Are your pants tighter even though you haven’t changed your eating habits? Does it feel as if walks and virtual Zumba workouts are doing great things for your health but not necessarily for the appearance of your thighs? It’s probably not all in your head.
Let’s not sugarcoat it: Each decade brings new obstacles to losing weight. Our bodies become more resistant to change, while busy lives make it easy to put our well-being on the back burner. Carrying a few extra pounds isn’t a big deal (it may even help you live longer!), but being really overweight is linked to serious problems including heart disease and cancer, so it’s smart to keep your weight within a normal range.
Here’s what you need to know about how the body changes—plus, the best strategies for healthy weight loss no matter what your age.
From unexplainable aches to random gray hairs, your 30s can make you feel as if your body is turning into your mom’s. Add to that the puffiness that doesn’t seem to go away like it used to even if you go easy on the wine and cheese for a bit.
The major reason weight gets stickier in our 30s? Metabolism becomes less efficient with every revolution of the earth around the sun. “As we get older, our muscle mass decreases, which works to slow down our metabolism,” says Karen E. Gibbs, M.D., a bariatric surgeon at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City. “If you have less muscle, you’re burning fewer calories.”
New moms have it especially hard: Beyond getting less sleep or having their sleep interrupted, they’re dealing with a metabolism that holds on to baby weight long after their babies have made their debut. During pregnancy, the body requires more calories, and as a result metabolism increases, says Nicholas Azinge, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Howard Medicine in Washington, DC. It goes back to normal after delivery and breastfeeding, which can make it hard for moms to lose pounds (as if they don’t have enough to worry about!).
Getting back into the jeans you wore in college shouldn’t be your goal—you’ve got enough on your plate. But making an effort to live more healthily can boost your overall well-being and give you more energy to power through each day.
30s action plan
✔️Balance your plate
“Focus on eating a variety of foods from all the food groups, including dairy and whole grains,” says Sara Wing, R.D., of Waitsfield, VT, a past president of the Vermont Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As tempting as big-promise diets are, “eliminating whole food groups makes it more difficult to have a balanced diet and get in all the nutrients vital for good health as we age,” Wing says.
The only eating changes that can lead to sustainable weight loss are ones you can live with over time, she adds, so crash diets are useless for healthy long-term weight management.
✔️Use your time wisely.
Super-busy people juggling kids and work need their whole family on board. Figure out healthy meals that work for everyone to eat together, suggests Elise Museles, a certified eating psychology and nutrition expert. That way you won’t have to make separate child-friendly meals, and if you model healthy-eating behaviors, that can inspire your kiddos to eat better.
DIY tacos or baked potatoes with toppings are always a hit with kids. To make breakfast more fun, Wing suggests baking scrambled eggs in a muffin tin packed with veggies and herbs and adding a sprinkle of Cheddar. On really crazy workdays, plan time for eating nutritious meals just as you would schedule an important meeting, Museles recommends. While you’re at it, set aside time at the beginning of the week to organize ingredients so you can toss together healthy meals in a jiffy.
✔️Consider a wellness practitioner.
If eating well is hard to pull off alone, that’s OK—some things require guidance. Check in with an expert to figure out which healthy habits you’ve got down pat and which could use some improvement. Call your health insurance company to find an in-network wellness provider, or look for a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
An expert can assess your relationship with food and pinpoint why you eat the way you do so you can address issues and kick bad habits, says Museles. Were lots of sweets or big portions a part of your childhood such that they now remind you of happy times? Is bingeing the way you de-stress? Or do you need to learn to cook veggies that taste good? The answers will help you get on the best track.
Though you’re an adult, your 40s can hand you haywire hormones reminiscent of your teenage years. “Women experience fluctuations and a decrease in estrogen, which encourages extra pounds to be deposited around the belly,” Dr. Gibbs says. This starts earlier than you might think: Estrogen levels start to go up and down rapidly during perimenopause—the time before menopause, usually when a woman is in her 40s. A study in Exercise and Sport Sciences Review found that low estrogen was associated with weight gain and metabolic dysfunction, which can put you at risk for conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Your thyroid might also throw a wrench into your weight-loss plans right about now. Thyroxine (T4) is a hormone governing the thyroid gland, and low levels of it can indicate hypothyroidism, often diagnosed in women in their 40s, says Dr. Azinge, adding that T4 and triiodothyronine (T3) help regulate metabolism and energy use.
Diagnoses of several other health problems in addition to existing hypothyroidism prompted Najaa Young, 47, a professor and filmmaker in Atlanta, to make changes three years ago. “I was at a place where I felt very unhealthy, and I was told by my doctor that I was prediabetic,” she says. She started with a low-carb diet, then transitioned to ketogenic and intermittent fasting. She lost approximately 85 pounds over the following two years.
40s action plan
✔️Have your hormones checked.
Ask your physician to test your hormone levels to make sure imbalances are not sabotaging your weight-loss efforts. Because Young had prediabetes and hypothyroidism, she had blood work done every six weeks to monitor her blood sugar and thyroid hormone levels. Your doctor may also suggest other tactics, like managing stress and limiting processed and high-sugar foods, to help rebalance hormones.
