First, Fat Could Protect Your Health
As nutritionist Kim Pearson tells us, it may not be the slimmest people who live the longest. “A recent study identified that slowly putting on a small to moderate amount of weight in middle or later adult life can actually be beneficial. In fact, in the study, those who were a ‘normal’ weight (BMI 20-25) at age 31 and gradually moved to overweight status in middle or later adulthood had the lowest mortality risk even compared to those who maintained normal weight through adulthood.” Kim also explains that once this level tips into obesity (a BMI of more than 30), the risk factors start to increase rapidly, making it a realistic assumption that maintaining a BMI of around 24-28 in your later adult years is a healthy weight goal. “Having a healthy amount of fat has also been shown to lower your risk of several chronic diseases,” Kim says. But the new findings aren’t a green light to pile on the pounds – the study was clear that the greatest longevity benefits occurred on a trajectory over several years. And the adults who lived the longest had an average BMI of around 27 – just beyond the recommended range of 20-25.
Being Underweight Can Take Its Toll
Being slim has always been equated with peak health, but as osteopath and founder of Canamis Ed Buckwald explains, being underweight can increase your risk of several health conditions. “A low body weight as you age increases your risk for low bone mineral density, which means your bones lack essential minerals, such as calcium, which can lead to osteoporosis.” Kim adds that having a low BMI can also increase the risk of some cancer-related deaths, increase your risk of bone fractures if you fall and put you at risk of nutrient deficiencies if you aren’t eating enough. Studies have also shown that greater amounts of soft tissue thickness around the buttocks and hips influences hip fracture risk when people fall. Research suggests the risk of suffering a hip fracture more than doubles if you are underweight. And while it’s true you need fewer calories as you age, calories shouldn’t be reduced dramatically. In fact, a 65-year-old woman needs 1,912 calories per day compared to a 35-year-old woman, who needs 2,103, just a 2% difference. If you are underweight, experts recommend eating more protein – think lean meat, yoghurt, nuts and seeds – alongside doing more weight and resistance training.
Muscle Comes Into The Equation, Too
Studies haven’t investigated the specifics of where and how weight should be gained to be protective, but Ed says that weight gained through muscle, instead of fat, is likely to offer more health benefits. “Your body composition changes as you age,” he says. “Ageing often results in the loss of fat-free mass, and this is typically through a reduction in skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscle is what makes movement possible, so maintaining muscle mass is hugely beneficial for protecting joints and bones as you age.” As our bodies naturally shift more from muscle mass to fat storage as we age, building muscle should be an integral part of your exercise regime, says Ailish Fleming, personal trainer at SIX3NINE. “In your 50s and 60s, aim for two full-body resistance training sessions per week, working at a seven or eight out of ten on an effort scale. Focus on multi-joint movements like squats, deadlifts and push-ups, and don’t be scared to lift heavy as biology at this stage of life means becoming overly muscly is impossible. Instead, lift weights to boost mood and cognitive function, regulate appetite and prevent osteoporosis – the bonus is that you will look stronger and more toned.”
Exercise Can Keep Things In Balance
If you have put on a few pounds in the last year, remember that sudden weight gain in later life (without building up muscle) will put additional strain on your joints and bones as well as your cardiovascular system. If you do have some weight to lose, take a sensible approach, says Ailish. “Once you have gone through the menopause, your oestrogen levels plummet, which affects where you store fat, moving from your hips and thighs to your tummy, and weight loss generally becomes harder with age,” she explains. Your body’s sensitivity to protein also plummets as you age, which makes it harder for your muscles to use protein for growth and repair, which can hamper weight loss efforts. “Your muscles are significantly less responsive to protein in your 50s and 60s, so you should increase your intake. And if you are looking to cut calories, do so sensibly in order to keep energy levels in check. If you’re going to reduce calories, start in small increments. It’s important to remember food will facilitate better training sessions, ultimately helping you maintain a healthy level of muscle and strong bones,” she says.
The Bottom Line...
Carrying some, but not too much, extra weight may increase longevity. But Kim warns that BMI shouldn’t be used as the sole measurement of health. “Nutritional health can never be boiled down to a number on a scale,” she stresses. “It’s far more important to consider what you’re eating, ensuring you eat plenty of fresh, nutrient-rich vegetables, protein and healthy fats. Staying within a ‘healthy’ weight range has many health benefits, that’s a given, but if you’re staying in that weight range by calorie counting and eating foods with a low nutritional value, you will definitely not remain healthy as a result.”
For more information visit Kim-Pearson.com, SIX3NINE.com and Canamis.com.
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