Losing Weight After 60: Healthy Diet and Exercise Tips for Seniors
By Laura Slauson
| Last updated
We'll start with the good news: Losing weight after 60 is definitely a realistic goal. And maintaining a healthy weight can help you live an active and engaged life as a senior. However, many older people have to adjust their prior weight-loss strategies in order to safely lose extra pounds. That's because what works for younger people when it comes to weight loss doesn't necessarily work for seniors.
But that doesn't mean you can't achieve your healthiest weight. You can lose weight as you get older by recognizing how your body changes with age and creating a safe, effective weight-loss plan.
For many seniors, that process starts with determining their ideal weight. And because body composition changes with age, you may find that your goal weight and health priorities shift as you grow older. That's just one reason why it's important to work closely with your healthcare team if you think that you need to lose weight.
This article will help you discover how to stay healthy while safely losing those extra pounds. So keep reading to learn more about how to create a sound plan for senior weight loss.
A note on weight loss: If you're a senior who is losing weight unintentionally and without any changes to your diet or lifestyle, it's important to bring this up with your doctor. For older people, unexplained weight loss can be the first sign of certain health problems.
Do I Need to Lose Weight? Why Weight Charts Can Be Misleading for Seniors
If you're a senior carrying extra pounds, you might assume that the best thing for your health is losing that excess weight. After all, being overweight or obese can increase your risk for many health problems, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- Some kinds of cancer
However, it's important to realize that determining the ideal body weight for elderly people is more complex than simply consulting weight charts. So if you're wondering what you should weigh, your first step should be an open conversation with your doctor. That's because, for a senior, weight-loss goals must take several important factors into account, including overall health.
In fact, some of the standard methods for determining an ideal weight change as we age. You may already be familiar with the concept of body mass index or BMI. (You can determine your BMI with an online calculator.) Your BMI reflects your weight-to-height ratio.
The standard ranges for BMI are:
- Underweight—BMI that is less than 18.5
- Normal weight—BMI between 18.5 and 24.9
- Overweight—BMI between 25 and 29.9
- Obese—BMI over 30
However, many people feel that BMI oversimplifies weight issues. One reason is that BMI doesn't account for the fact that muscle is denser than fat. So a person who has a lot of muscle could have a much higher BMI than someone who wears the same size of clothing but who has less muscle. (In fact, a lot of professional athletes fall into the "obese" category simply because they have so much muscle mass.)
But what does this mean for seniors? Here's a key fact: Our body composition often changes with age. (Body composition is the amount of muscle and fat on your frame.) Many seniors experience sarcopenia, or muscle loss, as they grow older. And losing muscle may have a bigger impact on health than carrying extra weight.1 So lower weight isn't necessarily a good thing if it's the result of muscle loss.
In fact, studies have found that being underweight as a senior actually carries more risk than being overweight. That might seem counterintuitive, but overweight people who are older than 65 have lower mortality rates than people who are underweight or within the normal-weight range.1 (Some doctors call this the "obesity paradox.")
That means our ideal BMI often shifts upward with age. As a result, some medical experts have suggested that there should be a separate "BMI for older adults" chart that contains slightly higher numbers. This kind of weight chart for seniors would use a range of 25 to 27 as a "normal" BMI.2
Your weight-loss goals will also depend on your individual health issues. For example, the ideal weight for men over 60 with diabetes may be lower than for other men in that age group. And a women's weight chart for females over 50 who have not gone through menopause might be different than a weight chart for women over 60, because the hormonal shifts of menopause can trigger changes in body composition.
So instead of striving for a lower number when you step on the scale, it may be healthier in the long run to focus on your body composition (i.e., your muscle-versus-fat ratio), as well as on where fat is stored on your body.
Why is the location of excess fat important? In general, people tend to store fat either above their hips (mostly in their bellies) or below their hips. Fat that is stored above the hips presents a greater risk for:
- Heart disease
- Insulin resistance
- Alzheimer's disease
Because of the increased health risks carried by belly fat, waist circumference is often an important indicator of overall health. So instead of looking at a weight chart for seniors to determine whether you need to lose weight, you could measure your waist-to-hip ratio and discuss the results with your doctor.
Essentially, if you're focused on reaching an "ideal" weight, you may be focused on the wrong goal. Research suggests that instead of trying to lower your BMI, your focus should be on eating for your personal health and maintaining muscle tone and bone strength. That's why it's important to work with your healthcare provider to create personalized goals and plans that work for you.
