Why You Gain Weight After Age 60
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September 16, 2013, last updated September 29, 2015

By Susan Callahan,  Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

[Health and fitness articles are reviewed by our team of
Doctors and Registered Nurses, Certified fitness trainers and
other members of our Editorial Board.]

Some 3,600,000 women and men in the US will turn 60 this
year according to the Pew Research Center and almost all of
them share a common new complaint ---slowing metabolism.
It’s been long known that as we age our metabolism slows.

But what is less well known is that the rate of decline is not
steady. Metabolism drops follow a pattern of gradual decline
during the years in between the end of each decade but as
the decade years that end in “zero” approach, metabolism
drops off a cliff.

The Big Drop

The metabolism cliffs that occur at age 30, 40 and 50 are
severe, resulting in an approximate loss of 1% of your
metabolic rate. But the Big Drop occurs at age 60. Scientists
studying this problem estimate that the Big Drop at age 60
averages over 2%.

What does this mean in real terms?  Look at it this way. A
drop of only 1% in your metabolic rate translates into a
weight gain of 10 pounds a year for an average man of 170
pounds and a gain of  7 pounds for an average women of
145 pounds. At age 60, a drop of 2% would pile on an
additional 20 pounds for that same man and 14 pounds for
the average women. What’s so different about age 60? Why
are we especially vulnerable to weight gain at this age? Are
there any natural remedies that can help?

What We Mean When We Talk About Metabolism

Metabolism is simply the rate at which you burn energy. All
movement and any movement burns energy. Simply
breathing burns energy. Needless to say, doing strenuous
exercise burns more energy than being sedentary.  

But what we mean we talk about a slower metabolism or a
fast metabolism is really “basal metabolism”. That’s your
metabolic rate when you are doing practically nothing except
breathing. It’s the metabolic rate you experience when you
are sleeping.  Some of us are little furnaces. We can eat
practically anything and our high basal metabolism will burn
it off. Others of us can merely look at food and we’ll gain

To get a rough measure of your basal metabolic rate,
multiply your weight by 10 if you are a women and by 11 if
you are a man. Thus, a 145 pound women would expend
1450 calories a day just existing, while a 145 pound man
pound man would burn up 1595 calories. That’s the “unfair”
advantage men have over women in losing weight.

The Metabolic Wall at Age 60

Why do some of us have a high basal metabolism while
others of us struggle to burn any energy at all? Of course
our genetics are partly at fault. But scientists have learned
that genetics play a large part of the reason we stay at a
certain weight during most of our lives, other factors seem
to play a greater role once we hit the metabolic wall at age

Age 60 is, for most women, clearly post-menopausal. The
natural decline of testosterone and estrogen as we age and
the increase in the secretion of stress hormones such as
cortisol work together to make in increasingly more difficult
to maintain a healthy body weight.

You Lose Lean Muscle Mass Faster After Menopause

For years, scientists have known that we lose muscle mass
as we age. The condition in which your muscles waste away
as you age is called “sarcopenia”. About 30% of people over
the age of 60 suffer from sarcopenia, according to according
a 2013 study from the University Hospital Ulm in  
Leimgrubenweg, Germany.

Dynapenia Explains Why We Get Weaker and Fatter

But in the last 15 years, scientists have begun to study not
only muscle mass but muscle strength— so-called "muscle
quality". They’ve learned that as we age, we not only lose
muscle mass but that the quality of our muscles change,
which is why we become weaker as we get older. This
condition has been given the name “dynapenia”.  

Dynapenia explains why from 16% to 18% of all women in
the US over the age of 65 cannot lift 10 pounds. Nor can
they kneel down. And men don't do much better. Up to 10%
of all men over age 65 can't lift 10 pounds or stoop down.
All of these observations were made in a 2013 study led by
Dr. Brian Clark of Ohio University and Dr. Todd Manini of the
University of Florida.

One 1988 study led by Dr. J. Lexell from the University of
Umeå in Sweden looked at the autopsies of 43 healthy men
aged 15 to 83 and discovered that our muscles actually
begin to atrophy early, starting at age 20, and the process
accelerates from then on.

Significantly, the size of your muscle doesn’t necessarily
change this. A 20-year old Arnold Schwarzenegger will
always be stronger than a 60 year-old Arnold
Schwarzenegger even if they have the same size muscles.

With decreasing power comes less ability to exert force
which means you can’t burn as many calories when you’re
working as hard as you can.

Think of it this way: pushing a wheelbarrow requires a
certain amount of strength. It also burns a lot of calories.
But if you’re too weak to push a wheelbarrow, you will not
be able to burn the calories it takes to push it. Hence, over
time, you become even weaker and more overweight.

Adding to this problem is the decline of sex hormones after
age 60. After menopause the levels of sex hormones such as
estrogen and testosterone decline. Recently, scientists have
linked the decline in sex hormones to the decline in muscle

The University Ulm study from Germany collected data from
many other studies on this subject and reached the
conclusion that combining hormone replacement therapy
with exercise is likely to help you reverse the age-related
muscle decline. The study stops short of endorsing this
approach and encourages more research into whether
increasing soy isoflavones through changes in your diet can
also work to reverse muscle decline.

But you have to act. The German study notes that there is a
“window of opportunity” around the time of the start of
post-menopause during which you can best act to reverse
muscle decline.

