Why Losing Weight Is So Difficult After You Turn 40

Charlize Theron
Actress Charlize Theron in her new movie, “Tully.”

Even well-toned actresses like Charlize Theron have discovered that losing weight is tougher as you get older. Here’s the science and what you can do about it.

It’s going to be harder to lose weight as you get older. That’s just a fact of life.

But what if you’re over the age of 40 and you really do need to drop some pounds?

Perhaps you have a weight-related health problem.

Maybe you were laid up recovering from a procedure for a number of weeks or months.

Maybe your exercise routine was interrupted by an injury.

Or perhaps you’re Charlize Theron, a 42-year-old Academy Award-winning actress who ate In-N-Out for breakfast and macaroni and cheese at 2 a.m. to put on 50 pounds for a role and suddenly found it a lot harder to lose that weight than it had been 15 years earlier.

The reasons why it’s so hard can vary from person to person, particularly due to the role of genetics in weight gain.

But reduced metabolism in older age is a major factor, as are changes in hormones, particularly in women going through menopause.

And lifestyle-related factors play a role as well. Older men and women may be more stressed and less physically able to exercise the way they used to when they were younger.

However, if you keep those underlying causes in mind, it’s not totally impossible.

“It’s often not imagined that our weight has changed — or even the proportions of weight distribution — even if the scale number stays the same,” Susan Weiner, a registered dietitian and nutritionist and certified diabetes educator, told Healthline. “It’s a real thing. You’re not imagining it.”

Some things to watch

The first step to weight loss may be identifying whether there’s something that’s an easy fix.

“Has something happened — a change in relationship or job? Has that affected the times that you’re eating, how and what you’re eating, and who you’re eating with? Those changes in eating nutritionally can affect your weight,” Weiner said. “If you used to eat with other people, you maybe had more vegetables. Alone, you may be eating less healthy foods.”

Changes in sleep patterns have also been associated with weight gain.

While you might have stayed up late in your 20s and not seen any weight issues, less sleep after 40 — by then, more likely due to parenting or a demanding job than partying all night — is more of a problem.

Moreover, said Weiner, “people tend to eat when they’re tired.”

What you eat matters a lot. Experts recommended eating more protein, more plants, and less saturated fats.

A big reason for that age-related weight gain may be that your joints can no longer handle those long bike rides, daily jogs, or weekly pick-up basketball games.

That’s disappointing in itself, but there are other options. Swimming, in particular.

Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle tissue that occurs as a natural part of the aging process, starts around age 40.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian who is wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, says 40 percent of muscle mass will disappear between 40 and 80.

That process contributes to slower metabolism since muscle burns more calories than fat.

She recommends resistance or strength training to maintain muscle as an alternative to joint-jarring runs.

A couple of these problems could be addressed with a single solution.

“Get a workout buddy,” said Weiner, ideally one around your age.

That will likely keep you more accountable as you try to stick with your new exercise routine — and it may keep you from developing depression and poor eating habits.

And there’s the benefit of seeing you’re not the only one working through these problems in this new stage of life. This can lead to your expectations changing as well as leading to less worry about weight loss and more body acceptance, Weiner said.

“If it’s not something that’s causing a health problem, it may be fine to gain a couple pounds,” she said. “That’s part of what happens in the life cycle.”

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