Body Changes After 50: How Much Can You Really Control?

Certain shifts in diet and exercise can make a big difference

By Linda Melone, CSCS
Originally Posted On January 25, 2017

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Credit: Getty Images
  • After 50, weight gain, fatigue and loss of strength serve as not-so-pleasant aging reminders. The good news is we can control more of our body changes than we think we can.

Weight Gain and Belly Fat

Take weight gain, for example. Men and women find themselves gaining weight at a rate of one to two pounds per year between early adulthood and middle age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Women particularly tend to gain belly fat after menopause. Although going through menopause is often considered an expected part of aging, research shows that it does not cause a woman to gain weight. A review by the International Menopause Society found that, although weight gain is not caused by menopause, hormonal changes during this time can, however, lead to more belly fat. Environmental and lifestyle factors are largely to blame for the weight gain itself, scientists concluded.

“Our cells become resistant to insulin as we age,” says Dr. Kathryn A. Boling, primary care provider and family medicine specialist at Mercy Personal Physicians at Lutherville, Md. “This can lead to weight gain around the belly, especially in women.”

In insulin resistance, fat, muscle and liver cells do not respond normally to insulin. As a result, liver cells do not absorb glucose (blood sugar) easily from the bloodstream, a situation that can keep blood sugar levels higher than normal and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Swap out sugar carbs for vegetables, fruit and whole grains to cut calories and keep blood sugar levels in check.

What you can do: To decrease weight gain and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, Boling recommends cutting back on refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and sugars, desserts, sweets and breads. Swap out sugar carbs for vegetables, fruit and whole grains to cut calories and keep blood sugar levels in check. In addition, keeping a food journal can help you lose weight. A 2008 study of nearly 1,700 subjects shows keeping a food diary can double weight loss when compared to people who do not track their food.

Metabolism Changes and Weight

Another factor contributing to weight gain is a drop in metabolism, which begins to decline in your 30s.

“Metabolism is down between 10 and 15 percent by age 50,” says Boling. Loss of muscle contributes largely to a decrease in metabolism, since muscle burns more calories at rest than fat.

“Muscle loss is one of the most underrated health issues after 40 and 50,” says Suzette Pereira, researcher with Abbott Nutrition, Columbus, Ohio, specializing in muscle health and muscle loss associated with age. “Thirty to 40 percent of our body is muscle. Muscle loss occurs slowly but accelerates over time.”

Feeling weaker or fatigued after a walk may be signs of muscle loss, Boling says. Muscle atrophy also relates to weaker bones and can contribute to osteoporosis over time.

A survey by AARP and Abbott of nearly 1,500 people found that although 73 percent of survey participants recognize they naturally lose muscle with age, only 13 percent know the importance of maintaining muscle mass with age.

“It’s not about abs and biceps,” says Pereira. “It’s about fat burning and maintaining your posture and also dealing with health setbacks.”

According to the survey, more than a third of respondents reported being hospitalized after 50 due to chronic disease; loss of strength and muscle were among their greatest recovery concerns.

“Your body burns through muscle when you’re sick,” says Pereira. The term “sarcopenia” refers to the decline of muscle tissue associated with the aging process. “Sarcopenia puts you at high risk of losing your independence,” says Pereira. Muscle loss is one of the biggest causes of overall functional decline in older adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In addition to changes in muscle, ligaments and tendons (which attach muscle to bone), also change. As a result of these changes (which include increased dehydration and “brittleness”), adults over 50 experience increased healing time. Injuries such as tendonitis become more likely over time. Specifically, tendons and ligaments of the shoulder (rotator cuff), Achilles, elbows and knees often become more fragile and susceptible to damage in active people over 50. By the age of 80 many people lose up to 50 percent of muscle mass.

What you can do: Resistance training is the gold standard to preserve muscle and strength, says Periera. “And keep in mind it’s never too late to start. Your muscles have plasticity, meaning they can become strong again,” she notes. Although three out of four people in the AARP/Abbott survey said they exercise three times a week, they mostly focused on cardio, not strength training, Periera says. “Only 24 percent said they do strength training.”

Experts agree that exercise goes a long way toward reducing the severity and consequences of many bodily changes that happen as we age. A regular workout program that includes strength training keeps muscles healthy, says Pereira. “You don’t have to go to a gym. Home workouts are fine.” Try DVDs or check out YouTube videos by qualified trainers to ensure you’re using the right, safe form.

And be sure to include enough protein, a building block of muscle. “We become less efficient at utilizing protein as we get older,” says Boling, who recommends 30 grams of protein per meal.

Above all, be consistent with your efforts. “Yes, change happen with aging,” says Boling, “but you can keep yourself at a place where you’re active and healthy despite these changes.”