Is Aging to Blame for Weight Gain?
Here, the real cause of weight gain — and what you can do about it
Alas, age isn’t the only thing that increases with each birthday. Call it “middle age spread” or “menopot”, but you may have noticed the number on the scale creeping up over the years. The weight gain — especially where we gain it — can negatively impact our health.
You’ve likely heard the aging process is partly to blame. Rather, that our metabolism — the process by which we break down fuel into the energy our body uses — slows down as we get older. If that’s the case, is there anything we can do about it?
Does our metabolism slow down — or is it something else?
There are many reasons people gain weight, and the interconnected factors can be complex. However, when it comes to our metabolism experts say it does slow by about 2-5 per cent every decade after we turn 30. It’s easy to imagine someone gradually turning down the dial on a machine. When the machine isn’t doing its job as effectively, there are going to be more leftovers — in this case, calories that get stored as fat. Nothing we can do about that, right?
Wrong, say experts. It’s true our cells’ mitochondria (the part that supplies the energy) can slow a little as we age, but the real culprit is something else. Our metabolism is linked to the amount of muscle we have. It’s a complex process, but the more lean muscle mass we have, the more calories we’ll burn.
Unfortunately, muscle mass is something that decreases as we age. In fact, experts at Johns Hopkins estimate we lose about half of our muscle mass between ages 20 and 90. That’s a pretty big time span, but a lot of the loss occurs between the ages of 50 and 70. Less muscle mass means we need fewer calories.
Ways to fight the weight gain
Like it or not, our bodies are going to change as we age, and some influences aren’t easy to overcome — like our genes and hormone changes. The good news is we can make lifestyle choices to help.
Here are some ways experts say we can give our metabolism and our waist lines a helping hand:
– Exercise. Let’s start with the obvious: we need to get moving in order to burn calories and keep our muscles strong. Current guidelines from Health Canada and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) recommend that adults get a total of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week — or about 30 minutes most days of the week. Examples of moderate activities include a brisk walk or bicycling, while vigorous activities make you work a little harder — like cross country skiing, swimming or jogging.
If your activity is more towards the light to moderate side, some experts say to increase the amount of activity to as much as 60 minutes — especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
– Build muscle. When it comes to muscle mass, it’s a “use it or lose it” situation — and cardiovascular exercise isn’t enough. Experts recommend that muscle and bone strengthening activities should be part of our fitness routines — at least twice a week and including all major groups, says the CSEP. As we gain more muscle, we’ll burn more calories because the body uses more energy to maintain muscle than it does to maintain fat.
However, the benefits don’t end there: strong muscles mean improved strength and endurance, and they’ll protect us from injury as well as support our joints.
– Keep moving. Experts say the more we move, the better — and that’s in addition to regular exercise and strength training. Consider this permission to tap your toes along with the radio, or pace the floor while you’re on the phone. (Headsets are a boon!) While fidgeting won’t replace your exercise routine, people who do it burn more calories.
Recent studies have also shown that too much sitting can be deadly. The human body was made to move, say researchers.
– Eat breakfast. Consider it your metabolism’s wake up call to go back into calorie burning mode. When we skip breakfast — or any other meal of the day, for that matter — experts think the body may conserve calories because it won’t know when to expect more fuel. In other words, we’re more likely to convert calories into fat. Skipping meals can lead us to overeat at other meals. (See Healthy breakfasts in a hurry.)
– Eat more frequently. Smaller meals throughout the day can also be a boon rather than relying on “three squares”. For instance, save your serving of fruit from breakfast or lunch for a snack instead. Some experts believe this will help keep your metabolism running well throughout the day. Beside, we need a healthy, balanced diet to ensure we’re losing fat, not muscle.
Another bonus: many people find “grazing” to be more satisfying and consequently consume less.
– Enjoy lean protein. What we eat can make a difference too. Some studies say that consuming about 30 per cent of our calories from lean sources of protein (like chicken or low-fat dairy) can help boost the metabolism. Protein also helps us feel fuller for longer, and less likely to overeat.