Many older adults hear from their doctors that they need to lose weight to help with certain health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. The prescription is simply to “lose weight”, and most of the time no specific plan is given. It’s usually up to you to determine your plan of action, which can seem daunting if working out or eating right is a new habit.
What your doctor really means is to lose fat, not weight. To improve your health, you need to improve your body composition: increase muscle mass and decrease fat.
The scale is not always the best measuring tool, since it doesn’t differentiate between different types of weight. As an example, the scale went up by 15 pounds when I started lifting weights (muscle gain), even though I lost fat. Focusing on only the scale will mean focusing on short-term fixes rather than long-term solutions. Instead, focus on creating healthy habits you can maintain for the rest of your life. Better health (and fat loss) will follow automatically.
How to Lose Fat
1. Prioritize strength training.
In order to improve body composition, you need to gain muscle while losing fat. Lifting weights 2 to 4 times per week will help you accomplish this. Strength training has countless benefits for older adults, including increased bone density, better balance to excel at sports and prevent falls, preventing back pain and injuries, and, of course, getting stronger.
2. Make time for physical activity most days of the week.
In addition to regular strength training, making time for regular cardio activity will help you to lose fat and improve body composition. Physical activity recommendations for older adults suggest a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (or an equivalent combination of both).
3. Eat until you’re 80% full.
The Okinawans in Japan are renowned for their good health and have the longest life expectancy on the planet. They have a term called “Hara Hachi Bu”, which means eating until you’re 80% full. Another way of looking at it is eating until you’re no longer hungry, instead of eating until you’re full. You don’t need to meticulously count calories in order to lose fat (although it can be a useful tool when used correctly). Most of us just need to get better at checking in with ourselves and reading our own body’s satiety signals.
4. Focus on eating whole foods.
To lose fat, make sure at mealtime that half your plate is veggies, a quarter is lean protein, and the rest healthy carbohydrates and fats. “Treat” foods can (and should!) be a part of any long-term fat loss nutrition plan, when enjoyed in moderation.
How to Improve Body Composition
Keep these three things in mind when working to improve your body composition:
1. A “transformation” might take longer than you think.
In an industry rife with ads for jaw-dropping physique “transformations” that supposedly take only a few weeks to accomplish, keep in mind that most real, lasting results (that don’t involve unmaintainable, drastic, and/or unhealthy dieting or training plans) generally take a long time to achieve. That’s not a bad thing; it’s extra incentive to make healthy, active living a lifelong habit. But keep in mind that results vary greatly, even between people following the exact same program.
Generally, the faster you get results (e.g. 30-day challenges or transformations), the easier it is to lose them. It usually means you’ve done something drastic and unmaintainable that has an end date. Your results, too, then likely have an end date.
2. Consistency might sound cliché, but it’s the only thing that works.
Slow and steady really is the way to win the (proverbial) race and get the results you want. Focus on making your lifestyle enjoyable, sustainable, and life-enhancing — all in the name of consistency. Your training and your nutrition need to be a part of your life, not something you do in order to have the life you want later. Here’s a case in point: A few years ago, I was swimming laps as per usual, and noticed an extremely fit athlete in his 50s. Naturally I assumed he was training for something. So I asked, “What’re you training for?” He answered, “Life!”
3. Everyone falls off the bandwagon. Just make sure you get back on.
People who succeed in achieving their goals aren’t the ones who stay on the health and fitness bandwagon 100% of the time. That’s not realistic. Everyone falls off the bandwagon once in a while. What separates those who get results from those who don’t is the people who keep getting back on. At some point, every single person is going to fall off the health and fitness bandwagon for one reason or another — either for self-imposed or not-within-our-control reasons. We get sick, we go on vacation, we get injured (hopefully rarely, if ever) — you get the idea. All that matters is getting back on the bandwagon as soon as you can.
Commit to a lifelong active, healthy living lifestyle, and your small, consistent actions will lead to massive results over time.