The Heavy Truth About Midlife Weight Gain

| Health and Wellness

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Have you noticed, over time, that your weight has steadily crept upwards? Weight gain is a physical change that often comes with aging. While this might distress you, the good news is that you can do something about it.

Many factors play a part in midlife weight gain. As we get older, our physiology changes. Starting around age 30, we begin to lose our lean muscle. With less muscle, we use fewer calories. At the same time, more of the energy that we get from food is stored as fat. You might also notice a redistribution of fat – with more of it accumulating around your waistline.

In the meantime, the body’s metabolism – the amount of energy we burn while at rest – slows down. For women, hormonal changes that accompany menopause (lower estrogen) also contribute to a slower metabolic rate. However, metabolism has less of a role in midlife weight gain than previously thought. What’s the more likely reason for the extra pounds? We become less active as we get older. We also continue to eat the same way we did when we were younger and more active.

Our bodies are less responsive to insulin – the hormone that regulates blood sugar – so we tend to feel hungry more often. We also grow resistant to the hormones that tell us when we’re hungry (ghrelin) and when we’re full (leptin). Talk about mixed signals!

Other weight-boosting factors: genetics (if your relatives have extra weight around their midsection, you likely will, too); inadequate sleep (we snack more to compensate for low energy); unhealthy eating; mental illnesses (depression can make it harder to stay active, and some psychiatric medications can cause significant weight gain); and medication side effects (from steroids, beta-blockers, antihyperglycemic drugs and other treatments). In addition, socioeconomic status, social relationships and other characteristics can have an influence on a person’s health, lifestyle and behaviour.

Why excess weight is unhealthy

Excess body weight is a health crisis in Canada, where 60% of adults are overweight or obese. People who are overweight have a higher risk of various health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain types of cancer.

Adults 18 and older are considered obese if their body mass index (BMI), which is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in metres, squared, is 30 kg/m2 or higher . Critics point out that the BMI formula has limitations; for example, it doesn’t measure a person’s muscle or fat , nor does it consider age or sex (typically, older people have more body fat than younger people, and women have more body fat than men). It also doesn’t consider body composition or where body fat is located (fat around the waist and abdominal organs may pose greater health risks). BMI also does not reflect certain bodies, such as those of athletes (muscle is heavier than fat), children (who are still growing) and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Many health professionals now consider BMI alongside two other factors: waist circumference (the risk of diabetes and heart disease is higher for women with a waist size over 35 inches, and for men with a waist size over 40 inches) and how many other risk factors a person has for health problems associated with obesity, such as heart disease. Your physician can help you determine your individual risk factors and what lifestyle changes could improve your health.

How to maintain a healthy weight

Nutrition and exercise are the keys to losing weight and keeping it off long-term.

Some people try extreme diets or skip meals to lose weight, but it’s safer and more effective to have three meals and two snacks a day composed of nutritious foods. Start by eating more fruits and veggies – most Canadians don’t get enough. Dietitians of Canada recommends seven servings per day, including plenty dark green, yellow or orange produce. Try filling half your plate with fruits and veggies at each meal.

More healthy-eating tips: choose whole grains instead of refined grains, which have fewer nutrients; eat protein-rich foods at each meal so you feel satisfied (protein also helps to reduce age-related muscle loss); learn about appropriate portion sizes; avoid processed foods, fried foods, snack foods (chips, cookies, crackers) and sugary beverages; and limit your alcohol intake. If you need more nutrition information, visit Dietitians of Canada or talk to a registered dietitian.

Make exercise part of daily life. Heart and Stroke recommends older adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity each week.

Whatever you do, start out slowly and gently, especially if you haven’t exercised in a while. Try low-impact activities such as walking, swimming and aerobics. Allow time for warming up and cooling down. Above all, be patient with yourself – it takes time to form new habits. Choosing activities you enjoy will help you stick to a routine. See if you can make exercising a social event with friends or family. (Before you start a new exercise regimen, talk to your physician.

Check out “Additional resources,” below, for handy guides to becoming more active, developed especially for older adults.

Additional resources

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology)
Age Better (ParticipACTION)

Seniors (Dietitians of Canada)
Healthy Eating for Seniors (SeniorsBC)
A Guide to Healthy Eating for Older Adults (EatRight Ontario)
Achieving and Maintaining a Healthy Weight (Heart and Stroke)