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Age-Related Weight Gain: Why Every Birthday Candle Leads to Extra Pounds



The physical impacts of age are just so unfair, with body parts starting to wrinkle and sag. As if that isn’t enough, other areas begin to bubble and bulge where there was once tightly toned muscle.  Most of us remember the days when we could down three burgers or a carton of ice cream without gaining an ounce. Unfortunately, with every birthday candle, it gets harder to metabolize those calories, and the pounds start to pack on. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that you are doomed to keep expanding like a Macy’s Parade float. There are steps you can take to combat age-related weight gain so you can enjoy fitness, good health, and your favorite jeans for many years to come.

Causes of Age-Related Weight Gain

The first issue that contributes to age-related weight gain is the change in the proportion of muscles to body mass. Though a scale might say a teenager and her mother weigh the same number of pounds, younger bodies have a higher ratio of muscle mass to total weight. This happens because muscle cells are lost forever as people age, and the muscles shrink as years go by. Young people enjoy fast regeneration of damaged muscle cells when injury occurs, but in adults, the muscles are either repaired more slowly or not at all.

Though there has been no definitive answer as far as why muscles lose their ability to regenerate over time, there are a few plausible theories. One suggests that stem cells in the tissues stop responding to damage with the same effectiveness in older bodies that they had when the bodies were younger. Another possibility behind the lost ability to repair muscle includes decreases in the levels of hormones that are responsible for growth and regeneration. These include testosterone, estrogen, and human growth hormone. Muscle fibers that are not repaired quickly die off, causing the muscles to shrink in size and strength.

Another factor that contributes to age-related weight gain is that the muscle cells still present are less effective in burning calories as we get older. Muscle cells consume most of the body’s fuel, and their level of efficiency is directly related to the speed at which calories are metabolized. When they no longer burn calories at the same high rates they once did, it stops being a matter of avoiding an increase in food consumption. Instead, older adults must decrease the amount of calories going in so they can maintain a stable body weight.

The combination of these two issues – fewer muscle cells and reduced efficiency of those that remain – creates conditions that are ideal for weight gain. It becomes harder and harder to keep the pounds off without significant changes in diet and levels of physical activity.

Maintaining Metabolism by Keeping Muscles Strong

Research has proven time and time again that it is possible to reduce age-related weight gain by minimizing the loss of mass and strength in muscles. While cardio exercise helps burn calories and contributes to the health of some tissues, strength training is the best method of keeping metabolism high. Activity dedicated to toning and improving muscles increases the size of muscle cells.

That means less shrink, higher strength, and more calories burned. Weightlifting, when done correctly, carries few risks, no matter the age of the individual. The strength-building possibilities of modified yoga poses for older people are still being explored, but that area shows great promise as well.

In addition to offering relief from age-related weight gain, strength training has other benefits. For example, the inflammation in muscles and joints that causes arthritis and similar conditions is a result of an immune system gone amok. Those over 70 find that joints are plagued by swelling and pain that ranges from uncomfortable to downright debilitating. Increasing strength in joints and muscles through appropriate exercise protects against some of the damage, which results in pain reduction.

Food Choices that Promote Age-Related Weight Gain

In an unexpected discovery, researchers learned that when it comes to age-related weight gain, not all calories are created equal. Certain foods appear to have more impact than others in adding to unwanted pounds. The study examined the eating habits and correlation to weight in more than 120,000 participants. Between the ages of 30 and 60, they determined that the average annual weight gain is approximately one pound.

Those who ate certain foods regularly gained weight faster than the other members of the study. A single daily serving of potato chips in study participants equaled nearly half of an extra pound every year. Eating french fries every day added almost a full pound annually. One daily serving of soda resulted in a quarter-pound a year, as did each serving of processed meat and red meat. The combination of several of these foods and the fact that many people have multiple meals each day gives insight into how easy and fast it is to gain weight when diets include many unhealthy choices.

Conversely, some foods were shown to actively reduce the likelihood of the standard one-pound weight gain each year. For example, eating yogurt every day, negated 80% of the average annual one-pound increase. The most exciting part of these findings is that only counting calories isn’t the solution to avoiding age-related weight gain. The type of food that each calorie is packaged directly affects the total amount of gain or loss a person experiences.

No one wants the hassle and expense of buying all new clothes every year, and more important – no one wants to spend their retirement years unhealthy and incapable of participating in favorite activities with friends and family. As the body changes and muscles are less able to repair and regenerate, muscle mass drops, which has a direct impact on metabolism.

The best ways to combat these changes and to erase the tendency to get heavier over time is to add strength training to fitness regimens and to choose meals and snacks carefully for maximum nutritional benefit.