Is aging to blame for weight gain?

Is your aging metabolism to blame for "middle age spread"? We look at the real cause of weight gain -- and what you can do about it.

Alas, age isn’t the only thing that increases with each birthday. Call it “middle age spread” or “menopot”, but you may have noticed the number on the scale creeping up over the years. The weight gain — especially where we gain it — can negatively impact our health.

You’ve likely heard the aging process is partly to blame. Rather, that our metabolism — the process by which we break down fuel into the energy our body uses — slows down as we get older. If that’s the case, is there anything we can do about it?

Does our metabolism slow down — or is it something else?

There are many reasons people gain weight, and the interconnected factors can be complex. However, when it comes to our metabolism experts say it does slow by about 2-5 per cent every decade after we turn 30. It’s easy to imagine someone gradually turning down the dial on a machine. When the machine isn’t doing its job as effectively, there are going to be more leftovers — in this case, calories that get stored as fat. Nothing we can do about that, right?

Wrong, say experts. It’s true our cells’ mitochondria (the part that supplies the energy) can slow a little as we age, but the real culprit is something else. Our metabolism is linked to the amount of muscle we have. It’s a complex process, but the more lean muscle mass we have, the more calories we’ll burn.

Unfortunately, muscle mass is something that decreases as we age. In fact, experts at Johns Hopkins estimate we lose about half of our muscle mass between ages 20 and 90. That’s a pretty big time span, but a lot of the loss occurs between the ages of 50 and 70. Less muscle mass means we need fewer calories.

The problem is most people don’t decrease their calorie consumption accordingly — and you can guess where the extra ends up. To avoid weight gain, we have to balance the calories we consume with the calories we burn during the day, so a loss of muscle mass can tip the scales against us. We might not notice a big difference in our actual weight, but experts note the gain in fat is often offset by the loss of muscle mass.

And more bad news: the more muscle mass we lose, the more fatigued we feel. When we’re tired, we’re less likely to exercise — and physical activity is important for maintaining muscle.

Worse yet, health surveys show that older adults tend to be much less active than younger adults. When people hit their fifties, they may need 200-300 fewer calories per day yet they are still eating a similar diet. In addition as we age we’re more likely to be affected by a health condition like arthritis that makes getting regular physical activity even more challenging.

Ways to fight the weight gain


Like it or not, our bodies are going to change as we age, and some influences aren’t easy to overcome — like our genes and hormone changes. The good news is we can make lifestyle choices to help.

Here are some ways experts say we can give our metabolism and our waist lines a helping hand:

- Exercise. Let’s start with the obvious: we need to get moving in order to burn calories and keep our muscles strong. Current guidelines from Health Canada and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) recommend that adults get a total of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week — or about 30 minutes most days of the week. Examples of moderate activities include a brisk walk or bicycling, while vigorous activities make you work a little harder — like cross country skiing, swimming or jogging.

If your activity is more towards the light to moderate side, some experts say to increase the amount of activity to as much as 60 minutes — especially if you’re trying to lose weight.

- Build muscle. When it comes to muscle mass, it’s a “use it or lose it” situation — and cardiovascular exercise isn’t enough. Experts recommend that muscle and bone strengthening activities should be part of our fitness routines — at least twice a week and including all major groups, says the CSEP. As we gain more muscle, we’ll burn more calories because the body uses more energy to maintain muscle than it does to maintain fat.

However, the benefits don’t end there: strong muscles mean improved strength and endurance, and they’ll protect us from injury as well as support our joints.

- Keep moving.
Experts say the more we move, the better — and that’s in addition to regular exercise and strength training. Consider this permission to tap your toes along with the radio, or pace the floor while you’re on the phone. (Headsets are a boon!) While fidgeting won’t replace your exercise routine, people who do it burn more calories.

Recent studies have also shown that too much sitting can be deadly. The human body was made to move, say researchers.

- Eat breakfast.
Consider it your metabolism’s wake up call to go back into calorie burning mode. When we skip breakfast — or any other meal of the day, for that matter — experts think the body may conserve calories because it won’t know when to expect more fuel. In other words, we’re more likely to convert calories into fat. Skipping meals can lead us to overeat at other meals. (See Healthy breakfasts in a hurry.)

- Eat more frequently. Smaller meals throughout the day can also be a boon rather than relying on “three squares”. For instance, save your serving of fruit from breakfast or lunch for a snack instead. Some experts believe this will help keep your metabolism running well throughout the day. Beside, we need a healthy, balanced diet to ensure we’re losing fat, not muscle.

Another bonus: many people find “grazing” to be more satisfying and consequently consume less.

- Enjoy lean protein. What we eat can make a difference too. Some studies say that consuming about 30 per cent of our calories from lean sources of protein (like chicken or low-fat dairy) can help boost the metabolism. Protein also helps us feel fuller for longer, and less likely to overeat.

Also, avoid foods high in fats, sugars and processed starches. Aside from the empty calories, these foods can do a number on our digestive system — which can impact our moods and energy levels.

However, take all this dietary advice with a grain of salt: not everyone agrees that skipping meals or eating smaller meals makes a big difference to your metabolism. However, other experts point out that maybe we could get away with dietary faux pas in our teens and twenties — but not so much in our 40s and 50s.

Regardless, many experts agree to avoid eating if you aren’t hungry and have a healthy snack if you are — despite what the clock says.

- Get your Zzzzzs. Experts are still investigating how sleep affects our hormones — especially the ones that help regulate appetite and metabolism. However, they do that know that when we’re sleep deprived, it’s hard to get exercise. We’re also prone to craving those less-than-healthy foods like sugary treats.

- Talk to your doctor. There are many reasons why people gain weight, and diet and exercise may not be enough to make a difference. Some health conditions (like thyroid disease) or medication side effects can cause us to gain weight, and some researchers think chronic stress can be a factor too. If you suspect something is wrong, experts say to consult your doctor. Besides, experts always warn we should consult our health care providers before we embark on a new diet or fitness regime.

(For more tips, see Give your metabolism a boost.)

One strategy experts say we should be wary of is using supplements that promise to boost the metabolism — citing safety concerns, questions of efficacy and unnecessary expense as major concerns. Right now there isn’t a lot of research to prove any single substance can “rev up” your metabolism — and weight loss supplements frequently appear on Health Canada’s list of recalls.

Even if a supplement is safe and effective, experts say the effects wouldn’t be permanent — chances are you would stop seeing the benefits when you stopped taking the pills and the weight would return. If you’re considering taking a supplement, talk to your health care providers first.

What about the future? Experts continue to investigate all the complex factors that affect our metabolism — especially as we age. In the future, we may have even more ways to address weight gain and other health indictors related to metabolism.

Sources: About.com: Weight Loss, Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, CNN Health, DoctorOz.com, Health Canada, Johns Hopkins Health Alerts, The Mayoclinic.com, MSN Fitness.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Wojciech Gajda

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