You likely didn’t gain the weight in a few weeks, so don’t make drastic changes in an attempt to lose it all that quickly. “One of the first things I did was commit to exercising for 30 minutes at least three days a week,” Young says. She also increased her daily water intake. Even if you don’t see the number on the scale move right away, remind yourself that you’re doing this for better health in the long run. Once you hit a goal, you can set your sights higher.
✔️Slow down at meals.
Many of us eat too fast and barely taste our food. “A slower approach allows one to listen to internal cues of feeling satisfied and may result in consuming fewer calories,” says Wing. Research also shows that eating without distractions can help you eat less.
Whether you’re having a feast or a small snack, set your phone on “Do not disturb,” stow it out of view, and sit, don’t stand. Wing also suggests putting your fork down and taking sips of water between bites. Pay attention to the smells, tastes, and textures of every bite too. Not only will this focus your attention and build some natural pauses into your meal, but it also might help combat stress.
“When you’re stressed, you’re not going to digest your food as well and absorb all the nutrients,” says Museles. “Your stress response takes your metabolism off-line.” She adds that taking a few deep breaths before a meal can calm nerves and relax your body, putting you in an ideal state to digest and take in nutrients from your food.
This is when long-term physical issues pop up seemingly out of nowhere— 78% of adults age 55 and older have at least one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many chronic conditions, such as diabetes, can interfere with weight loss directly. Others, like high blood pressure, are often treated with medications that can lead to weight gain.
Adopting healthier habits can lower your risk of developing a chronic condition, help you manage an existing one, and promote weight loss. “I knew the excess pounds I’d accumulated in my 40s, in combination with a sedentary lifestyle and the stress of separation and divorce, could lead to a heart attack or a stroke,” says Jamie Gold, 60, of San Diego, who is a Mayo Clinic–certified wellness coach and the author of Wellness by Design. The end of her marriage propelled her to eat better and exercise more. Over three years, Gold was able to drop about 100 pounds.
50s action plan
✔️See your doctor.
If you have a chronic condition, ask your physician whether it might hinder your weight-loss efforts, directly or indirectly, and find out what you can do to counter act potential problems, perhaps through switching meds or modifying behaviors. At your annual physical, ask if any of your supplements or meds might be holding your weight loss back and what you can do to be sure your health stays on track.
✔️Find a new type of exercise.
Hike a nearby trail, or take a stand-up paddleboarding class. “When we finally find a fitness routine that works for us, it can be difficult to switch things up, but there are many proven benefits to trying new routines,” says Kevin Robinson, D.P.T., D.Sc., a physical therapist at the Nashville-based Performance Therapy Institute. “Along with fighting exercise boredom, you can build new muscle, prevent overuse injuries, and increase your chances of weight loss.” Gold added swimming to her routine, and she has participated in running races as well.
✔️Get a group behind you.
Dise Dye, 59, a Tyson Foods employee in Oneonta, AL, recently had an epiphany about her health. “I weighed the most I ever had,” she recalls. “The muffin top and everything started, and I was getting really depressed about it.” Dye joined 99 Walks ($16 per month), an online community revolving around walking programs for women to help with weight loss. She has dropped 21 pounds so far and credits her success to having a support system of others working toward a similar goal.
By now you’ve learned a lot about taking care of yourself, but lifelong habits can catch up with you. For instance, decades of yo-yo dieting can culminate in metabolic damage that makes it hard to drop pounds. And exercise can become downright painful as arthritis (diagnosed in 50% of people 65 and older) kicks in.
In addition, it takes longer to fall asleep as people reach 60, according to a 2017 study in Sleep Medicine Clinics. A vicious cycle tends to ensue here: A lack of sleep can undermine weight-loss efforts, and being overweight can keep you from sleeping well.
60s (and beyond) action plan
✔️Do joint-friendly exercises.
“I recommend low-impact strength- training exercises to maintain and build muscle mass and improve joint stability,” says Robinson. Strength exercises also help with bone density so you can “avoid the scourge of osteoporosis,” he says. Water aerobics is “ideal for those living with arthritis and other forms of joint pain,” says DeBlair Tate, an Atlanta-based certified fitness trainer and owner of fitness-apparel brand 8Figured.
✔️Don’t shrug off shut-eye.
Between night sweats and intermittent random awakenings, postmenopausal women are at a disadvantage. If you experience sleep disruptions, reach out to a specialist for suggestions. And try to keep to a regular sleep schedule in which you avoid large meals and electronics for two to three hours before going to bed.
✔️Thank your body.
It doesn’t look and work the way it did in your 20s, but it’s not supposed to. Over the years, your body let you do many things you loved, perhaps dancing at weddings, playing with your pets, or hugging your grandkids. Use that as motivation to stay active and nourish yourself with healthy foods. Look up some affirmations to tell yourself every morning, or jot down your feelings in a journal, suggests Mimi Secor, D.N.P., a Massachusetts-based family nurse practitioner who successfully lost 30 pounds at the age of 60. Even if you don’t see the number on the scale you used to see, you can be proud of what you’re doing for your body.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Prevention.
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