According to the experts, a 30-minute workout most days of the week is all you need for healthy bones and a strong heart. If you get that amount of exercise, you’re in compliance with the recommended guidelines of at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. But what if your goal is to maintain a steady body weight and avoid weight gain?
The reality is harsh. According to the National Institutes of Health, the average person gains 30 pounds of body weight between the ages of 20 and 50 and it happens despite a reduction in calorie intake. It’s tempting to blame age-related weight gain on eating more or moving less, but weight gain is a complex process. It’s more than just “calories in and calories out.”
And while aging alone doesn’t cause weight gain, it can make it harder for you to lose weight or keep it off. One reason is an inactive lifestyle leads to loss of muscle mass with age. You also are less likely to be active as you get older, and your ability to process glucose (sugar) may change. All of these changes can affect your weight.
If you’re determined to keep your weight under control as you age through lifestyle, you might wonder how much exercise do you need to stay a healthy body weight as you age and avoid an expanding waistline?
The answer isn’t as clear-cut as you might think since the quantity of exercise you need to prevent weight gain depends on a variety of factors including:
- Type of diet you eat
- Whether you exercise at a high or low intensity
- Your age
- Your overall lifestyle, including sleep habits and how well you manage stress
- Whether you take medications that cause weight gain or have health problems that make it harder to lose weight
So, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question, although there are studies that provide insight. However, one thing is clear. With age, most people put on weight unless they modify their diet or increase physical activity.
Back to the question of how much exercise. A study carried out by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that exercise prevents weight gain, but you have to stay quite active. For the study, researchers followed 34,000 healthy women for more than 15 years. The researchers were interested in how much exercise it would take to prevent age-related weight gain in the study participants.
Their findings? In the study, normal-weight women who worked out at least an hour per day didn’t gain significant weight over the 15-year period, despite aging. The upside of the study is exercise may prevent weight gain as the years go by. The downside is an hour per day of exercise isn’t something most people are willing to do, even if they have that much time. In fact, many people aren’t enthusiastic about getting the recommended 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 5 days per week, much less an hour each day.
Another study found that more vigorous exercise helps prevent weight gain in a dose-dependent manner and the effects are more pronounced in men than women.
For Most People, It Takes More Than Exercise to Prevent Weight Gain
Based on the study results, exercise may prevent age-related weight gain but only for people who are disciplined enough to exercise more than the recommended guidelines. But for the average person, it also requires attention to diet quality, eating the right foods, not overeating, and eating mindfully.
Also, most people who exercise during middle-age and later do so by walking. But is that enough? Most people gain weight with age, partially because of loss of metabolically active muscle tissue. Strength training is the best way to preserve muscle and reign in weight gain due to aging. In fact, studies show combining aerobic exercise and strength training is the best training approach to limit weight gain related to aging.
Why strength training? Working your muscles against resistance improves body composition. Ultimately, it’s how much body fat versus muscle you have that matters for health. Building muscle increases the number on the scale, but it has different health implications than a gain in body fat does. Gaining muscle, as opposed to fat, improves insulin sensitivity and can lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. In one small study of men, strength training boosted insulin sensitivity by 16%. So, strength training muscle helps reduce muscle loss, improve insulin sensitivity, and make it easier to stay lean.
Besides, muscle helps preserve physical function, so you stay fit with good mobility. As you age, you lose more muscle, and most people gain body fat. This natural loss of muscle contributes to older adults becoming frail or even disabled. Working your muscle against resistance is the ideal prescription for health, weight control, and functionality.
The Bottom Line
Unless you’re committed to exercising an hour per day, exercise alone won’t keep you trim and fit, and age-related weight gain is real and something most people have to contend with. Even if you gain only a pound or two per year, that type of weight, over time, can increase your risk of health problems. That’s why it’s important to focus on nutrition as much as you do physical activity. You can’t out-exercise a poor diet, and you need strength training too for healthy body composition.
The take-home message? Don’t focus so much on working out that you ignore the quality of your food choices. Take an integrated approach to avoid weight gain as you age. You need a balance of physical activity and nutrition to live healthily and be your fittest; it’s not one or the other, but both. Make some of your physical activity include strength training too. There’s no substitute for working your muscles against resistance or fueling your body properly with nutrient-dense foods. It all counts!
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