Why we gain weight as we age
Those days of sporting a six pack despite eating pizza and burgers are long gone. So what changed?
A lot of my clients will tell me: “You know, I used to be able to eat what I wanted and as long as I worked out I wasn’t gaining weight.” My response is usually something along the lines of: Let me guess, that was back when you were in your twenties, right?
The reality is that poor eating will generally lead to weight gain at any age – even if you work out – but there is a percentage of the population that can get away with unhealthy eating and manage to keep the weight off. Well, at least until they get a bit older. Usually you get the free pass until you are in your late twenties or early thirties, and then that once fit and toned body starts to change shape. Gone are the six pack and the v-shaped torso, replaced by a layer of fat that just continues to get thicker as the years go by.
There are many factors that can contribute to the weight gain and muscle loss that comes with aging, but it is usually a combination of the gradual lifestyle changes we make over the years coupled with the body’s biological changes that come with aging itself.
Negative lifestyle changes affecting weight are for the most part quite obvious. These include a much more sedentary routine as we spend more and more of our days seated, larger meal sizes while still eating a diet high in simple carbs and sugars, increased alcohol intake, less sleep and lower quality of sleep, greater stress levels that come with family and career responsibilities, and so on.
Biological factors are much more varied and can be highly complex. These include muscle cell loss which leads to less muscle and more fat, depleted hormone levels which have a domino effect on body fat levels and muscle mass, decrease in the body’s metabolic rate which is essentially the amount of energy used in a given period (as it relates to weight, the same amount of energy burns less calories) – and much much more. Suffice it to say that the long list of potential biological factors are due to the altered physiology of the body that is part of the aging process.
Tips to reverse the trend
Is the continued slow and steady “weight gain creep” inevitable? Of course not. The first step in reversing the trend is to acknowledge the reality: You were not lean when you were young simply because of good living – you were that way because you were genetically lucky and biological factors were in your favor (primarily healthy hormone levels). Now that those advantages have run their course, it’s time for an approach based on your new reality. Here are the five most important things I share with my clients to help them keep a healthy weight over the years:
1. Diet: The word “diet” is generally used to refer to a way of eating that will lead to a weight loss goal of say 10 kilos over a certain time period. That does not work over the long term because when the goal is met bad eating habits are generally resumed. It really comes down to eating the right foods always – and there should be no timeframe on that. Adopt the Paleo Diet and stick closely to it.
2. Exercise: How much does exercise make a difference? On its own, not a lot, but coupled with good eating, proper sleep, and stress management – in other words, healthy and balanced lifestyle choices – it will play a role in keeping you lean and those muscles toned. If you are new to working out, I advise getting a trainer for the first few weeks so you can get an idea of what type of exercises you should do and how frequently you should do them. Most important: Find a schedule you can manage consistently. Better to do 20 minutes a day and stick to it rather than aim to do two hours a day and never even get the program off the ground.
3. Alcohol: The effect alcohol has on weight gain is not explained simply by counting the high number of calories in that drink. Alcohol goes to work on the body in so many other ways, including: The body gives priority to metabolizing alcohol, meaning while the body is dealing with alcohol it is unable to properly break down foods which may in turn be converted into body fat and stored; it raises cortisol levels, and too much of this hormone can lead to weight gain; it inhibits lipid oxidation, making it harder for your body to burn the extra fat you are already carrying; it stimulates the appetite, leading to overeating. These factors are just the tip of the iceberg. I have no problem with my clients drinking alcohol, but moderation is key. Keep it to a few drinks a week.
4. Stress management: This includes getting proper sleep, having balanced working hours, minimizing personal and professional conflict, and so on. Among other things, stress can have a negative effect on a number of the body’s hormones that regulate weight. While it is impossible to avoid stress, commit to making stress management planning a part of your overall health regimen.
5. Hormones: Starting at age 30 hormone levels in the human body start to drop a few percentage points a year. Many hormones in the male body have an effect on weight and muscle tone, including testosterone, progesterone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), leptin, thyroid, and human growth hormone (HGH). I always carry out a complete hormone map of my clients when I suspect hormone imbalance, and where necessary I prescribe bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (never synthetic). Usually within weeks of beginning the therapy the fat starts to drop off and muscle tone increases.
It is important to be happy with your appearance. But that means different things for different people, and I like to remind my clients that none of this is a contest. Your goal is to ensure a healthy mind and body, and an improved physical appearance is simply a byproduct of a good health management program. Staying healthy on the inside and outside is 90% in your control. Treat your body like the temple it is, and with or without that six pack you will be doing great.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.