Even though the way to lose weight (at any age) — eat less, move more — is a no-brainer, the older we get, the harder it is because our metabolism slows, hormone levels drop, we aren't as active and we continue with our lifelong eating habits.
Throughout our more active middle age, society (and even the federal government) has endorsed daily calorie goals — 1,800 for women, 2,200 for men. At age 51, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (choosemyplate.gov) those calorie limits should drop — especially for people who exercise less than 30 minutes a day — to 1,600 calories for women and 2,000 for men.
The percentage of seniors who are overweight "very closely mirrors the general population," according to Dr. Michelle Estevez, assistant professor of medicine at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. About one-third to one-half of Americans are overweight, she said, and about one-third of those are obese. "As we age, there are increases of obesity."
Get moving, ever so slowly
Too much weight or, worse, obesity can lead to all kinds of health problems, from arthritis to dementia.
But we can counteract those changes that make losing weight harder as we age.
Older Americans tend to be less active and more sedentary, with exercise and physical fitness a lesser part of daily life.
As a person get older, the metabolism slows down. "To maintain our weight, as we get older, we need to eat less," Estevez said. "And after 50, women go through menopause and men go through 'andropause,' " she explained.
But there are many steps a person can take to balance out the effects of aging and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
"I recommend people start out (exercising) slowly," said Dr. Angela McClanahan, assistant professor of medicine at USF in the department of cardiovascular medicine. "Even if it's five to 10 minutes a day, up to five days a week, to build up cardiovascular endurance, it's important not to get discouraged."
Arthritis is one of the worst age-related challenges, McClanahan said. "If you're 40 pounds overweight, it's like carrying a 40-pound child with you on your knees."
Excess weight can also lead to higher blood pressure and diabetes, which in turn lead to a higher risk of stroke and heart attack, McClanahan said. Obese people have a higher risk of colorectal and breast cancers.
There are no easy answers for older people who want to lose weight and increase their healthy lifestyles. Both physicians agree that studies, so far, are inconclusive on whether skinny people have a longer life-span.
Healthier, smaller meals
Overeating is a habit, Estevez noted.
"It's not hereditary. You don't get it from your genes," she said. "You get it from how your parents taught you to eat."
Changing that habit, like exercise, takes effort, she said. "The hardest thing is to just to get started — that first time for the long walk or the first time going to the store and buying healthier stuff and actually eating it."
Healthier foods include an emphasis on vegetables, fruits and whole grains "and minimizing red meats," Estevez said, "and reducing carbohydrates from white bread, white flour, white sugar, white pasta."
Eating several small meals during the day is another key to reducing weight, according to McClanahan. Have fruit or vegetables with each meal. And don't eat late at night before going to bed; the body has no time to burn off those calories.
"For most of us working stiffs, three meals a day is what we get," Estevez said. "For people not working, having four or five or six small meals throughout the day is probably better."
Also, McClanahan said, drinking more water every day can reduce appetite and stabilize metabolism. "It's extremely important" that people drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. "Most people in Florida don't maintain that much water intake. It can retard your appetite."
Both doctors agree that alcohol can be counterproductive to losing weight, so moderation is the key here, too.
For some people who are extremely overweight, bariatric surgery may be an option. Such surgery is currently recommended for people with a body mass index over 40, Estevez said. "It's an extreme option," McClanahan echoed. "I have found that it's not a cure-all," she added.
The benefits of weight control and especially exercise can be found throughout a person's life. In fact, for seniors, "physical activity delays the onset of dementia, heart disease (and) diabetes," Estevez said.
"I recommend it to everybody," she said. "Physical activity can reduce how many medicines you have to take. It's never too late."
Fred W. Wright Jr. is a freelance reporter living in Seminole.