While 50 may be the new 30, there are some physiological truths that can still make you look and feel like 50—especially when it comes to losing weight.
It’s impossible to deny that your body chemistry has changed over the last couple of decades. “No matter what your metabolism is like in your 20s, you have probably been told that it’s all just downhill once you hit 30,” says Luiza Petre, MD, a New York City-based weight loss and management specialist and assistant clinical professor of cardiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
We also lose muscle mass as we age at an average of 3 to 5% every 10 years past 35, according to Dr. Petre, which also impacts the way our bodies burn fat. “Your body goes into its aging stage as it leaves the growing one,” Dr. Petre explains. “When this happens, your body doesn’t need as much energy as it used to.”
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What’s more, those years of playing sports, sitting, walking up and down stairs, and moving in general take their toll on joints and muscles; you may notice they’re a little stiffer and sorer than they were a few decades ago. Then there’s the issue of our ever-slowing metabolisms. According to the American Council on Exercise, your resting metabolic rate (the ability to burn calories while doing nothing) decreases by about 1 to 2% percent per decade, thanks to a decrease in the amount of muscle you carry around (muscle burns calories) and increased fat mass (which is metabolically inactive). To add insult to pudge-boosting injury, our diets often don’t change enough to account for this metabolic slow-down, meaning weight can creep up slowly but surely with every birthday.
“There are a number of roadblocks people in their 50s will face when trying to lose weight,” says Brian Durbin, a NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist and personal trainer. “But once you know what they are—and how to work around them—it’s easy to be successful at dropping pounds.”
While it’s not impossible to lose weight after 50, the methods you used in your 30s or 40s are not going to work the same way. These eight tips, courtesy of some of the world’s best weight loss experts, nutritionists, and physical trainers, can help you drop those extra pounds—and keep them off for good.
First, talk to your doctor
It’s never a good idea to create a weight loss plan for yourself without speaking to your physician first — especially if you have any preexisting health conditions. “Before you get started, it helps to fully understand your current state of health before beginning any diet or exercise plan,” advises Dr. Petre.
Be clear with your doctor what you hope to achieve, and ask for suggestions regarding diet and exercise. Your doc may even be able to recommend a physical therapist or personal trainer for you.
Get your hormones checked
As we age, progesterone, testosterone, and other hormones decline, which sets the body up for storing instead of losing weight, says Jennifer Burns, NMD, a naturopathic physician in Phoenix. “Simply getting your thyroid, adrenal glands, and other hormone levels checked—and then taking the appropriate steps to bring them back into balance—can go a long way toward helping people in their 50s lose weight,” says Burns. Tami Meraglia, MD, author of The Hormone Secret: Discover Effortless Weight Loss and Renewed Energy in Just 30 Days, agrees, adding that she believes the hormone to focus on is testosterone—especially for women over 50 who are trying to get fit. “There is ample discussion in the medical community about the effects of estrogen loss, but few people are aware of the importance of sufficient testosterone levels, which can help a woman slim down,” says Dr. Meraglia. In fact, research shows that balanced testosterone levels reduce blood glucose levels, which may help promote weight loss and shrink stubborn belly fat.
Set realistic goals
Declaring that you’re going to lose 20 pounds in 1 month is unrealistic (not to mention unhealthy). “Be honest with yourself. How do you feel? How healthy are you? Making life changes takes courage and mental fortitude,” says Dr. Petre. Be realistic—and break up big goals into smaller, more achievable ones. If your ultimate goal is to shed 20 pounds, strive to drop around 1 pound a week. “Triumphs make your courage grow,” she adds. “Small achievements amount to large goals achieved.”
Follow a structured plan
If you want to succeed in losing weight, following a structured plan can help, says Dr. Petre. “Instead of trying and failing at yet another yo-yo diet this year, its time to get serious about your health by following a trusted program,” she suggests. She explains that medically supervised programs have over 75 percent success rate in helping you keep your weight off. “It has been proven that individual support programs can encourage a significant change in behavior and reinforce long-term success,” she adds. Diet programs that include weekly visits can also provide accountability and continued support to keep the momentum going.
Embrace weight training
If you find it tough to make it to the gym at all, let alone brave a weight room filled with buff 20-somethings, here’s a little motivation: Once you hit 50, you’ve got about 20% less muscle mass than you did when you were 20. And because muscle is so metabolically active, muscle loss equals a slower metabolism. That makes you much more likely to put on (and hold on to) extra pounds, says Durbin. “The good news is you can turn all of this around with a well-structured weight-training routine,” he says. “That can increase your muscle mass and help you regain the ability to lose weight like you were able to 20 years ago,” he says.
