Aging is inevitable, and so are some of the changes that come with it. Though you may still feel like you’re as mentally sharp as you were in your 20s and twice as wise, chances are you are noticing many of the physical changes that are difficult to counteract as we age. You probably grew up hearing your parents complain about pesky weight gain or loss of energy through the years and you may be slightly disappointed to find that you are now facing the same symptoms. But why? What happens to our bodies as we age, and why can’t we burn fat or put on muscle like we could when we were younger? I’ll break it down a little bit for you and then give some tips as to how it can put on pause (really!).
A lower metabolic rate is behind the physical changes to our bodies as we age. Your metabolic rate is how many calories your body burns just by sustaining itself; breathing, digesting and using your brain. When you’re young, your metabolic rate is quick, incinerates calories just by functioning normally, and you can stay svelte without having to really exert yourself. As we all age, our metabolic rates slow down and our bodies require fewer calories to sustain themselves. Even if you are just in your late 20s or 30s, if you continue eating the way you ate when you were a teenager, you will notice weight gain simply for the fact that your body does not burn calories the way it used to.
The lowering of your metabolic rate directly affects your body composition. Starting at the age of 25, our muscle mass decreases and our fat storage increases due to the simple fact that our bodies no longer burn as many calories as before. Muscle is a high-maintenance tissue and requires a lot of calories to be burned as fuel. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn. Once muscle mass starts to decrease, the result is twofold: your body burns fewer calories and fat begins to accumulate.
For women, menopause plays a large role in how quickly your muscle mass depletes. When a woman’s body stops producing estrogen, muscle mass greatly decreases which can lower the metabolic rate even more. In her 40s, a woman’s metabolic rate can drop almost 25%, which is basically one meal’s worth of calories.
Men, on the other hand, maintain a steady metabolic rate slightly longer than women but still suffer a gradual decline in the amount of calories burned per day simply by being alive. When the amount of testosterone that a man’s body produces begins to decrease, his metabolic rate will slow also due to a decrease in muscle mass. He will then notice increased fat storage.
Of course, increased fat storage is not only frustrating, but it is detrimental to your body’s other functions. Added fat leads to an increased weight, adding more pressure on our joints, increasing our risk of injury and heart-related problems.
Okay, so what can be done? It’s clear that some elements of this process are inevitable, but the seemingly unavoidable increase in fat storage can actually be the opposite: avoidable. However, it isn’t easy and requires major lifestyle changes. Here are a few ways to work against the slowing of your metabolic rate and maintain a healthy muscle mass as you age:
First and foremost, adjust your mentality. For most of us, the weight gain seems sudden and we are inspired to make an immediate change. While this is good, it’s also risky. If you jump into a super-intense workout routine or attempt to eat as few calories as possible, you greatly increase your chance of getting injured or seriously depleting your body of vital nutrients. When we become frustrated, it’s easy to try and overdo it. Instead, take a step back, acknowledge that your body is different than when you were younger and it needs a different, safer approach.
Adjust your intake and output. When we are young, our calorie intake can be relatively high as long as we have any degree of output and our bodies will likely look the same from week to week. As we age, this ratio shifts. A lot.
Exercise (output): Without that high supply of muscle mass, it’s harder to burn calories and exercise becomes more important than ever. The type of exercise matters, however, because our joints and tendons are weakened with age and more prone to acute discomfort, inflammation or serious injury. To err on the safe side, don’t overdo it with running or lifting heavy weights. Stick to bodyweight or lightweight exercises and settle into a routine that allows you to exercise long enough per day to see benefits.
Also, change it up. Find things you enjoy doing (hiking, biking, kayaking, dancing) and do them often along with aiming for 10,000 steps or more per day.
Nutrition (input): Even in limiting your intake to help out your natural metabolism, you still need to eat enough to support healthy bodily functions and brain power. It may sound simple, but eat what makes you feel good and only eat until you’re full. Focus on whole foods (nothing processed), plenty of fiber, water and lean proteins. Your body needs fuel more than ever as it ages and by avoiding food altogether or only snacking on processed foods, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
The above tips are pretty large lifestyle changes, but with the right guidance and motivation, you can change how your body ages. Growing older is a privilege; enjoy it and work hard to be your best self.
I would be happy to discuss healthy lifestyle options that work best with your schedule, needs, and routine. Stop by or call me at (920) 499-3333 and we can discuss your health goals.
Best of health,
Dr. Chad M. Hoffman