Why It's Harder to Lose Weight as You Get Older

Why It's Harder to Lose Weight as You Get Older

If the number on the scales is heading skywards with every extra candle on your birthday cake, you’re not seeing things. Even the most dedicated gym bro can’t completely sidestep the physiological changes that come with growing older, it’s a fact of life.

As you age, your body becomes inefficient at processes it once excelled at, explains Cambridge-based PT Joe Mitton, from Click For Therapy. Hangovers last longer, workouts hit harder and getting results in the gym requires next-level effort.

Why It's Harder to Lose Weight as You Get Older

Some people accept the extra few pounds and let gravity take the reins. But you know that muscle isn’t just for millennials. Here, we look at five causes of middle age spread and, more importantly, give you the tools to fight flab from 40 onwards.

Why it’s harder to lose weight as you get older…

1. Your testosterone levels deplete

As the years stack up, your T-levels droop – around one per cent each year from the age of 30 onwards, in fact. When they do, there’s far more than your hairline and libido at stake.

Testosterone is a hydrophobic molecule, which means that it likes to stick to fat, explains Bevan Viljoen MSc, National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified performance enhancement and corrective exercise specialist. “It also helps to build muscle, fuels metabolism, and maintains insulin sensitivity, which can help in the prevention of type 2 diabetes,” he adds.

Why It's Harder to Lose Weight as You Get Older

When your T-tank is low, your body becomes less efficient at these essential functions, making it far easier for last night’s pizza to become today’s belly fat. What’s more, numerous scientific studies have found obesity impairs the production of testosterone. The takeaway? Low testosterone makes it easier to store body fat, and excess body fat lowers testosterone levels.

Fat cells promote the conversion of testosterone to oestrogen and oestrogen helps us store fat. As testosterone is also needed to build muscle, this also drops, which makes it harder to train and, subsequently harder to lose weight. Thanks a lot, age.

What you can do: First of all, get moving. A study from Tsukuba University and Ryutsu Keizai University in Japan found that 12 weeks of aerobic exercise – activity that causes you to be quickly out of breath like sprinting or lifting a heavy weight – “significantly boosted” the testosterone in overweight and obese men, with the greatest increases seen among those who really went for it.

You could also consider upping your intake of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and quality fats – foods like olive oil, avocados, egg yolks, nuts, and so on. Researched published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that diets with higher amounts of monounsaturated and saturated fats bump your T-stores.

Finally, stress less and sleep more. Excess cortisol saps your T-levels, according to research from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine – but getting a decent night’s shut-eye will help you preserve what you’ve got. You could also try these five easy and natural testosterone hacks...

2. You lose muscle mass

Age-related muscle atrophy starts as you head for the big 4-0, explains Dr Sally Norton, founder of Vavistalife. Medical professionals are still figuring out why exactly this happens, but it’s not just because we tend to move less.

“It may be loss of nerve cells that signal to muscles from the brain, or a drop in the hormones regulating muscle growth,” she explains. “There is also evidence that we aren't always eating enough protein as we age, or as good at utilising it.”

Why It's Harder to Lose Weight as You Get Older

This is bad news beyond your diminished bench PB. Think of muscle tissue as your own personal engine room. Keep the fires stoked, and it’ll help you burn blubber all day.

“Muscle tissue is the largest consumer of glucose in the entire body,” explains Mitton. “If you can't contain your lean muscle mass as you age, there's less to consume that glucose – leading to higher levels of insulin resistance and a higher body fat percentage.”

What you can do: Protein is the most important food for repairing and building muscle, so make sure you’re getting enough at every mealtime. According to a study in the American Journal of Physiology–Endocrinology and Metabolism, people who doubled their protein intake RDA had an increase in muscle protein synthesis.

Get stuck into the squat rack. A review of trials published in the Cochrane Library found two or three progressive resistance exercise sessions per week improved muscle strength, gait speed, physical ability, and functional limitation in older people.

3. Building muscle becomes harder

Maintaining muscle is one thing, but adding mass is even trickier. Resistance training primarily acts on ‘type two’ muscle fibres, which are primarily associated with high force or explosive actions, explains Andy Page, strength and conditioning coach at Pure Sports Medicine in London’s Chancery Lane. Over the years, these muscle fibres – sometimes referred to as ‘fast twitch’ – diminish.

Unfortunately, most ‘type one’ fibres don’t respond to heavy weight training. “This is why as we progressively age, it gets proportionally more and more difficult to increase muscle size,” adds Page, “but muscle strength increases are still possible, even in older adults.”

Why It's Harder to Lose Weight as You Get Older

What you can do: Tailor your workout routine and reap the rewards. Look at functional fitness as opposed to split sessions, Viljoen recommends. Total-body exercises will improve your mobility, something you probably took for granted in your early twenties.

Train smarter – volume-based training systems stimulate the pituitary gland to produce more growth hormone and challenge muscles to work harder for longer, he says. Better yet, you’ll see a natural boost in your T-levels.

Viljoen suggests escalating density training (pairing exercises in the style of a superset, with a time limit), German volume training (10 reps/10 sets/same weight), and German body composition training (upper and lower body paired sets, high reps and short rests).

4. Your metabolism slows down

As you age, your body becomes far less efficient at converting food into energy, explains Page. Far from ideal on its own; a near-disaster when you factor in muscle losses and burgeoning body fat.

This is why the weight can quickly pile on, even if your diet remains the same. If this happens, don’t be tempted to slash calories and subsist on salads. “If we crash diet to lose weight we can end up losing around 25% of that weight as muscle, making the problem worse,” says Norton.

Why It's Harder to Lose Weight as You Get Older

What you can do: Following the principles of the Paleo or Mediterranean diet will help to maintain lean muscle and reduce body fat, says Viljoen. Make protein and vegetables the cornerstone of every meal. “Protein to aid muscle cell regeneration and repair, and green leafy vegetables to reduce oestrogen in the body,” he explains.

5. It takes you longer to recover from workouts

As you age, you’ll experience more muscle damage from exercise, which means it’ll take you longer to recover. The ‘why’ hasn’t quite been settled upon, but certain physiological changes add to the mix.

For example, a study in the American Journal of Nutrition found that blood flow to the legs is reduced in older people. “This has implications for getting rid of waste products during exercise, and also delivering nutrients to those areas needed after training,” explains Dr Jeff Foster of TFJ Private GP Services.

That’s not all. “Training produces an inflammatory response, and as we age, we do not regulate our inflammatory processes as well,” he adds. Inflammation is useful in the right amounts – it’s a necessary process for muscle recovery – but a long-term battering is associated with increased risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes.

Why It's Harder to Lose Weight as You Get Older

Unfortunately, your lifestyle is also to blame. You’re probably exercising far less than you were 20 years ago, for starts. The ghosts of old injuries tend to haunt you, too. Ever avoided running because of a bad knee, or skipped tennis due to an old shoulder injury?

What you can do: There are ways to mitigate next-day DOMs, however. Befriend a foam roller and focus on the movement centres – hips, foot and ankle, shoulders. Book yourself in for regular sports massages too, suggests Viljoen.

The best way to control your weight as you age? Start young, and make your health and exercise goals a long-term project, says Page. “The more our weight fluctuates and body fat we accumulate, the more difficult it is to reach our ideal weight.”