers have recently learned that regular physical activity can have a powerful effect on age-related declines in metabolism. One study out of Tufts University Center for Physical Fitness found that strength training by itself increased the metabolic rate of postmenopausal women by 15 percent. Not much, you say?

If the boost translates to only 100 calories a day, which is a realistic expectation, you could save yourself from putting on an extra 10 pounds in a year. Regular exercise offers a trifecta of good health: It burns calories, builds muscle, and improves your overall health. Experts on aging say that the body is better able to repair itself and perform efficiently if it is properly conditioned by exercise and good nutrition.

And the calorie-burning rewards of exercise are not limited to your workout time. Some research suggests that your revved up metabolic rate stays elevated for several hours after you stop exercising.

While weight management may be your number one priority now, think fitness not thinness. Just look at all the other health bonuses experts attribute to being physically active:

Regular physical activity reduces your risk of developing:

It also can reduce the symptoms of:

And it boosts and builds:

So how should you get started? It doesn't matter how you begin, just get moving! Any activity is better than vegetating in front of the television. Look for every opportunity you can to stand instead of sit, walk instead of drive, or run instead of walk. Turn your everyday activities into opportunities for physical activity, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Make movement a routine part of your everyday life.

Triad of Physical Activity

Recent research has found that when it comes to exercise, you need a combination of three types to reap the most health benefits -- weight training for strength, aerobic exercise for strength and endurance, and calisthenics (stretching, bending, and twisting exercises) for flexibility.

Studies have found that extreme physical exertion is no more useful to gaining and maintaining fitness than is moderate exercise. What's more, you place yourself at risk for injury or a heart attack if you're not already in good physical shape. So start off slowly and increase your activity gradually. Get your doctor's okay before beginning a new physical activity if you haven't exercised in years or have a medical condition.

The Benefits of Walking

One of the easiest ways to get physically active is to walk at a pace that makes you breathe a little harder and work up a mild sweat for 30 minutes to 1 hour three days a week. This kind of walking will keep your heart, lungs, and vascular system in good working order and strengthen your bones and muscles.

If you just don't have time for a 30-minute walk each day, experts say that walking about 10,000 steps a day (the equivalent of about five miles) while doing your normal activities should keep you fit.

Haven't a clue how much walking that is? Try using a pedometer. It's a small battery-operated gizmo about the size of a matchbox that you attach to your waist so it can monitor your every step. By keeping track of your movements all day, you can easily see how far you've gone and how far you have yet to go to reach your goal.

Swim Your Way to Fitness

If you have arthritis that makes some movements painful, swimming is an excellent way to get aerobically fit. It offers some of the same benefits as walking or other aerobic exercises without putting stress on joints that may be unable to repair themselves like healthy joints would. The one benefit swimming can't provide, however, is strengthening bones because it is not a weight-bearing exercise.

Wieght Training for Seniors

If you think lifting weights is just for 20-somethings in spandex, think again. It's a little-appreciated fact that muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue does, even when at rest. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn.

Since muscle mass declines with age -- typically about five percent per decade beginning in your late twenties or early thirties -- it's to your advantage to try to increase your muscle mass through strength training. The older you get, the greater the potential benefit. So, as the saying goes, use it or lose it.

Research from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently confirmed that the gradual loss of muscle mass that occurs with age means a decreasing need for calories -- and sometimes a creeping weight gain if you don't lower your calorie intake. The more you can do to minimize the effect of muscle loss, whether it's due to age, inactivity, or both, the easier weight loss will be.

But before you start trying to bench-press your own body weight, it's important to distinguish between true weight lifting and strength training. Weight lifting is about bulking up so you can lift heavy weights swiftly. Strength training, on the other hand, is about firming by repeatedly lifting weights in a very slow, controlled way.

It's a good idea when you first get started to have a trainer show you exactly how it should be done to avoid injury. Your training can be done with free weights, such as barbells, or with specially designed equipment that works specific parts of the body.

You should do a set number of repetitions with each exercise as you slowly progress to your goal. Muscle strengthening exercises should be done for at least 20 minutes, three times a week.

Where to Get Started

Don't want to fork over the cash for a high-class health club? Many kinds of organizations, such as the YMCA and YWCA, junior colleges and universities, senior and community centers, and adult and continuing education programs, offer inexpensive classes in sports, exercise, dance, and weight training.

The instructors in these classes can help you get the most benefit from exercise while avoiding injury. Attend with a friend; you're more likely to stick with it if you know you have a partner waiting for you.

When you're increasing your physical activity, don't drastically cut your calorie intake. Of course, you have to cut calories to lose weight -- just don't get carried away. Fewer than 1,600 calories a day may not leave you with enough energy to make it through a regular day, much less a day filled with more physical activity than you're used to.

And make sure 40 to 60 percent of those calories come from carbohydrates, the chief power source for your body and your brain. Diets that ban carbohydrates could leave you with a power-draining energy deficit.

Do You Need More Protein?

It's a myth that you need more protein if you're going to be more active and build muscle. Only serious athletes require more protein than the rest of us, and even then it's not a lot more. Most of us can get all the protein we need in a day -- about 46 to 56 grams -- from about five ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish, plus two to three 8-ounce glasses of low-fat milk.

Of course, there are other good dietary sources of protein that you can also use to fill your protein needs. So, don't waste your money on high-protein shakes that promise to bulk you up. Best advice? Be physically active and start a strength-training routine.

To learn more about senior health, see:

Densie Webb, Ph.D., R.D. is the author of seven books, including Foods for Better Health, The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!, and Super Nutrition After 50. Webb also writes about health and nutrition for numerous magazines, including Family Circle, Fitness, Parade, Men's Fitness, and Redbook. She is a regular columnist for Woman's Day and Prevention magazines, a contributing writer for The New York Times, the associate editor of Environmental Nutrition newsletter, and a writer for the American Botanical Council.

Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D. is a nutrition consultant and writer. She is the author or co-author of five books, including Super Nutrition After 50 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Ward is a contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition newsletter and a contributing writer for She also writes for publications such as Parenting magazine and The Boston Globe.