Health

Losing Weight Doesn't Have to Get Harder as You Age

Your metabolism slows as you age, which makes it harder to lose weight. Here's how to fight those effects.
Jesse Morrow / Stocksy

“Metabolism doesn’t slow down, people do.”

This was my trainer Ngo Okafor’s breviloquent response when I asked him if getting fit and healthy would be trickier for me now as a 41-year-old than if I had the good fortune of teaming up with him five, ten, or even 15 years ago. On the face of it, I shouldn't have been surprised. Virtually everything out of the two-time Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion’s mouth is a caustic rebuke of a commonly held idea about fitness. In my first two training sessions with the man, I’d compiled enough such dismissals of to write this article. What’s more, it wasn’t very difficult to get beyond the bro-science and find peer-reviewed research that substantiated Ngo’s strident positions.

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I didn’t include the idea in that article because I was pretty sure that metabolism does indeed slow with age. I knew that even if research seemed to prove Ngo right yet again, that research would need a little more space for its nuances to be unpacked.

First, a little clarification: Though to most people, metabolism simply means the extent to which food is a fuel you use up immediately or store in the form of body fat, a more all-encompassing definition is that metabolism is the sum of chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life. Within that broad description, metabolism serves three main purposes: the conversion of food to energy to run cellular processes; the conversion of food to building blocks for proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and some carbohydrates; and the elimination of waste.

For the last hundred years, the average American has been living long enough and well enough to note that the amount of food they needed to fuel themselves in young adulthood is surplus to requirements once they get into their middle years. A slowing metabolism is invariably said to be the reason they've started storing more energy—as fat—than they use to do keep their bodies ticking over, digesting food and performing any exercise or non-exercise based activities.

“With age, metabolism does slow down and by age 40 you can already see signs of that,” says Great Neck, NY-based endocrinologist Isabela Romao, who explains that metabolic rate is chiefly determined by the amount of muscle mass you have. “Losing muscle is part of the aging process and so a slowing metabolic rate is a result of that.”

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Authors of a 2017 study published in the Journal of Endocrinology maintain that the amount of body fat individuals carry starts increasing in their early 20s and continues until their mid-60s, even if there’s no increase in food consumption. With muscle mass decreasing year after year, food energy is increasingly stored not used immediately. They note that while this increase is important, more important is the redistribution of fat to the abdominal area and visceral organs, as well as its infiltration into muscle and bone. The conclusions of study seemed not only to fly in the face of Ngo’s position on the matter, but put the onset of decrepitude way earlier than I’d imagined.

The thought of this marbling and wasting process beginning before we’ve started paying off student loans would be a wholly depressing one had I not crossed paths with some of of Ngo’s older clients in at the gym. One guy was fashionably dressed with a silvery suede crew cut and had a body proportioned like Michelangelo's David, though somewhat more muscular with cable-like veins running down his arms. His face, though, seemed to belong to a slightly older gentleman. When Ngo told me that he was well into his 60s I demanded to know why his metabolic rate had avoided the slowdown that Romao and so much research said was inevitable.

“It did,” Ngo says, explaining that when he began training him several years earlier, the guy was rocking a bona fide dad bod. Ngo’s first plan of action was to create the right environment for hypertrophy to take place. (Hypertrophy is defined as the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of its cells and is usually applied to the enlargement of muscle because muscle is the the tissue whose mass we generally want to maintain or increase.) “So we started to put some muscle on him to stoke his metabolism, increasing testosterone and growth hormone in the process, which led to more muscle gain. Now he looks better than most dudes one third of his age.”

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Ngo’s success in turning back the clock back for his client and getting him a spring break-ready body in his mid-50s was astounding to me, but then research has shown that age-related muscle loss—sarcopenia—and the metabolic slowdown that entails, can be reversed relatively late in life.

A study published in the Journal of Gerontology showed that the wasting of muscle in old age can be remedied via resistance exercise which was shown to “acutely and dramatically” increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis in men and women aged 76 years and older.

“People move less as they get older,” Ngo says, as we take turns performing batteries of pull ups. “I get it. They work hard, they want to relax, they want to enjoy themselves. And they are encouraged to be less active. ‘Slow down, take it easy, you deserve a vacation,’—but it’s not inevitable; that’s my point.

To my mind, giving in to the inevitability of sporting less muscle and more fat each year is a bit like resigning yourself to your house getting dusty or your car getting rusty. Left unchecked, these things will definitely happen. But if you don’t like the proposition of having a dusty house and a rusty car we know exactly what to arrest and reverse the state of affairs. And so it is for our bodies.

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