Lisa Delaney is one of the rare souls who know what it’s like to be an “after.” This journalist and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl shed 70 pounds—and six dress sizes–and has kept it off for 20 years. She answers your questions here each week.
DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: I love your book, but it says that you lost your weight when you were in your late 20s. I’m 53. Is it too late for me to drop the extra pounds I’m carrying?—Joanne
DEAR JOANNE: You, my dear, are right—I did lose my weight in my 20s. And there is an advantage to tackling a weight problem before, say, your mid-30s. That’s because, beginning around that time, you naturally start to lose lean muscle mass and gain body fat. Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue, so when the balance starts to tip in favor of fat, your metabolism starts slowing down. Not to mention all of the things that begin to complicate your life as you get older—marriage, kids, work, aging parents … I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new.
That said, though, it IS possible to drop pounds, even as you’re nearing AARP membership status. I did it myself—I gained almost 50 pounds when I had my son at age 40, and managed to get back to my pre-baby weight within a few years (while working full-time outside of the home and managing new motherhood). So I can relate—at least somewhat–to the work you have ahead of you. Here’s some advice to help you make it happen.
Exercise smart. First, working out is essential not just to getting to and staying at a healthy weight, but to your overall wellbeing. Most, if not all, of those so-called age-related health issues can be prevented, staved off, or eased with regular exercise. The mood lift exercise provides also helps fuel your motivation when sticking to a weight loss program gets tough. While you can get many of the health benefits exercise offers through “lifestyle” exercise—using the stairs instead of the elevator, parking your car in the furthest spot at the grocery store, etc.—when you’re bent on losing weight, especially after age 50, you need to work up more of a sweat. The best strategy is to take any and all opportunity to be active in your daily life, but to add 3-5 dedicated cardio workouts to your schedule. Walking, running, cycling, elliptical training, swimming—all are great options. I would suggest including speed intervals in at least two of those workouts to fire up your calorie-burning furnace. Add two to three resistance-training sessions weekly to help reverse the natural decline in your metabolic rate.
Throw in some fun. Don’t just relegate your workouts to the Y. Think about adding an active hobby to your life—ballroom dance—or ballet? Kayaking, backpacking, rock climbing? Don’t dismiss me as crazy: All of these activities, while challenging and time-consuming, can make moving more actually fun, not to mention empowering. I started sweep rowing on a team—with an actual coach and everything—when I was 50. The camaraderie and competition have added so much to my life, even beyond the physical. Read more about my rowing adventure here.
Think positively. When you’re planning out your weight-loss strategies, it’s natural to focus on foods to cut out rather than foods to add in. But a new study suggests that aiming to add fruits and vegetables to your diet is a smarter long-term weight loss tactic than things like eating out less and avoiding sweets. The researchers suspect that eating more fruits and vegetables is easier to stick to over the long haul than swearing off unhealthy foods altogether. While this study may be new, the idea isn’t: The premise that focusing on what to add to your diet can be more important than what you take away is a tenet of the DASH diet, which was originally intended to help people lower high blood pressure, but can be a weight loss tool too. Try this: Set a specific goal of getting a certain number of servings of non-starchy vegetables (the recommendation is three to five—go for the higher number) and fruits (experts suggest four to five) per day. As you focus on that goal, you may find yourself too full to overindulge in your unhealthy favorites.
Pick and choose. That same study identified three key cuts to make in your diet as well: limiting desserts, sugary beverages and meats and cheeses. While this might sound like a no-brainer, it can help you prioritize the dietary changes you need to make to be successful.
Focus on strong, not skinny. One of the things I love about rowing is that it has shifted my goals to performance rather than looks. It’s one thing to look good; it’s another to have the muscles to make things happen, whether it’s competing in a regatta, doing a pull-up or full-out pushups, or perfecting a pose like Crow in yoga. Yes, dropping pounds will help improve your weight, but getting strong will improve your functional fitness, which becomes more and more important as we age. You can’t knock 20 years off your chronological age, but you CAN be the youngest 53-year-old you can be. Setting goals that have to do with muscle strength and balance will go a long way towards that goal.
Lisa Delaney is editor of Spry magazine and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl. To submit a question, visit spryliving.com/experts.