Why Is Losing Weight Over 60 More Difficult? How Your Body Changes With Age
If you and your healthcare provider determine that losing weight will help your overall health, you may also have to revise your ideas about dieting. That's because many seniors find that weight loss gets harder as they get older. This can definitely be frustrating. But it's also a natural part of the aging process, so don't blame yourself if you struggle to drop extra pounds. (If a 60-year-old woman can't lose weight, she might blame herself for not being disciplined enough, when in actuality her body might just be responding in a way that's appropriate for her age.)
But that doesn't mean that losing weight over 60 is impossible. Many people successfully lose weight at any age. You can lose weight as you get older by adapting your weight-loss strategies to your changing body.
The first step in understanding why the rules of weight loss can be different for seniors is to consider your basal metabolic rate. That's the number of calories you burn just staying alive (i.e., the energy you expend breathing and digesting food). This rate is different than the calories you burn through exercise or everyday activities.
Your body composition impacts your basal metabolic rate. That's because, in addition to its heavier weight, muscle burns more calories than fat. So a person who has a lot of muscle mass should have a higher basal metabolic rate than someone who doesn't.
However, starting in our 30s, we lose muscle mass unless we work to maintain it. Although we may not even notice this process when it starts, it has a large impact over time. On average, we lose about 30 percent of muscle strength between age 50 and 70. And the rate of muscle loss is even faster after 70.3 Consequently, losing weight after 70 will be that much harder than it is for someone who is 30.
In other words, if you continue to eat the same number of calories and do the same amount of activity as you did in your younger days, you could be at risk of gaining weight because your basal metabolic rate is slowing down.
As a result, the number of calories you should eat in a day is about 100 calories lower with every decade you age. That's not a huge amount (about the equivalent of one apple). But it does add up. So, for example, all other factors being equal, a 60-year-old woman should eat fewer calories in a day than a 40-year-old woman in order to lose weight.
Although it might seem unfair in today's more sedentary world, this process makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Long ago, as we grew older and our hunting and gathering abilities slowed down, our bodies had to learn how to survive on less food. The result? Aging bodies want to hang onto any extra body weight (even if we no longer need—or want—them to).
As well, for many seniors, weight loss slows down because of additional factors that affect their metabolisms, including:
How Can I Improve My Metabolism? Outsmarting the Aging Process
The good news is that you can speed up your metabolism after 50 by making some simple lifestyle changes. And these habits will have other positive impacts on your health. Check out these tips to see how you can "trick" your body into having a faster metabolism:
1. Take up strength training.
Maintaining muscle tone is one of the most important things we can do to in order to burn more calories. For elderly people, starting or maintaining a strength-training program can help increase their basal metabolic rate.
As an added bonus, strength training is also good for losing the belly. Weight loss for seniors has the greatest positive impacts on health if it comes from the abdominal region. And the fat loss from strength training (even if the exercises aren't specifically focused on your abs) is often from this area.4
Plus, strength training doesn't have to be intimidating or time-consuming. If you're not currently lifting weights (or doing other strength-building exercises such as yoga), talk to your doctor about creating a plan that works for you. The National Institute on Aging produces an excellent guide showing some simple exercises for seniors that can act as a good starting point.
Remember: You're never too old to improve your muscle tone. You can definitely build muscle after 60 by doing strength-training exercises. In fact, it's possible to strengthen your muscles well into your 90s.
2. Add more movement to your everyday life.
You can also enjoy the benefits of physical activity without heading to the gym. As we get older, we tend to be more sedentary throughout the day; in fact, research has confirmed that older people move less, on average, just doing the tasks of everyday life.5
That's unfortunate, because even light amounts of activity can help your metabolism (and your cardiovascular health).
However, in today's automated world, we have fewer opportunities for this kind of movement. So look for every chance you can to get some extra light movement. For example, gardening, doing the dishes by hand, and putting away all of the laundry are the kinds of tasks that keep your body moving.
As well, walking is frequently considered the best exercise for seniors to lose weight with. And you don't have to get the often-cited 10,000 steps a day in order to benefit. Just small increases in the number of steps you take can help.
3. Eat plenty of protein.
Protein can help build muscle. It also requires more energy to digest. That means you can boost your metabolism after 60 by eating lean protein with every meal in order to prevent muscle loss.
