How to Lose Weight Safely as You Age

Your metabolism naturally slows over the years, and the numbers on your scale can climb. Here's what to do.

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Weight gain is a common “side effect” of aging.

“Your metabolism gradually slows down,” says Steven Heymsfield, M.D., a researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Sarcopenia, a decrease in muscle tissue that occurs with age, is a likely cause—but not the only one.

“People generally become less active as they get older, even more so if they have orthopedic or other painful health issues,” Heymsfield says. “When you’re not burning as many calories but still eating the same amount, you gradually gain weight.”

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Prescription medications may also play a role. Psychotropic drugs—particularly certain classes of antidepressants and antipsychotics—and corticosteroids (often prescribed for inflammatory diseases) can lead to substantial weight gain.

A few extra pounds might not be a bad thing. In people older than 60, being a little overweight may be beneficial because being underweight increases one’s risk of malnutrition, osteoporosis, and falls. But you don’t want to carry too much extra.

“If you’re very overweight or obese, you’re more likely to develop chronic diseases earlier in life,” Heymsfield says. And obesity makes it more difficult for older people to engage in healthy daily activities.

Small Changes, Big Benefits

You probably don’t have to lose as much weight as you think to improve your health. Simply maintaining a healthy weight—or dropping just a few pounds, if necessary—can be worthwhile.

“Losing just 5 to 8 percent of your weight [about 11 to 17 pounds for a 220-pound person] improves your health and how well you function,” Heymsfield says. The effect can be considerable. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who lost just 7 percent of their weight had a 58 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Getting Started

It’s important to know how to lose weight the right way from the very start. First tip: You can’t just cut calories.

“Unless it’s coupled with an exercise program, weight loss will result in muscle loss,” Heymsfield says.

That’s why the best strategy combines calorie-burning, muscle-building exercise along with diet changes. In a study in the journal Obesity, half the people who took a similar approach kept off at least 5 percent of the weight they lost for eight years.

“Changing a diet has to be something you can stick with long-term because if you return to the way you were eating before, you’ll likely gain back the weight,” says Denise K. Houston, R.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

To eat more healthfully, consult our healthy meals for weight loss plan or follow the MyPlate for Older Adults guidelines from Tufts University: Half of every meal should be fruits and vegetables; one-quarter should be grains, such as brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-wheat bread; and one-quarter should be protein (some of it dairy). Use oils and other fats, such as butter, sparingly.

Next, try to eat fewer calories. Simple changes help—such as cutting out sugary drinks, switching from whole to 1 percent or nonfat dairy products, and making half of every meal fruit or vegetables. The National Institutes of Health Body Weight Planner allows you to personalize the number of calories you need to eat to reach your goal weight.

But keep in mind, Houston says, that women need to take in at least 1,200 calories per day; men, at least 1,300.

“When you don’t eat enough calories,” she says, “it’s tough to get all the nutrients your body needs.”

Meet Goals for Nutrients

One must-have to keep in your diet: protein.

“As you age, your body needs more protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis,” Houston says.

Shoot for 0.6 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily. To hit the target, eat beans, dairy, eggs, fish, lean meat, or poultry at each meal. (A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that protein from any source—including plants—was associated with improved muscle health.)

Vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium are also important. Vitamin B12 helps maintain red-blood and nerve cells, and assists in the production of neurotransmitters (chemicals that relay signals between your brain and other parts of your body). It becomes more difficult for the body to absorb B12 with age. For vitamin B12, fortified cereals, seafood, and meat are good sources.

“Vitamin D and calcium are crucial for building and preserving bones, and they may be key for muscle health, too,” Houston says.

Egg yolks contain small amounts of vitamin D, and fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, and tuna are among the best sources. Dairy products are rich in calcium; it’s also found in leafy green vegetables, such as bok choy and kale.

The Exercise Connection

Aerobic activity, such as walking or cycling, is tops for burning calories. For example, walking for half an hour torches about 140 calories, depending on your weight.

Strength training, however, may be more crucial for keeping weight off as you age.

“After midlife, you lose 5 to 10 pounds of muscle per decade, which dramatically reduces how many calories your body burns,” says Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Quincy College in Quincy, Mass. “Resistance training helps offset that loss, and research shows that your resting metabolic rate stays elevated 5 to 9 percent for up to 72 hours after a session.”

That means if you work out with weights only two days out of seven, you’ll reap the rewards of an elevated metabolism all week. Put a routine together with these tips from Westcott.

Design your plan. Choose three lower-body moves (legs and glutes); three for your upper body (back, shoulders, arms, and chest); and two or three for your core (abs and lower back). In Westcott’s research, people did the following exercises: leg extensions, leg curls, leg presses, chest presses, lat pull-downs, shoulder presses, abdominal curls, low-back extensions, and torso rotations. A trainer can guide you, or you can design a routine by using the online library of the American Council on Exercise.

Choose your resistance. Bands, medicine balls, strength-training machines, and free weights such as dumbbells all work equally.

Use enough weight. Do eight to 12 repetitions of each move. If you can’t do eight reps, you’re using too much resistance. When you’re able to do more than 12 reps, add 5 percent more weight.

Repeat the suggested reps of each exercise once. Rest 90 seconds to 2 minutes, then do another set. Do the workout twice a week.

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Jeanine Detz

Jeanine Detz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. She has contributed to Consumer Reports on Health, Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, Men's Health, Parents, and Women's Health on a range of health and lifestyle topics.