For the better part of 71 years, Joe Acosta ate what he wanted or what his wife prepared for him – often, large portions of fried foods. As a result, he carried 30-some pounds of extra weight and flirted with diabetes. “I was having problems watching what I put in my body,” says Acosta, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee in Brooklyn, New York.
But when his wife, Elena Acosta, signed up for a diabetes prevention program at the local YMCA, Acosta had no choice but to participate too. “Whatever I have to eat during this program, you’re eating too,” she told him.
For several months, the duo learned how to read nutrition labels and measure healthy portion sizes; traded fried foods for broiled, baked or steamed varieties; and kept food diaries. They also took Zumba classes, swam and participated in resistance-training activities regularly.
“I was determined – I set my mind; I wanted the weight off,” says Elena Acosta, a 70-year-old retired teacher. “The only way I knew I would lose the weight was by sticking to the program.”
Elena and Joe Acosta each lost 35 pounds two years ago and have kept it off since. “I can’t cheat,” Joe Acosta says, “because my wife is cooking.” (Chasi Annexy)
She was right: Elena Acosta eventually lost 35 pounds and has kept it off for nearly two years. “I feel so much more energetic ,” she says. Her husband is also down 35 pounds and has reduced his risk for diabetes. “[My doctor] is quiet now and very happy with the way I am,” he says.
Too Late to Lose Weight?
More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and adults over age 64 are no exception. While rates decline slightly at age 75, many seniors are vulnerable to carrying extra pounds due to a combination of factors including slower metabolisms, a tendency to become more sedentary with age and a culture that makes being slender increasingly difficult.
“Weight gain is occurring, but it’s not just because of aging,” says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, head of the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It’s what we eat, our lifestyle habits, how much screen time we get … all of those kinds of factors are having an impact.”
But while sustained weight loss at any age is linked to a host of benefits like improved heart health, fewer orthopedic problems and even better mental health, weight loss isn’t always recommended in older age because it’s also associated with muscle and bone loss, frailty and disease. What’s more, if older adults regain the weight they lose, they’re even more likely than younger populations to pack it back on in fat, not muscle or bone, says Kristen Beavers, assistant professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University.
Adds Chodzko-Zajko: “If an older adult is somewhat overweight but not obese, and they have a reasonable lifestyle and they can minimize risk factors for cardiovascular disease and hypertension and they’re functional, that’s not so bad.”
Older, Wiser – and Slimmer
Still, plenty of older adults can benefit from losing weight, particularly if they’re obese, have weight-related chronic conditions or a poor quality of life. “If a person is overweight, they [often] feel better if they’ve lost weight,” says Dr. James Powers, a geriatrician and professor in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “There’s less wear on the joints, greater endurance, greater ability to walk; to do normal activities without getting short of breath.”
That was the goal for Pamela Christensen, a 65-year-old technology manager in Garden City, New York, who’s lost – and kept off – 35 pounds since joining a gym two years ago. Since then, she’s relieved her joint discomfort, ditched her cane and boosted her stamina. “I didn’t want to be the grandma who everybody says, ‘She can’t get on the floor with us,'” Christensen says. “And little by little, I am less that person.”
1. Seek structure.
Christensen’s past weight-loss efforts didn’t last, but the latest one did in part because she committed to Weight Watchers and works with a personal trainer. Meanwhile, the Acostas attribute much of their success to the structure of the YMCA program. “It really showed me what I should and should not do,” Elena Acosta says.
2. Pack in the protein.
To prevent losing too much muscle and bone mass when losing weight, older adults should focus on getting plenty of protein, calcium and vitamin D in their diets, Beavers says. One study found that adults between ages 52 and 75 built muscle best if they ate 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily – or double the Institute of Health’s recommended intake. For a 180-pound person, that’s about 120 grams, or about the amount of two chicken breasts, three eggs and one Greek yogurt.
3. Practice portion control.
With every decade, people generally need about 100 fewer calories a day to maintain their weight. But most of the time, “people continue to eat the same way when they’re in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, not even noticing they’re not as active and they’ve lost muscle mass,” says Angela Ginn-Meadow, a registered dietitian in Baltimore. Portion-control tricks can help. Try trimming your ice cream habit from two scoops to one, eating off smaller plates or ordering steamed vegetables instead of fries, Ginn-Meadow says. “These small changes can cut back 100 calories or more, and then they see, ‘I’m losing weight and I didn’t even know it.'”
4. Get moving.
While policy guidelines suggest all adults get their heart rates up at least 150 minutes each week and strengthen their muscles twice a week, less than 8 percent of adults over age 70 do that, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But exercise – and particularly resistance training – is especially important among older adults to keep muscles and bones healthy. Fortunately, many programs at community centers, in gyms and even online can help older adults learn to move in ways that benefit their quality of life, experts say. Joe Acosta, for one, finds doing bodyweight exercises like pushups every other day at home helps ward off back pain. Other people his age looking to lose weight, he says, “have to make up their minds that they’re going to be active.”
5. Be patient.
Any age, successful, sustainable weight loss takes time. “It needs to be a permanent change” to reap the benefits, Beavers says. The Acostas, who still eat and exercise the way they did when they were enrolled in the program, learned that firsthand. “It becomes a life change,” Elena Acosta says. “I could not go back to what I was doing before.”
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