Middle age can be a time of great joy. We’re a little older, but definitely wiser. Many of us have raised beautiful families, and look forward to more leisure in retirement.
But challenges also arise as we move into our 40s, 50s and beyond.
“Typically, people find as they age, their metabolism slows,” says Sarah Muntel, a registered dietitian and bariatric coordinator at Community Bariatrics North in Indianapolis.
Metabolism refers to the physical and chemical processes that take place inside the body. It includes the mechanism that converts food and drink into energy.
The basal metabolic rate (BMR) measures the amount of energy the body uses – in the form of calories – to maintain its ability to function when at rest.
As we age, this rate slows. Many people then experience a creeping weight gain as the years roll on.
“When your metabolism slows, it is important you adjust your diet,” Muntel says. “If you are not burning calories as you used to and eat the same diet, you will gain weight.”
Fast and slow metabolism
Several factors impact your metabolic rate, says Jen Bruning, a Chicago-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Some people are naturally born with a faster metabolism, and can eat large amounts of food without gaining weight. Others have a slower metabolism, and swear they gain a pound every time they simply look at a cookie.
Metabolism also tends to slow with age, Bruning says. Experts say the slowdown begins around age 20, but is modest for a long time. Your BMR slows about 1 to 2 percent per decade up until around middle age, when the slowing process becomes more pronounced.
“Many people really start to notice a change in their metabolism in their 40s and 50s, but it can happen sooner than that,” Bruning says.
Once the change kicks it, it can be dramatic. Some people find their BMR slowing down by 10 percent per decade after age 40, while others might see a more modest decrease.
“Every person’s metabolism is different,” Muntel says, adding that factors such as genetics, muscle mass and general health play a role in how your metabolism changes over time.
Fighting back against a slowing metabolism
If a slowing metabolism is speeding up your weight gain, you can still fight back. There are several things you can do to slow or reverse the increase in pounds, Muntel says.
For starters, adjust your diet. “Keep track of what you eat and cut down a bit,” Muntel says.
She suggests eating more low-calorie foods, such as lean protein, fruits and vegetables that will “help keep you satisfied with less calories.”
Bruning agrees that eating such foods and consuming “slightly smaller portions” can be a big help in keeping you trim. She urges you to avoid restricting your diet too severely.
“Be careful not to be tempted by a crash diet,” she says. “When we restrict calories too much, our bodies can go into 'starvation mode,' and drop our metabolic rate even more.”
Muntel says you also should make time to exercise. “When you move more, you burn more calories, which can help with overall weight loss,” she says.
She suggests adding a weight training program to complement your cardio workouts. “Adding strength training can add muscle mass,” Muntel says. “The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest.”
Bruning also recommends more exercise as you age. “Staying active is paramount,” she says.
Even simple changes can help make a difference, such as:
- Parking farther away and walking to your destination
- Walking to the store
- Playing with pets, kids and grandkids
- Trying a new workout class
Bruning cites the phrase “if you don't use it, you lose it,” which she says “has never been more true than when talking about aging muscles.”
Finally, Bruning urges you to recognize the changes that take place in your body, and to adjust to these shifts instead of fighting them.
“Remember that this is partly a natural process, and honor what your body needs now, not what it used to need,” she says.