Choose activities that are easy on the joints
Janna Lowell, a Los Angeles–based personal trainer, says she gets the best results among her 50-somethings when she has them do some cross-training in the pool. Tired joints can keep this population from getting a great workout, she says, and aches and pains can turn some people off exercise completely. “Water exercise is easy on the joints and can boost range of motion as well,” says Lowell. “Even better, caloric expenditure is about 30% greater in the water than on land due to the resistance water creates.” No pool? No problem. Walking is another great, low-impact cardiovascular exercise, as are cycling, kayaking, yoga, and dancing.
But don’t slack at the gym
Just because your joints are a little achier than they used to be doesn’t give you an excuse to phone in your workouts. Alex Allred, a former national and professional athlete turned personal trainer says this is one of her biggest pet peeves among 50-year-olds. “Far too many people think that just because they showed up, they’re working out,” says Allred. “But really, you need to be focused on what you’re doing and pushing yourself hard enough to break a sweat or at least complete the full range of motion of a certain exercise.” Not sure if you’re doing a move properly? Ask! “I wish more people would flag down a trainer and ask, ‘Am I doing this correctly?’ ” says Allred. It can make the difference between making the most of your exercise time to lose weight and wasting your time.
See a physical therapist
The advice to consult your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen is great, and Samira Shuruk, an ACE-certified personal trainer, suggests taking this advice a step further: Make an appointment with a physical therapist—particularly if an aching back, knee, or other body part has kept you from working out on a regular basis. “After 50, many people have sustained injuries and don’t know what their activity options are,” says Shuruk. “This makes it tough to exercise in ways we used to, and getting advice from a professional can truly help.” Physical therapy can help you rehabilitate an old injury or ease joint and muscle pain, setting you up for pain-free workouts.
Overhaul your diet
Remember that metabolic slow-down? It can mean that you’re burning about 250 fewer calories each day. If you continue to eat like you’re in your 30s—and don’t increase your exercise—you’ll gain weight, plain and simple, says Katie Ferraro, RD, a dietitian and assistant clinical professor of nutrition at the University of California–San Francisco School of Nursing. “To lose weight when you get older, you have to eat fewer calories,” says Ferraro. Crowding out the junk food in your diet with loads of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins can make cutting calories painless.
Change how and when you eat
It’s not just what you eat, but how you eat that matters in your 50s, claims Anthony Dissen, MA, RDN, Vice President of Nutrition at WellStart Health. He suggests focusing on fullness, not portion control, when you are planning your meals. “If our stomachs aren’t full, we don’t feel full, and we’ll stay hungry,” he points out. “When it comes to healthy weight loss and management, we want to strike that important balance between eating until we feel full and satisfied while still decreasing our overall calorie intake.”
Also, stay away from fad diets. “No crazy fasts, cleanses, cutting out fats, or complex carbohydrates or proteins,” adds Jillian Michaels, health and wellness expert and author of The 6 Keys: Unlock Your Genetic Potential for Ageless Strength, Health and Beauty.
Get your stress in check
This decade can be prime time for stress, says Durbin. “The average 50-year-old has many more responsibilities than their younger peers. They’re often in their prime income-generating years, which means extra responsibilities at work. They may also have kids who are going to college—a financial burden—or have aging parents who they’re helping to care for.” The result? Emotional eating and a schedule that seems too jam-packed for regular exercise sessions. The solution: schedule your workouts like they’re doctor’s appointments, says Durbin. Sticking to a consistent routine can not only help ease stress but also help people stay on track with their diets. After all, who wants to ruin the benefits of a tough sweat session by eating a donut?
Get your sleep
Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night is key, maintains Michaels. In addition to leaving you feeling rested, Dr. Petre adds that the two hormones that regulate appetite — leptin and ghrelin — go into overdrive without it. “This can trigger excessive hunger and lead to poor food choices and weight gain at any age,” she says.
Be mindful… and meditate
It’s important to practice mindfulness, especially when you’re eating. Dr. Dissen explains that most people have more control over their time and schedules during their 50s than ever before, due to decreased responsibilities with work and family, and they should take advantage of it. “The more we try to multi-task while we eat, the more likely we are to overeat and not feel as satisfied by the meal or snack we’ve just eaten,” he explains. “By simply taking a breath and treating our mealtime as special, it allows us to really taste our food and notice its flavors, textures, and tastes.”
Mindfulness can aid in stress relief, which is important because many people eat or put off exercise when they are anxious. Michaels suggests practicing 5-10 minutes of meditation daily to maintain your brain’s nueroplasticity and stress management.