In addition, research shows that seniors who eat a lot of protein are less likely to lose the ability to do everyday functional activities such as dressing and walking up stairs.6
But keep in mind that the best protein for seniors is not necessarily a store-bought protein shake. Although these handy shakes can help out when you're busy or not feeling hungry, they are often high in sugar and unnecessary additives. And it's always better to consume whole foods whenever possible because they offer other essential elements of a healthy diet, such as fiber.
4. Consume enough calories.
This may seem like an odd tip. After all, many fad diets require dieters to drastically cut the calories they consume. And you've probably heard that the secret to losing weight is eating fewer calories.
However, that low-calorie strategy can backfire, particularly for seniors. When our bodies sense that they aren't getting enough energy to meet our basic needs, our metabolism can go into "starvation mode" in order to conserve energy. (Again, we can probably thank evolution for this. Before we had access to supermarkets and fast food, hunger was often a signal that food was in short supply.)
As well, you can lose weight too quickly if you don't get enough calories, which can lead to muscle loss.7 And you need to maintain muscle for a healthy metabolism.
Unfortunately, many elderly people find it difficult to eat enough food. For seniors, several factors can contribute to reduced appetites, including changes to their sense of smell or taste.
If you struggle to eat regular, balanced meals because you don't have much of an appetite, talk with your doctor. At first, a reduced appetite might seem like a bonus for weight loss. For seniors, however, it can signal health issues that should be checked out.
5. Get enough sleep.
Seniors often struggle to get enough sleep. But missing out on sleep is another habit that can harm your metabolism. And studies have linked sleep deprivation with a greater likelihood of obesity for older adults.8
6. Reduce your stress levels.
When you're under chronic pressure, your body can interpret your stressed-out state as a sign to conserve energy. And the "flight or fight" response created by stress hormones like cortisol can trigger glucose production because our bodies think we might need the energy. The results can impact your metabolism, in addition to triggering cravings for sweets. Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that relaxation activities such as meditation can help metabolism.9
What's the Best Diet for Seniors? Tips for Safe Weight Loss
Despite what tabloid headlines and late-night infomercials tell us, a universal, perfect diet for weight loss doesn't exist. So you won't find a foolproof, magic formula here—or anywhere else. That's because the best diet to lose weight with is the one that works for your personal health issues and lifestyle.
You need to consider many variables when determining the best diet for you. For example, the best diet for older women is often quite different than the best diet for older men. And the guidelines for how to lose weight at 65 years old will be different than they would be for someone who is 75.
But the individual factors that can determine your success can go much deeper. In addition to your gender and your age, you also want to consider your overall health, your personality, and your specific goals.
Consider the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR). It contains self-reported information from over 10,000 people of all ages who each lost over 30 pounds and kept the weight off for at least a year. What the NWCR reveals is that those successful dieters used a variety of weight-loss strategies, with a mix of informal dietary changes and formal weight-loss programs. Researchers examining the data found that no particular diet program or pattern of eating stood out as the most successful.
But some common patterns are definitely evident among the NWCR's success stories. For example, 94 percent of NWCR participants increased their activity levels. (Walking was the most popular exercise.)15 Also, the registry's successful dieters were more likely to have motivating factors that went beyond how they looked, such as being worried about a family history of diabetes or wanting to be able to play with children or grandchildren.
So here's the bottom line: Although the diet industry makes plenty of big promises regarding fast, easy weight loss, in the long run, a balanced diet with small, realistic changes will be more sustainable. That means being cautious about any "diet" that encourages you to give up entire food groups or drastically cut the calories you consume.
Although weight loss is very individual for seniors, some simple strategies can help most older adults and elderly people:
1. Work with your doctor to determine a caloric-needs formula that works for you.
How many calories you should eat in a day will depend on a few different factors, including your age, size, metabolic health, and activity levels. For example, government guidelines suggest that a moderately active 60-year-old woman should eat about 1,800 calories in a day.16 But her caloric needs could go up if she exercises more. And they might go down if she has a very sedentary lifestyle.
Once you determine how many calories you need, with the help of your doctor, you can determine how many calories you should cut in order to lose weight.
2. Choose natural foods.
One dilemma that comes with growing older is that your body needs just as many nutrients as it always has. However, it needs fewer calories. That means eliminating foods that don't provide nutrients and focusing on natural, nutrient-rich food.
Healthy eating, for the elderly in particular, can sometimes seem difficult because we tend to think of natural foods as more expensive, and many older people are on tight budgets. But good food for seniors doesn't have to cost a lot. One study found that the difference between the healthiest diets and very unhealthy diets is about $1.50 a day, on average. Although that adds up to about $550 a year, the medical costs resulting from an unhealthy diet can be much higher.10
3. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Eating lots of fruits and veggies ensures that you're getting plenty of vitamins and antioxidants without consuming empty calories. And because produce typically has a lot of fiber, you can feel full faster than you would if you ate overly processed food. (For elderly people, fiber is also important to help with digestion and prevent constipation.)
