After age 50, maintaining a healthy weight can be even more challenging than it was in earlier years. Changes in metabolism, hormonal fluctuations, lower activity levels and other issues can all contribute to an expanded waistline, which, aside from aesthetic concerns, can lead to conditions like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
But before taking action, it's important to know how our weight actually affects us and what we can really do about it. Too many of us in midlife and beyond may believe some myths about fat and weight that researchers have long since debunked. To start on a path to better health, first move past these misconceptions:
1. If you stop exercising, your muscle turns into fat. People who lifted weights in their 20s and 30s often worry that their hard-earned muscle will turn to flab as they age, but that's simply not physiologically possible. "There is no scientific process in our body that turns muscle into fat," says Dr. J. Shah, a bariatric physician and medical director of Amari Medical in Scarsdale, N.Y.
What, then, accounts for the sometimes flabbier appearance of our arms as we age? In large part, it's sarcopenia, the gradual, natural loss of muscle mass and strength that typically begins in our 40s and affects nearly everyone by the time we reach our 60s. Our natural loss of skin elasticity as we age also contributes to the effect.
So don't cease your workouts because you fear you're just building up future fat; a decline in muscle mass is inevitable, but the benefits of exercise are especially valuable as we age to maintain overall health and ward off frailty by keeping bones strong.
(MORE: How We Can Make Older Bodies Young Again)
2. You can target where you want to lose fat. Blasting fat from a specific area of the body — such as doing crunches to flatten your abs — isn't a realistic way to trim down. The only way to reduce body fat in any part of the body is reduce it everywhere by losing weight and improving your overall fitness through changes in diet and an exercise regimen that includes regular cardiovascular workouts.
While crunches, for example, may benefit your abdominal, or core, muscles, the exercise itself does not burn a substantial number of calories and so does not have significant impact on body fat. "A study from long ago had folks do 5,000 crunches in a month and found no fat loss," says Irv Rubenstein, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and founder of the Nashville fitness facility STEPS.
3. The lower your percentage of body fat, the better. The "ideal" body fat percentage for any adult varies depending on factors like age, gender, exercise level, genetics and bone structure. In general, for adults over 50, a target healthy range of body fat is 20 to 25 percent for women and 10 to 15 percent for men. Generally, women with more than 32 percent body fat and males with more than 25 percent are considered to be at higher risk for heart disease and other conditions.
But people with a much lower percentage of body fat could be putting their health at risk as well. Men and women with very low body fat could face nutrient deficiencies and men could incur a higher risk of osteoporosis. "If you get a disease or infection that causes muscle wasting," Rubenstein warns, "being too thin could be dangerous."
4. Middle-age spread is inevitable. It is only inevitable if you don't make changes to keep up with your changing metabolism. As we age, our metabolism slows — about 5 to 10 percent per decade — due to hormonal changes and the fact that our decreasing muscle mass reduces our caloric needs. If you eat like you did in your 30s but do not at least maintain the same level of physical activity, you will gain weight, says Jennifer Sacheck, Ph.D., associate professor of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and coauthor of Thinner This Year.
"General metabolism decreases with age as we start to lose muscle mass after age 40," she explains. To help limit your weight gain, strive to reach the Centers for Disease Control's current recommendation for all adults age 18-64 of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. Intervals of higher intensity exercise and good sleep habits also help maintain your metabolism and ward off middle-age spread.
5. Cellulite is not "regular" fat; it's worse. Cellulite, the dimply skin often found around the thighs and buttocks that looks somewhat like orange peel, may appear different than fat on the rest of your body, but it's one and the same. "Cellulite is 'regular fat' except for its appearance," Sacheck says, "which manifests itself mainly in the abdominal and pelvic regions, including the rear, with fibrous connections just below the skin's surface, which gives it a dimpling appearance."
Cellulite is no more or less harmful than other body fat. It is, however, found much more often in women than men, partly because of differences in hormones and genetics. People with a sedentary lifestyle, a slowed metabolism and poor diet appear more prone to cellulite than others, so, again, exercise and a healthy diet can help ward it off. There is no existing treatment to eliminate it, not even exercise and weight loss, however.
6. Skinny people don't get diabetes. Type 2 diabetes can affect anyone, regardless of weight. (In fact, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that people with normal weight who are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes face a mortality risk twice as high as overweight people with diabetes.)
"Just because a person appears thin does not mean she is devoid of body fat, which contributes to the development of diabetes," Sacheck says. Many individuals can be "skinny fat," which means they carry a relatively high percentage of body fat for their body size. "Diabetes progresses from the inability to control blood sugar," she says, "which can result from diets high in sugar and also from a lack of exercise." Those are risks we all face.
7. Weight is the most important risk factor for health. Smoking, heredity, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure and other issues also increase our risk of early mortality and heart disease. As much as having a normal weight with those risk factors is potentially dangerous, carrying extra pounds with an otherwise healthy lifestyle may not be as bad as it seems. "Just as people can be 'skinny fat,' some individuals can be 'fit and fat,'" Sacheck says.
A person with excess body fat who exercises and eats well may have a high percentage of healthy, lean muscle, which contributes to decreased inflammation and reduces the risk of many diseases typically brought on by lifestyle factors, such as diabetes and heart disease.