Dieting is never easy. There is no doubt about it the older we become the more difficult it is to lose weight and keep it off. Since I have put on seven pounds, since returning from vacation, that I had previously lost through hard work and what seemed like an unbelievable period of time I began to look for answers.
Cheryl Phillips of the American Geriatrics Society has researched the problem with trying to keep weight off, as we grow older. She believes that there are a number of biological changes that happen as we age that contribute to the problem. As our muscles age they actually contribute to the increased amount of fat that is stored in our bodies.
She uses a seventy-year-old woman as an illustration of what is going on in our bodies as we age and our muscles age along with us. “So, if you look at a woman who is 70 years old and compare her to what her body was like at 25 years of age, even though her weight may be exactly the same, she had more percentage of muscle in her body when she was 25 than she does when she’s 70.” (Taken from an Internet article, Why We Gain Weight As We Age: NPR)
It seems that we lose muscle cells as we age and this makes it more difficult to repair damaged muscles than it did when we were younger. Researchers are not completely sure why muscles literally shrink as we age, but they do.
According to Jonathan Wanagat an UCLA researcher there are a number of theories. “I think one of the ones that have become increasingly interesting and popular is the idea that the stem cells in the muscle are not able to respond to damage or to aging the way they did when we were younger and if damaged muscle cells aren’t repaired, they sort of whittle away and die.” It seems that the decrease in growth hormone, testosterone and estrogen may also account for the loss of muscle fiber and the inability of tissue to replenish itself.”
Philips gives us a glimpse into why diminished muscle and weight loss are so connected. “In addition, the muscle cells we’re left with are sort of worn out, if you think of muscles as being the energy powerhouse of our body, that’s where most of our calories are burned. And when we talk about metabolism, what we’re really talking about is how efficiently those powerhouse cells — the muscle cells of our body — burn the energy we bring in.”
Now here’s the crux of the matter. Energy is delivered to the body in the form of calories. If we keep our caloric intake exactly the same as we did when younger we are burning fewer calories as we age because our muscles no longer have the same capacity to burn those calories as we did when younger. The result, you guessed it, those unburned calories end up as fat.
Wanagat points out that it is sort of a one-two punch. “The energy powerhouse cells in muscles get damaged with age. That damage accumulates over time and, on top of that, the body’s ability to repair that damage also dwindles with aging.” (Taken from Why We Gain Weight As We Age: NPR, story by Pattie Neighmond)
OK, now we know why that ice cream tends to stay with us much more easily as we age. It’s because those energy powerhouse cells in our muscles become damaged and our bodies ability to repair the damage diminishes and instead of energy we develop a larger girth.
So what can we do to fight the battle of the bulge? Well here it is—we must exercise. Now here is where the real fight comes in as far as I can see. My muscles let me down by not burning as many calories as previously and I don’t have the energy or willpower to exercise like I once did. As a young man I worked all day, played sports, went to the mall with my family and it seemed like I was on my feet constantly. Now not so much, so exercising is something I have to force myself to do.
According to Wanagat there are countless studies on the benefits of exercise that show that even among individuals in their 80’s exercise still works to make the muscle cells get bigger and muscles grow stronger. This of course, leads to an increase in their capacity to burn calories and help regulate our weight.
He writes, “We aren’t sure exactly how exercise makes muscles stronger, but we know that when we measure the grip strength of the hands or feet, grip is strongest just after exercise, even among people in their 80s and 90s. So weightlifting at any age offers low risk and great benefit.”
I have to admit I had never thought that lifting weights, even hand weights, would help burn calories. For some reason I had never put muscle building and calorie burning together as a means of weight control. Since I have retired I have relied upon walking, when Ruth can get me to go, as my primary form of weight control along with the Ping-Pong results of dieting.
Ruth has practiced yoga for years and noticed that when she worked seriously at it weight loss seemed a bit easier than it did when she was not practicing. What Ruth observed by standing on the scales bears out in the research of UCLA geriatrician and researcher Gail Greendale in her second study on yoga and its benefits. She is working with seniors to figure out what poses work best for the older body. Greendale is trying to understand how each yoga pose stresses muscles and joints and from that information her goal is to modify poses for seniors that allow us to maximize strength-building and minimize injury. I did a quick Google search on Dr. Greendale and her research, and it is quite amazing how beneficial yoga can be in building strength and helping fight certain ailments.
Another aspect of Greendale’s research that I found profoundly interesting since I have MS is the relationship of aging to the immune system. It seems that our immune system can get out of whack turning on an inflammatory response when there are no bacteria or viruses to kill, and keeping it on long after the body’s invaders have left. This inappropriate inflammatory response actually is able to damage the cells in whatever part of the body the inflammation occurs.
The really good news is that exercise whether weight lifting, yoga, or just a good old-fashioned walk can increase our muscle and joint strength. This is very important in not only fighting the weight problem but also help in the fight against arthritis and inflammation. Greendale knows that many people over the age of 75 have chronic joint problems and those joints become less able to tolerate the strain and stress of movement. The joints also can be very painful and swollen. She advocates that one of the best ways to combat those aching joints and muscles is to build muscle strength. The sooner we get at it the better.
One last good tip, before I close this post and go exercise, is by Jillian Michaels at Jillian Michaels.com, “Eat more protein. Sarcopenia, or loss of muscle due to age, has been seen as inevitable, but a great deal of its severity is dictated by diet and exercise. Protein can help! One study found that men and women between ages 70 and 79 who ate the most protein lost 40 percent less lean mass than those who ate the least protein. Muscle burns more calories, increases your insulin sensitivity, and keeps your testosterone production higher so that you can help stave off age-related health conditions, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and loss of libido.”
So watch your calorie intake, get plenty of protein, and exercise and those excess pounds will fade away. They still won’t go as fast as when we were young—but they will go. This is up to you and me. We can take our health seriously and be pro-active or sit on the couch and wait for the inevitable.