One of the most influential factors in terms of maintaining optimal health is the regulation of healthy body composition. The risk factors associated with health conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, Osteoarthritis, and many more can be significantly reduced by maintaining a healthy level of body fat.
As we get older, it can be increasingly difficult to keep our weight under control. Before looking at strategies on how to do so, we need to understand a little about the science.
There are many key drivers that influence our body composition. Individual, social, cultural, and even geographical factors can play a role. However, when focussing on basic human biology in an otherwise healthy adult and the mechanisms that drive weight gain, energy balance is what counts.
Without delving too deeply into it all, energy balance is the amount of energy out (exercise, Resting Metabolic Rate – RMR, etc.) versus the amount of energy in (food, beverages etc). For example, say I burn 2000 calories per day but eat and drink 2500 calories, I’d be in an energy surplus of 500 calories per day. This would result in weight gain.
When it comes to burning energy, 60-75% of the work is performed by our Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). This is the energy required for the body to perform its most basic internal processes. As we age, our lean tissue mass (muscle, bone etc) slowly decreases and our fat mass increases. Unfortunately, muscle burns more energy at rest than fat. This is just one of the reasons strength training is so important.
In addition, some of our internal organs slow their metabolic rate. The result, our RMR as a whole slows as we age, making it harder for us to burn those calories whilst at rest.
Physical activity, both structured exercise and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), make the next greatest contribution to our total energy expenditure.
Once again, we start to see some pretty rapid declines in these figures as we age. Be it fear of injury, lack of confidence, limited age-appropriate options and more, when it comes to exercise the physical activity rates of Australia’s older adult population are alarmingly low. For example, less than 85% of adults over 65 perform the recommended amount of strength training sessions per week.
As for our NEAT, things like walking to the shops rather than driving, taking the stairs rather than the lift, and even standing more often than sitting can have an impact on our energy expenditure. And, you guessed it, as we get older we tend to move less too.
There are a couple of other things that influence our energy expenditure, but, for the time being, these two are all you need to focus on.
In terms of energy intake, we need to talk about nutrition. You can exercise all you like and walk the dog for as long as you like, but if you eat and drink more calories than you burn, you’ll never lose weight.
There are a million strategies and diets out there to help you consume fewer calories and improve your nutritional habits, and, at their core, they all work. The issue is adherence and compliance. You need to find one that works for you and stick to it.
One of the nutritional priorities, for older adults particularly, should be on increasing protein intake. Protein helps to maintain muscle mass, especially when combined with strength training, helping to keep our RMR higher, it keeps us feeling full for longer, and takes more energy to burn than other macronutrients.
I’ll leave you with a couple of simple tips to help kickstart your body composition improvement:
- Start doing some strength training. There are too many benefits to list.
- Focus on managing your diet for weight loss, rather than trying to exercise like an elite athlete.
- Add protein to every meal, aiming for approx 1g per kg of body weight per day.
- Try to move as much as possible throughout the day. Sitting is the new smoking!
- Write a food diary to better understand your dietary habits and make small changes where you can.
- Work with a qualified trainer or health professional to find the best plan for you. Adherence is key.
Courtesy Van Marinos
Van is an Accredited Exercise Scientist and Founder of Community Moves Health & Fitness. He has over 15-years’ experience in Health & Fitness, Education, and Sports Development. http://communitymoves.com.au/