What can you do? How can you increase the quality of your
muscles as you age?  If you are a woman, make sure that
you have your doctor check the levels of estrogen,
testosterone as you enter menopause and periodically
thereafter. If you’re not on hormone replacement therapy,
you can make sure that you eat enough soy products to
encourage the levels of estrogen in your body. You can also
eat foods high in zinc that seem to encourage levels of
testosterone, such as oysters.

Second, you simply have to add some form of strength
training to your fitness routine. Climbing stairs can help to
maintain the amount of muscle mass in your thigh –which is
one of the largest muscles on your body and the source of
strength for maintaining your balance as well as getting up
easily from chairs. Resist the temptation to use elevators and
escalators. Instead, think of the stairs as an opportunity to
stay younger and stronger.

Another easy way to sneak some resistance training into
your day is to carry at least some of your groceries to your
car from the supermarket. Carrying even a gallon ( 3.7
liters) of milk a short distance adds up over the year to extra
strength in your arms, shoulders and back.

Give Yourself a Year to Gain Back Your Muscle Strength

Exercise and hormone therapies work independently to
increase muscle mass, several studies have found. A 2003
study from Syracuse University entitled “Effects of exercise
training and hormone replacement therapy on lean and fat
mass in postmenopausal women” discovered that doing 12
months of resistance training and weight-bearing aerobics
training can make “significant” changes in the amount of
muscle mass on your arms, legs and overall body as well as
decreasing the percentage of your total body fat.   

A year of weight training is not an easy haul. But it beats
getter weaker and fatter with each passing year.

Not All Exercise Is Equal When It Comes to Losing Weight

Up until recently, the prevailing opinion among scientists was
that doing moderate exercise such as walking for 3 to 5 days
a week was sufficient ---
and even optimal --- to resist the
cluster of increased heart disease risk, diabetes and weight
gain factors known as “metabolic syndrome”.  But that view
is changing.  New research has found that not all exercise is
equally effective in resisting metabolic syndrome.

Moderate exercise is better than none, this new research
shows. But even better than moderate exercise is “vigorous”

Compare for example, a woman who does 150 minutes of
moderate exercise a week versus her twin who does 75
minutes of vigorous exercise.  Both twins expend the same
amount of energy but the second twin does it in half the
time.  Studies have found that those who exercise at a
higher intensity ---  working up a real sweat – are twice as
likely to resist metabolic syndrome.  

The most recent study, carried out in 2013 by Dr. Ian
Janssen and Dr. Robert Ross of Queen’s University in Canada
examined 1,841 adults. The participants were separated into
groups which either exercised at a moderate rate or
exercised vigorously.

Scientists measure exercise intensity using a concept known
as a “MET”.  A MET is the ratio of how much energy you
expend as compared to doing nothing such as sitting.  
According to the Compendium of Physical Activities, sitting
quietly requires 1 MET.  Bicycling to work at a leisurely pace
requires 4 METs, which means that you expend 4  times
more energy bicycling to work at a leisurely pace  than you
do sitting quietly.

Here are a few other examples of METs expended by various

Activity                                                        MET
Running at rate of 4 mph                              6
Jog/Walk                                                      6
Running at 6 mph                                         9.8
Sweeping floors                                            3.3
Mopping floors                                              3.5
Scrubbing floors on hands and knees            6.5
Walking/Running playing with children         5.8
Dancing Salsa,
belly dancing, meringue,
flaminco and swing                                        4.5
Ballroom dancing, competitive                       11.3        
Ballet, jazz, modern performance                   6.8
fast pace 120 -160 beats/min                        12.3
Tennis                                                            7.3
Basketball                                                       6.5
Football (American)                                        8.0
Football (Soccer)                                           10.00

Now, you can choose to gather METs slowly or fast in a
week. You could for example gather 500 METS a week doing
leisurely activities such as walking or you can collect METS
quickly by doing vigorous activities from the list such as
running or playing tennis, soccer or basketball.

What researchers in the 2012 study found is that the way
that you collect your METs matters just as much as how
many Mets you collect during the week. They found that, if
you exercise moderately, expending 0 to 500 MET minutes a
week, you lower your risk of developing metabolic syndrome
by 15.5%.

But if you really step it up and expend 0 to 500 MET per
week in intense exercises, you lower your risk for developing
metabolic syndrome by 37.1%.

Think about that. By adding some vigorous activities to your
week, you double your protection against heart disease,
diabetes and a spreading waistline that comes with turning

How many METs should an activity have before it is
considered a high-MET or “vigorous” or “Intense” exercise.
The study set a minimum of 6 METs. Thus, from the list
above, for example, scrubbing floors, running and
jog/walking are all high-MET activities, while sweeping
floors is not.

When you turn 60, even if you have never been overweight,
chances are that you will experience a change in your

When you reach age 60, pat yourself on the back. But you
can go a long ways to keep your body young by adding 75
minutes of some form or forms of high-MET vigorous
exercise, and by adding 3 days a week of some form of
strength training such as climbing the stairs. Or, if you’re the
type of person who likes the gym, add 3 days of strength
training working your legs, core and upper body. The
strength training will start to reverse the natural decline in
lean body mass and the vigorous high MET activities will help
to stave off metabolic syndrome.

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