Aim for seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day and strive to include a wide range of colors. One popular strategy for boosting fruit and vegetable consumption is to always fill half of your plate with vegetables or fruit.
4. Eat breakfast.
It's an important meal. Out of people registered in the NWCR, only four percent said they don't eat breakfast.11 A good breakfast for seniors is one that contains protein, which can keep you feeling full longer.
5. Watch your portion sizes.
You may have noticed that the portions served to us in restaurants seem to be getting larger. That can lead to distorted ideas of how much food we should eat for a meal or snack. So pay attention to what's considered a "serving" when you're looking at a food's nutritional information.
For example, serving-size guidelines from the USDA state that half a cup of pasta, one tablespoon of peanut butter, or 12 almonds each constitute one serving. You've probably found that it's easy to eat a lot more than those amounts.
It's also easy to overdo it when you're eating food straight from the container (for example, when you're eating potato chips from a bag). So try counting out one serving. (The nutritional label can tell you how much a serving is.) Then, put that amount into a bowl. Eat from the bowl and put the bag out of sight.
6. Don't be afraid of healthy fats.
Yes, fat can have a place in a weight-loss plan. You just have to choose the right foods. We tend to think of "fat" as a bad word, but it's actually an essential nutrient that gives your body energy and helps with many of its functions.
As well, eating fat can help you feel full. (Have you ever noticed that eating low-fat yogurt can leave you feeling more unsatisfied compared to yogurt with a higher fat content?)
"Healthy" fats are polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. In contrast to saturated fats, which can damage your heart health, these fats can help lower your cholesterol levels and protect you against heart disease.
Good sources of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat include:
- Some plant-based oils, such as extra virgin olive oil
- Chia seeds
- Ground flax
- Egg yolks
- Some kinds of fish, such as salmon
7. Drink lots of water.
As a senior, you may have noticed that your sense of thirst isn't as strong as it used to be. But that doesn't mean you need less fluid. In addition, some medications can be dehydrating. So pay attention to your fluid consumption. Try carrying a reusable water bottle throughout the day. And drink some water before meals. (Drinking before a meal can also help prevent you from overeating.)
8. Pay attention to your hunger cues.
Eat when you're hungry. Stop when you're full. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But this is often one of the hardest parts of a weight-loss plan. Eating at a slower pace can help you recognize when you've had enough food. That's because it can take a while for the brain to register a feeling of fullness.
9. Write it down.
A scoop of ice cream, a couple of cookies, a small slice of cake…. Many people eat more than they realize, particularly when it comes to mindless snacks. The simple act of writing down everything you eat can make you more mindful of what's going into your mouth. And being more mindful can help you eat less.
10. Get enough vitamins and minerals.
When you're cutting back on food, you can inadvertently reduce the number of essential vitamins and minerals that you consume. But these vital nutrients are important to your health. And they can even help with your weight-loss goals. For example, magnesium is good for weight loss because it can help regulate blood sugar, and having stable blood-sugar levels can help reduce cravings for sweets.
How Can I Stick to My Weight-Loss Plan? Strategies for Success
It's easy to read a list of tips and resolve to eat better. But the hard part is putting those new resolutions into action. And the truth is that many diet plans that start with great intentions end up failing—up to 98 percent of them by some estimates.12
So how can you succeed? A big part of the answer is to create strategies that work for you. After all, everyone is different.
Here are some general tips that can help you stick to your weight-loss plans:
1. Work with your healthcare providers.
Working with healthcare professionals can increase your odds of success. One study found that the amount of professional support that dieters receive influences their success more than the type of diet they follow.12
Seniors, in particular, need to talk about any dietary changes with a healthcare provider. After all, you may have a few more challenges than you did in middle age.
In addition to working with your primary care doctor and any necessary specialists, a nutritionist can help with weight loss. Just make sure you check out a nutritionist's education and credentials. Look for someone who has experience with the nutritional needs of seniors.
A dentist can also be an important part of a weight-loss team. Some seniors have trouble eating fresh fruit and vegetables because they find those foods hard to chew due to teeth problems or badly fitting dentures.
