It's time for some straight talk: You weigh more than you did ten years ago, or even five years ago. The extra pounds didn't arrive all at once but accumulated gradually before you even realized they were climbing on board. Now you're looking at some serious extra poundage. But that's to be expected as you get older, right? Wrong.
Putting on excess weight is very common for a number of reasons that we'll explain. But it's not an inevitable part of the aging process, and it could put your health at risk. If you understand why you tend to gain weight more easily as you get older, you can do something about it. And doing something about it is what this book is all about.
You can blame a lot of your weight gain on your metabolism. Beginning as early as your mid-twenties, body fat begins to increase while muscle mass decreases. And less muscle mass translates into a slower metabolic rate.
Muscle mass decreases from about 45 percent of your total body weight in your youth to about 27 percent by the time you reach age 70. And the drop in hormones that accompanies menopause also precipitates a decrease in muscle mass, triggering even more weight gain for women. Your body fat, meanwhile, can double, even if your weight remains the same.
The bottom line is that you burn fewer calories in your 50s, 60s, or 70s doing the same activities, and the same number of them, that you did in your 20s, 30s, or 40s. The key to preventing weight gain is to compensate by adjusting your food intake, exercising, and generally becoming more physically active.
Now that you have made the decision to lose weight, it's time to figure how much weight you need to lose. Continue to the next page to assess your weight as a senior.
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Assessing Your Weight as a Senior
The best way to determine if you're carrying around too much weight (and probably not enough muscle) is to calculate your body mass index (BMI). BMI is just one indicator of good health, but it's a good place to start. A lower BMI indicates you're more likely to be healthy.
Here's how to figure your BMI:
- Weigh yourself first thing in the morning, without clothes.
- Measure your height in inches.
- Multiply your weight in pounds by 700.
- Divide the answer in #3 by your height.
- Divide the answer in #4 by your height again.
- The answer in #5 is your BMI.
What Your BMI Means:
- 18.5 or less is underweight
- 18.5-24.9 is a healthy weight
- 25-29.9 is overweight
- 30 or more is obese
Knowing how many calories you need each day is another important piece of information that will help you manage your weight. Most experts say that 2,000 to 2,600 calories a day should meet the energy needs of men older than 50 who are lightly to moderately active.
For women over 50 who are lightly to moderately active, 1,600 to 1,800 calories a day should do it. However, these are just ballpark figures. Individual calorie needs can differ greatly depending on muscle mass, physical activity, and genetic differences.
On page 40 you'll find a guide for calculating your calorie needs if you're lightly to moderately active (you're not a couch potato but you don't work out five times a week at the gym, either). You'll need 20 percent to 30 percent more calories if you're very physically active (you regularly participate in competitive sports, run, or go to exercise classes or the gym and spend little time just sitting and watching TV or reading).
While it's true that the more calories you cut, the quicker you'll lose, don't make the mistake of cutting back too much. If you go too low (below 1,600 calories a day), you won't get enough nutrients, you'll be fatigued, and your body will simply compensate by slowing its metabolic rate even further so that each calorie is used as efficiently as possible.
A slower metabolic rate means that your food sacrifices won't amount to the weight loss you expected: You'll have sacrificed for little reward.
For men: Multiply your goal or ideal weight by 13.5 to get your daily calorie needs. For women: Multiply your goal or ideal weight by 13.2 to get your daily calorie needs.
So you've figured out how much weight you need to lose. The next step is to come up with a weight-loss plan. Continue to the next section to prepare to lose weight as as a senior.
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Preparing to Lose Weight as a Senior
Managing your weight doesn't just mean counting calories and figuring out your BMI. It also means taking control of your emotions and your food cravings. Most of us discover sooner or later that its usually emotions and cravings (sometimes triggered by emotions), not an insatiable appetite, that make us overeat.
If you uncover the triggers that make you overeat and learn how to manage them, you'll have won half the weight-loss battle. Just be sure the coping techniques you develop are those you can live with. If they aren't, you won't stick with them.
Though there is research suggesting that some cravings may have a biological origin, most are brought on by out-of-control emotions or situations. Here are a few common emotional triggers and tips for gaining control over them.
If anger (especially suppressed anger) sends you seeking comfort food, then you're managing your anger by overeating. While food may seem like your most dependable source of comfort, it ultimately leaves you more out of sorts than before. Face the source of your anger head on. Once you've done that, it's less likely to blow up and compel you to eat -- and overeat.
Stress, no matter what its source, is a common trigger for overeating. Ask yourself, do you reach for chocolate-chip ice cream every time your nosy neighbor calls? Do you pack away the potato chips every time you balance your checkbook? You can't eliminate these triggers from your life, but you can try to reduce the anxiety.
First, make sure you get enough sleep. You're more susceptible to stress when you're not rested. Try different relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, reading, or listening to soft music -- whatever works for you. Try to find other, more positive outlets for your stress.
There's nothing on TV tonight, you've already finished reading that novel, and you certainly don't feel like washing dishes or sweeping the kitchen floor. The refrigerator sure looks good right about now! Before you find yourself rummaging through the freezer for ice cream, do whatever it takes to shift the focus away from food.
Take a shower, paint your nails, throw out old newspapers, or take one last look through that magazine before you toss it. Make a list of your favorite diversions and keep them posted on the fridge.
We're talking here about the blue mood that takes hold of everyone now and then. The blues not only prevent us from doing the things we want to do; sometimes they make us do things we'd rather not -- such as overeat. Instead of letting that funk make you overeat, view it as a call to action.
Getting active is one of the best ways for lifting a black cloud. Physical activity may raise levels of endorphins, which are compounds in the brain that promote a sense of well-being, according to John Foreyt, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Any exercise will do, just make it regular.
Yes, it's true. Even happiness can make you fat. Who doesn't feel like celebrating when something good happens? And celebrations often involve food. That doesn't mean you should never celebrate because you might overeat. Just learn to compensate. If you overeat at a celebratory dinner, simply cut back the next day.
Before you can take control of your eating habits, you have to take away the power that food has over you. In the process, you can begin to look at what you put on your plate as a positive power instead of an evil force over which you've lost all control.
The following are tips on "de-powerizing" the role food plays in your life from Marsha Hudnall, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at Green Mountain at Fox Run, the nation's oldest and most respected weight-management retreat for women.
- Think moderation, not elimination. Figure out what's important and what's not. Learn to eat less of the high-fat, high-calorie foods you enjoy the most. Knowing you can still look forward to your favorite foods makes the process something you can live with for a lifetime.
- Eat regularly in response to real hunger. Learn to listen to your body's cues. By eating healthful, balanced meals and snacks when you're hungry, you're less likely to get caught up in out-of-control eating that you'll regret later.
- Say good-bye to calorie counting. Switch your focus from calories to good nutrition. Make your healthful eating changes gradual, so you don't get overwhelmed.
- Picture portions. It's hard to manage your food intake if you don't have a clue what a 1/2 cup serving of pasta looks like or what a 6-ounce glass of juice is. When you start out, measure your food until you've learned to judge portion sizes accurately. If portion sizes start creeping back up, return to measuring and weighing for a while.
- Disconnect with the scale. Don't focus on a number, instead use how you feel and the way your clothes fit to measure success. If you just can't give up the scale, make your weigh-ins less frequent. Weighing yourself once a week is adequate.
In the next section find out how easy it can be to incorporate more physical activity into your current daily routine.
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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.
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.
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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 WebMD.com. She also writes for publications such as Parenting magazine and The Boston Globe.