The Science Behind Age-Related Weight Gain

A lot of things change as we age, from the way we think to the way we move, and the way our bodies burn and use fat is no exception. Age-related weight gain is a common struggle, one that can have far-reaching health effects unless we understand the science and figure out how to work with, instead of against, our bodies. Here’s the science behind this challenge and what you can do to reduce its effects.

Age-related weight gain is the result of changes in hormones, body composition and mitochondrial energy metabolism. As a result of these, and other, factors, we’re less able to burn fat as we age, even with proper diet and exercise. These changes are nothing to take lightly as they can also increase the risks of diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, stroke, sleep apnea and cancer.

Body Composition and Weight Gain

One of the biggest factors in age-related weight gain is the way our bodies store and use fat. As we age, our body mass composition changes, which means the amount of energy we need also changes — though we may still be eating for a body that once required more energy intake. Those shifts can vary depending on ethnicity, diet and activity levels, but this shift can be so subtle and incremental, that while we haven't changed anything about the way we eat and move, our body begins to change nonetheless.

The Role of Hormones

Hormones also play a major role, determining how fat is distributed throughout the body. Normal changes in our hormones, such as those we experience as we age, change the way we carry the same amount of fat. What once sat on our hips now sits in our bellies and this can signal a change in how healthy that fat is to carry around.

Lipid Turnover

How we use that fat is also important. A recent study showed that age affects how quickly our bodies break down fat cells. This process, called lipid turnover, slows as we get older, making it harder for the body to metabolize fat, regardless of diet and exercise.

This may have to do with the reduced efficiency of our mitochondria, the energy generators in our cells, which also worsens as we age. The effects appear to be most profound in women, especially affecting the value of aerobic exercise. This could be related to reduced muscle mass, which is less prominent even in younger women in comparison to men and also influences body metabolism.

Belly Fat

An increased ratio of belly fat, which is common in both older men and women, can come with increased health risks. A larger midsection puts you at higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Being overweight can also increase your chances of developing osteoarthritis, stroke, sleep apnea and even some forms of cancer.

Solutions to Late Life Weight Gain

Muscle mass is essential to keeping a body burning as many calories as possible — so resistance training and weight lifting are more important than it's ever been. It’s also important to remain active, getting in as much aerobic activity as possible — 30 minutes per day is a great goal to aim for.

To age as gracefully as possible, the National Library of Medicine also recommends limiting alcohol use, abstaining from tobacco and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Never has diet and exercise been as important as they are as we age. But both of these things are in our control so we have all of the power in the world to age exactly how we choose.

Our bodies might change as we age, but that doesn’t make weight gain inevitable. It just means it’s time to shift gears. Understanding what’s happening behind the changes is half the battle; following a healthy diet and exercising is the other. No matter what age, taking action now is imperative and may help keep weight more manageable over time as the clock never turns backward.

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1/6/2020 8:00:00 AM
Wellness Editor
Written by Wellness Editor
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