Ways to Manage Weight as We Age

As metabolism slows, small changes to your food intake and activity can help keep weight in check

A bathroom scale.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Duke Clinical Research Institute Project Leader Brigette Adamkiewicz began working from her Cary home. With her local YMCA closed for several months, leaving her unable to follow her normal exercise routine, and with easy access to snacks to ease stress, she put on seven pounds. 

After about five months, Adamkiewicz realized she needed to make a change.

“I just felt like it was time to get back on the wagon and lose the weight,” said Adamkiewicz, who, at 62, knew age was working against her like many others.

Duke Associate Professor of Medicine Will Yancy, director of the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center, said that as we age, the many functions of our body become less effective. That includes our metabolism, which is the process through which our body converts food into energy. As it slows, Yancy said, it becomes easier to gain weight and harder to lose it.

“It’s very common for people to tell me that they used to do this or that and lose weight, but now it’s not working as well,” Yancy said. “As all of our body’s functions decline over time, our metabolic rate declines, too.”

Roughly 35 percent of Duke’s workforce is age 50 or over.

Adamkiewicz shed her pandemic weight with the help of a changed eating pattern and regular activity. By embracing the lessons of Adamkiewicz and others, controlling your weight as you age doesn’t have to feel impossible.

Muscle Matters

Research shows that we can lose between 3 to 8 percent of our muscle mass each decade, starting in our 30s. Since muscle plays a lead role in burning calories, having less of it makes losing weight a challenge. That’s why Yancy said that doing exercises that build or maintain muscle mass should be a part of everyone’s fitness routine.

Michelle Mosberger, exercise physiologist and lifestyle counselor at the Duke Health & Fitness Center.“We used to talk a lot about doing aerobic or cardio-type exercises to burn calories, but we didn’t talk so much about building muscle or resistance-type exercises,” Yancy said. “But the biggest driver of your metabolic rate is your muscle mass.”

Michelle Mosberger, an exercise physiologist and lifestyle counselor at the Duke Health & Fitness Center, said muscle-building exercises don’t have to be complicated.

Squats, pushups, calf-raises and lunges are simple and easy muscle building exercises that can be modified to fit all fitness levels. Don’t feel ready to do a pushup on the ground? Try leaning on a counter, or against a wall and pushing your body weight up. Getting in and out of a chair is essentially a modified squat and can provide many of the same benefits because it works the same muscle groups. Mosberger said getting in and out of a chair 8-12 times can help you start to build muscle, and you can make it more challenging as you progress.

“You can take something very simple that we do every day and make it into an exercise,” Mosberger said. “Slowing down these movements and pausing at the bottom and top of the movement will give you more ‘time under tension.’ This is a great technique for increasing intensity, particularly for those without equipment and for those limited on time.”

Power of Protein 

Adamkiewicz was able to improve her diet with the use of the Weight Watchers app, which she used as a guide to healthier options and a way to stay accountable. In addition to pushing her toward more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and away from processed foods and sugars, Adamkiewicz’s new diet featured plenty of healthy protein such as chicken and fish.

Duke Clinical Research Institute Project Leader Brigette Adamkiewicz.Yancy said that while there are plenty of factors that go into a healthy diet, protein plays an essential, and at times overlooked, role in weight control because it helps maintain muscle tissue.

“Protein intake is sometimes emphasized, but not always,” Yancy said. “It has the benefit of helping keep your muscle mass up.” 

Good sources of protein include red meat, pork, chicken, fish and eggs. He also said protein can be found in nuts, beans and dairy products such as cheese and milk.

While diet modifications can vary because of different goals and lifestyles, getting the right amount of protein is a key part of any effective plan to control weight.

Take Advantage of Help

For the past few years, Thomas DeGeorges, a grants and contract administrator for the Duke Department of Chemistry, has been working hard to maintain a healthy weight. He works out with trainers twice a week, hikes on the weekends and, for the past five years, has embraced a vegan diet.

Thomas DeGeorges, grants and contract administrator for the Duke Department of Chemistry.DeGeorges, 47, proudly says that his journey to better health is one that he hasn’t taken alone. He’s maintained his weight by logging his meals and exercises into a smart phone app. And around five years ago, he lowered his cholesterol and brought his weight down – he was around 35 pounds heavier than he is now – with the help of health coaches from LIVE FOR LIFE, Duke’s employee wellness program.

He’s regularly taken part in LIVE FOR LIFE’s group fitness programs, such as Maintain Don’t Gain and the Duke Run/Walk Club. He said the accountability and support offered through the programs has helped him stay on track. 

“Those programs have been super helpful,” DeGeorges said. “I can’t sing their praises enough. Duke’s effort to help employees manage their health is great.”

Define Your Motivation

While people looking to lose or maintain weight as they age face physiological challenges, Yancy said that there is one important factor that has nothing to do with the way bodies function.

Duke Associate Professor of Medicine Will Yancy, director of the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center.“It’s not impossible, I’ve seen a lot of people do it,” Yancy said of older adults losing weight. “What it comes down to is what’s motivating you.”

Articulating the specific reason for wanting to control weight can give you a more defined goal and make success feel more attainable.

“It’s one thing to say you want to feel better or move more easily, but it’s helpful to drill down and say, ‘OK, why do I want to move more easily?’” Yancy said. “If you want to move more easily because you want to be able to play with your grandchildren, or go for a hike, that can give you a specific motivation for making progress and make it easier to give up certain foods or exercise more.”

Adamkiewicz’s motivation is her family’s history of cardiovascular disease. The third-born of four children, she is the only one who hasn’t suffered a heart attack. And after losing seven pounds , as well as losing five more, Adamkiewicz feels more healthy.

“I’ve never had the mentality of giving up,” she said, “it’s not in my nature.” 

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