Are you worried about the costs of having professional support for weight loss? Did you know that Medicare covers a weight-loss program that provides obesity screening and counseling? Medicare Part B covers intensive behavioral therapy for obesity. You must have a BMI of 30 or higher to receive these services.
In addition, some Medicare Advantage plans may cover the SilverSneakers program, which provides access to fitness facilities, as well as a mobile app that offers fitness videos, suggested workout programs, and accountability tools.
2. Ask for support from friends and family.
You'll have an easier time losing weight if your friends and family are on board with your plans. If anyone is discouraging you from pursuing a healthier lifestyle, be sure to let them know how losing weight will improve your health and your quality of life.
As well, if you're the kind of person who likes to exercise with others, ask if anyone is willing to be your accountability partner. You'll be more motivated to stick to a fitness plan if you have companionship (and someone who is waiting for you at the gym or on the track).
Companionship can also make meal planning easier. Seniors sometimes lack the motivation to cook balanced, nutritious dinners every night, particularly if they live alone. If you find that it's hard to get motivated to prepare healthy meals, consider talking to a friend or neighbor about combining your resources. For example, you could create a schedule in which you take turns cooking and sharing your meals. You could also research available meals at a local seniors' or community center.
3. Don't expect perfection.
You may experience setbacks and decide to "cheat." That's OK. Remember, lifestyle changes don't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Just get back into your healthy routine as soon as you can. Ask yourself whether anything triggered your setback. (Sometimes the answer is simply that you're human.) Be patient with yourself.
In addition, be sure to focus on the benefits you feel—apart from the weight you're losing. Changing your eating habits and starting to exercise can have many other positive effects on your quality of life. Even if the pounds are slow to come off, if you're sleeping better, experiencing more positive emotions, and feeling more confident, your efforts are successful.
4. Break down your goals.
Having specific, realistic goals will help you succeed. You might have better luck if you introduce changes gradually. For example, instead of launching into a strict "clean" eating plan, you could start by adding a salad to your dinner every night, or switch to fresh fruit for dessert.
Is There an Easier Way? Avoiding Weight-Loss Scams and False Promises
What do cotton balls, baby food, and Twinkies have in common? They've all been the centerpiece of wacky, medically unsound "diets."
It's no secret that the diet industry is filled with misinformation and false promises. In fact, diet scams are the top healthcare-related complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission.13 It's also no surprise that so many scammers are eager to cash in on our vulnerability when it comes to our weight: In 2017, the weight-loss industry was worth about $66 billion.14 That figure shows how much people are willing to invest in their quest to lose extra pounds.
Hoping for an easy way to lose a lot of weight is perfectly understandable. However, it's also important to make smart decisions so that you don't become a victim of fraud. Check out these warning signs of possible weight-loss scams:
You Can Reach Your Goals
Yes, losing weight after 60 can be challenging. But by making sustainable, realistic changes to your lifestyle, you can enjoy better health and an improved quality of life. Be sure to work closely with your healthcare providers in order to ensure a safe approach.
- 1 Tuffs University Health & Nutrition Letter, "Rethinking BMI for Older Adults," website last visited on June 19, 2019.
- 2 U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus, "Body mass index," website last visited on June 19, 2019.
- 3 Clinical Interventions in Aging, "Age-related decrease in physical activity and functional fitness among elderly men and women," website last visited on July 2, 2019.
- 4 Journal of Obesity, "Sarcopenia and Its Implications for Metabolic Health," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 5 American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, "Nonexercise movement in elderly compared with young people," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 6 The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, "Protein Intake and Functional Integrity in Aging: The Framingham Heart Study Offspring," website last visited on December 16, 2019.
- 7 Obesity, "The effect of rate of weight loss on long‐term weight regain in adults with overweight and obesity," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 8 International Journal of Obesity, "The association between sleep duration and obesity in older adults," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 9 BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, "An explorative study of metabolic responses to mental stress and yoga practices in yoga practitioners, non-yoga practitioners and individuals with metabolic syndrome," website last visited on January 6, 2020.
- 10 BMJ Open, "Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 11 Obesity Research, "Long-term weight loss and breakfast in subjects in the National Weight Control Registry," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 12 HuffPost, Highline, "Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 13 AARP, "Weight-Loss Scams," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 14 Time, "The Weight Loss Trap: Why Your Diet Isn't Working," website last visited on June 20, 2019.
- 15 National Weight Control Registry, "NWCR Facts," website last visited on July 3, 2019.
- 16 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, "Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level," website last visited on February 18, 2020.