Why Do We Tend To Gain Weight as We Get Older?
By Radley Griffin, M.D.
We’ve all probably heard someone say, “I could eat whatever I wanted in my 20s!” Maybe you’ve said it yourself.
The reality is, once we move from our 30s into our 40s and beyond, it becomes much easier to gain weight.
So why do we gain weight as we get older? What’s actually happening in our bodies? How much weight gain is safe, and what can we do to help control it?
Why Do We Gain Weight as We Get Older?
The simple truth is that as we get older, it’s not as easy to lose weight and it’s much easier to gain fat. Why is that?
One of the biggest contributors to age-related weight gain is hormonal change. As women enter menopause and men enter their 40s, hormone production naturally starts to decrease. This leads to lower energy levels, muscle decline, and slower recovery times. We tend not to exercise as much or as vigorously as before.
This leads to the next big cause of weight gain as we get older: reduced physical activity. Our physical activity tends to be less intense as we get older because of:
- Muscle breakdown.
- Difficulty building new muscle.
- Accumulated wear and tear in our bodies.
- Difficulty recovering from injury.
These factors naturally lead us to choose less intense exercises: walking instead of tennis, or golf instead of basketball, for example.
Fat Storage as a Survival Mechanism
Another big reason why we gain weight as we get older is that our bodies see weight gain as a survival mechanism in that stage of our life.
The truth is, we’re not so different from other mammals in this way.
Take brown bears, for example. They store up fat each season so they can survive through their winter hibernation.
Like the hibernation cycle for brown bears, humans have a natural cycle as well. We’re physiologically programmed to start storing more fat as we age to prepare for the days when we’re not as able to hunt for food.
Of course, we no longer live in times where we have to actively hunt for our food, but this mechanism remains. It’s natural for there to be an ebb and flow in our lives. It’s actually less natural for us to remain in one state indefinitely.
This isn’t to say that all weight gain is healthy, just that some weight gain as we get older is normal. And today we have the tools to monitor blood work, watch for disease risk factors, and support weight loss when necessary.
Metabolic Syndrome Versus Extra Weight
Members often come in concerned about weight gain. In some cases, we do a full blood panel, look for inflammation, check their cholesterol levels, and everything is in a healthy range.
In cases like that, we say, Great! We just need to continue monitoring their blood work to make sure nothing heads in an unhealthy direction.
However, this isn’t always the case.
It’s important to understand the difference between a little weight gain and metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions that usually occur together, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and more. Weight gain can be a major indicator of metabolic syndrome.
We evaluate for metabolic syndrome based on blood sugar levels, insulin, triglycerides, HDL levels, inflammatory markers, autoimmune conditions, and hormone levels. When any of these levels starts to get too high, it means you’re inching into the realm of metabolic syndrome, which greatly increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
These conditions occur on a spectrum and should be monitored with your physician. You may have a slightly elevated number at one appointment, but if that number starts to creep up, so does your risk of disease. The key here is regular monitoring and creating an intentional strategy with your physician to keep those numbers in check.
How Can People Combat Weight Gain as They Get Older?
The big question with age-related weight gain is what to do about it (when something needs to be done). How can we get out of hibernation and into an awakened “spring state” as much as possible?
First, remember to give yourself grace. It’s normal to go through cycles. When something becomes concerning, don’t beat yourself up; simply start taking steps to address it.
Next, be intentional and know your numbers.
Getting into a spring state starts with monitoring your baseline blood values and understanding what’s healthy for your body at your stage in life. With regular monitoring, your physician can warn you if certain values start to get out of control, and together you can make a plan to take action.
For example, if your physician notices elevated blood sugar, a dietary change may help. Or if weight loss is needed but you hit a wall, maybe hormone replacement therapy could help.
The key is awareness. If your blood work doesn’t indicate any reason for concern, you can rest easy. If it does, you have the knowledge necessary to make an intentional plan to reduce your risk of disease.
In our view, disease is not an inevitable outcome. When you start monitoring early with your physician and address indicators as they arise, you address the root of many diseases before they ever have a chance to take hold.
Simple Strategies To Control Weight Gain as We Get Older
It can help to determine the minimums and maximums necessary to maintain a healthy weight as you age.
For example, you don’t have to play pickup basketball every night to get adequate exercise. Instead, studies show that we need roughly 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic activity per week for weight maintenance. However, remember to find out the minimum amount of exercise necessary for your body, and don’t push yourself to injury.
You can also determine:
- The maximum amount of alcohol and sugar you can consume while maintaining your weight.
- The minimum amount of sleep you need for weight control.
- The maximum amount of stress you can handle while maintaining your weight.
We recommend discussing each of these strategies with your physician to help achieve the best results for you. One handy tool we offer for monitoring weight loss and weight maintenance is InBody, a state-of-the-art body composition analyzer. Members can come in to use InBody in the office at any time.
Keep an Eye on Things
Weight gain is a normal part of aging. Thankfully, there are so many tools available to help us manage our weight and health outcomes as we get older. By taking advantage of these tools and maintaining an open dialogue with your physician, you can keep an eye on your key health indicators and take early action to avoid future disease.
With intentional planning and awareness, you have the power in your weight and health as you age.