The trade-off between eating right and exercise shifts as we age. So what is the new correct balance of self-denial at the table and self-punishment on the treadmill?
Once again, Oprah is ahead of the curve. Or curves, in this case. When the then 62-year-old mogul announced that she had lost 40 pounds on Weight Watchers (she holds a stake in the company and is its spokesperson), she was openly advocating the idea of moderation. She also simultaneously saved the world from gluten-shunners, as her slogan “I love bread!” went viral, and share values of the once-floundering company shot up.
This sensible approach to weight loss comes from the same woman who in 1988 carted 67 pounds of animal fat onstage to graphically demonstrate what she lost on a liquid diet, which messed up her metabolism, and she gained it all back. Looking back from her mellower, wiser perch today, she views that youthful stunt as “one of the worst mistakes” of her professional life, a showy fit of ego.
As we age, we gain weight, a function of our changing metabolic needs. We also lose muscle mass. And after 40, each decade seems to bring more baggage around the midsection. And baggage that is harder to lose: what we used to do to maintain our weight in our youth is no longer effective. So what is the new correct balance of self-denial at the table and self-punishment on the treadmill to get us back to our youthful svelte selves?
The past few decades have favoured extreme fixes. Back in the day, same as now, Oprah has always embodied the prevailing ethos. Oh, the yo-yo of fad diets—South Beach! Atkins! Miracle cabbage soup! Mediterranean! Paleo!—we have embraced as the latest greatest magic bullet. At the gym, Oprah was also known for her Type A approach, running marathons and sharing the gory details of her workouts; she brought the boot-camp concept into our collective consciousness. So what are we to make of modern Oprah now embracing the simple goal of taking 10,000 steps each day and getting some fresh air while doing it?
In a study released last fall by McMaster University, Dr. Russell de Souza of the department of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics concluded that improving your diet is indeed more effective than exercising in losing weight as we age. But he adds that the real secret is “patience and persistence” and that just like with the planet and the economy, the goal here is sustainability, and that means the best approach is a balanced combo of diet and exercise. “It took some time to put on those pounds and it’s going to take some time to take them off in a way that’s healthy and will keep them off!” he says on the university’s blog.
Strength training is the key to keeping bones strong, and to losing weight, Greenberg says, because the more lean muscle you have, the more you burn calories both in action and at rest. It is like a diet booster. A fan of the tortoise in this race, Greenberg says not to set outrageous goals: “If you want to lose 30 pounds, lose one pound 30 times or you are setting yourself up for failure.”
There is a commonly held belief that you can’t gain muscle mass after age 60. Researchers at the University of Alabama recently debunked that myth, proving that, with weight training, study subjects in their 60s and 70s developed muscles comparable to a 40-year-old. It is just the process that is different: older adults who remain sedentary, according to the study, will lose 30 to 40 per cent of the number of fibres in their muscles by age 80. Further fibres “shrink and atrophy.” So what you are actually doing with strength training after 60 is revitalizing and growing those shrunk and atrophied fibres. But, as he says, “Who cares?” Muscles are muscles and adding to them will make not just your body tighter and slimmer but they become an engine to help you burn more calories both at work and at rest.
“Muscle is trainable at any age,” says Daniel Moore, an assistant professor at the department of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. “We are less responsive to exercise when we are older than when we are young. But even the oldest old, in their 10th decade, can benefit from proper exercise. As we get older, we tend to move less, and our metabolism naturally slows down.”
He adds something that anyone over 40 will nod their head to: “There is no tipping point. It just sort of sneaks up on you.”
Perhaps more importantly, Moore says research shows that exercise can reduce depression and maintain cognitive function, which helps conquer the hardest (and often unarticulated) component of weight gain: emotional eating. Oprah herself identifies as “a food addict.”