The Gain Game

The one thing you'll gain by losing weight: Many more healthy, happy years.
The Gain Game

Getting older sure can hit you where it hurts: your waistline. Whether you're in your twenties, thirties, or forties, you've probably noticed that with every passing decade it gets tougher to stay (or get) slim. In fact, maybe your diet hasn't changed at all, but your pants are getting tighter. Or shedding a few pounds was a breeze in the past, but now it's downright impossible. And the gain pain isn't just cosmetic: We've known for some time that obesity is linked to health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers, but researchers are now connecting being overweight directly to life span. One study found that people who became obese by age 40 lose, on average, seven years of their life. So if you think you're too young to worry about a few extra pounds, or too old to turn back the clock, you're not. With the right strategy, you can gain years, lose pounds, and get healthy at every decade — starting now.

In your 20s
Great news for your diet: In your twenties, your metabolic rate remains relatively high, meaning you're still burning calories with ease. On the downside, while you might not see any fat building up on your hips, it is starting to accumulate around your internal organs and under the skin. So while skipping exercise and eating poorly may seem like no big deal, research says otherwise: In addition to weight gain, you could be setting yourself up for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes down the line.

And let's not forget osteoporosis. What you may not realize is that even at this age your bones aren't fully formed — they continue to strengthen through your late twenties. So shortchange your diet of calcium now and you may be compromising the future health and well-being of your bones.

In your twenties, get your cholesterol checked. If it's normal, you can wait five years until you have it checked again. If it's high, this is your wake-up call.

Now is also the time to start consuming a health-promoting diet that's rich in whole grains; fruits; vegetables; high-quality, lean protein (such as skinless chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, eggs, and soy); bone-building calcium-rich foods (such as low-fat milk and cheeses); and heart-healthy fats (such as fish, olives and olive oils, and nuts and nut oils).

And when it comes to exercise, this is the decade to flaunt it. You've still got the time and the energy to create a fitness routine that will become a natural part of your life for years to come. Try thinking of your fitness plan the way you think of your 401K: Invest now and you'll reap the benefits later. And whatever activity you choose, be sure to exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.

In your 30s
Hormone levels (estrogen and progesterone) gradually begin falling now. This is important because estrogen affects appetite — when estrogen levels are high, appetite drops; when estrogen is low (right before your menstrual cycle), appetite increases. Metabolism also starts to slow down when you hit your thirties. According to Dan Benardot, PhD, codirector of the Laboratory for Elite Athletic Performance at Georgia State University in Athens, "Metabolism declines by two percent each decade after the age of 30 — so, if you eat what you always ate and your metabolism is slower, guess what? You're going to gain weight." He adds, "At the same time, there's a shift away from lean body mass and a shift toward fat mass. This shift in body composition means that most of the weight we gain is fat, not muscle."

If you were haphazard about seeing a doctor in your twenties, this is the decade to shape up. Make an annual appointment with a primary-care physician as well as an ob/gyn. Get lax with your health, and you'll find you won't have the energy to exercise, eat right, and keep the pounds off.

When it comes to your diet, practice reverse psychology: Don't eat more, but do eat more often. Eating regularly stimulates an increase in metabolism, so increase the number of times you eat each day, starting with breakfast, to jump-start your metabolism. "Spread nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day so you're eating about every three hours," recommends Katherine Tallmadge, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

While a hectic schedule — juggling work and family demands or a busy social calendar — may have you reaching for frequent java jolts, resist the temptation — for your health and your weight. It's a misconception that caffeine and other stimulants can spur weight loss. Too much caffeine can actually cause a fast rise in blood sugar, followed by a fast drop — which can send hunger signals to your brain. Caffeine can also interfere with your body's absorption of calcium, which can lead to osteoporosis as you age. But there's no need to blacklist your local Starbucks — just curb your caffeine allotment by sticking to an A.M. mug only, or trying the new "light" coffees available now in supermarkets — they're made with half the caffeine of regular coffee.

Exercise is the best way to beat the gain in your thirties. Muscle revs up metabolism, and extra muscle means extra calories burned — even when your body is at rest. Maintain an exercise routine or accelerate your current program (strive for at least 30 minutes of cardio at least five days per week and strength train at least two times per week). "Strength training keeps muscles strong as you age, combating the inevitable shift in your body composition from muscle to fat," says Benardot. But combining strength training with a cardio routine is key, since aerobic exercise contributes to your cardiovascular health.

In your 40s
In this decade, you're continuing to lose muscle mass, and your metabolism is slowing down. Fat is more easily stored — particularly in your midsection (tummy). Your hormone levels drop further, meaning you're losing the heart-protective effects of estrogen. And you face an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Since diet is the single biggest predictor of all three diseases, the choices you make now can have a major impact on your future health. In addition, you should see your physician regularly — schedule an annual mammogram now, and, depending on your family's health history, consider having a colonoscopy, skin-cancer screening, and other age-appropriate tests.

Although the average age of menopause is 51, some women will have symptoms of perimenopause (the precursor to menopause) during this decade, says Shari Lieberman, PhD, a clinical nutritionist and menopause researcher in New York City. "Menopause is a major hormonal event in women, and it alone will significantly affect your metabolic rate," says Lieberman.

Keep your diet lean and mean in your forties — eliminate empty calories and fill up on low-calorie fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You'll get a jump on preventing heart disease and other middle-age health woes.

Another reason to go lean? A healthy diet may spell menopause relief. A study in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that obesity may predispose women to hot flashes during menopause. Women in the study with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 were more likely to report moderate to severe hot flashes than those who had a BMI less than 25.

More good news? Build on your exercise program throughout this decade, and you'll drop pounds and boost your health. Do a combination of weight-bearing exercise and a cardio workout — the first prevents bone loss, and the second helps you gain muscle mass, which will rev up your metabolism and help you burn calories more effectively," says Dr. Lieberman.

Try mountain biking (a great workout for you and your honey), power walking, or a tougher workout like a Spinning or a kickboxing class. And whatever you do, do it daily — or at least five days a week, for maximum results.

This article is reprinted from Weight Watchers Magazine, May/June 2003.