Over 75 percent of adults 55 and older are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But losing weight at this age, after decades of engraved habits, can be daunting. Thankfully, studies suggest that making small, simple changes — rather than overhauling your entire eating and exercise patterns — can reap big payoffs.
When researchers at the University of Colorado Denver instructed people to shave 100 calories a day from their diets, for example, most ended up getting rid of 300. “Losing weight and keeping it off takes some pretty big changes, but small steps are the way to get going,” says study coauthor James Hill, the chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Oftentimes, he explains, “people do something dramatic that cannot be maintained. But small steps get you going in the right direction.” Even better, losing just 5 percent of your body weight — 10 pounds for a 200-pound person — significantly lowers the risk of health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease, according to a study published in Cell Metabolism.
Here are eight baby steps to take today.
Add an extra 500 steps
While 10,000 steps a day has become a common fitness goal to shoot for, that number can be daunting to many. A study published last year in JAMA suggests that many older adults can reap significant health benefits with less than half that amount.
“Rather than downloading a pedometer app and obsessing about getting steps in, just tell yourself you’re going to add about 500 steps, or roughly a quarter mile, to your daily activity each week,” suggests Pamela Peeke, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and author of The Hunger Fix.
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That’s as easy as getting up from your desk at lunchtime and walking around the block. Next week, add another block. And the following week, add a third. Within a month, you’ll have added an additional 1,000 steps to your daily routine.
Leave a few bites on your plate
Research shows that about 92 percent of adults eat everything on their plates. While no one’s advocating food waste, rethinking the Clean Plate Club can have benefits. “Make a conscious choice to leave a few bites of food on your plate,” Hill says. While you’re at it, serve yourself off a smaller plate. Doing so can cut about 280 calories each day, according to a study in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
Women who report being more mindful are 16 percent less likely to be overweight and almost 30 percent less likely to be obese than their less-zen peers, according to a study published in the medical journal PLOS One. One easy way to do this is to savor the first bite of every meal, suggests Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Hanger Management: Master Your Hunger and Improve Your Mood, Mind, and Relationships.
“That first bite is the most flavorful,” she says. If you really take time to savor your food and focus on its color, smell and temperature, and how it feels in your mouth, you’ll not only enjoy it more, but you’ll eat less because you will feel more satisfied.
Ditch the sugary sodas
The average U.S. adult consumes about 6 percent of their total caloric intake from sugar-sweetened beverages, according to a report from the National Center on Health Statistics. That translates into roughly 179 kilocalories a day for men and 113 for women. “If you did nothing else but cut that out every day, you’d lose around a pound a month,” Peeke says. A 2018 review published in the journal Obesity Facts showed a strong link between sugary drinks and obesity — and found that substituting them with water in adults did promote weight loss.
Try replacing your soft drinks with infused water: Simply drop fruit like berries, cherries or peaches into your water. (For best results, use frozen fruit, since the flavor will intensify as the fruits thaw.) If you really crave a carbonated beverage, opt for sparkling water, choosing a brand sweetened with fruit or natural stevia, Peeke advises.
Keep a food journal
Just writing down all the meals and snacks you’ve eaten — including those handfuls of goodies you grab here and there — can help you automatically cut calories by holding yourself accountable, says Lesley Lutes, a psychologist and obesity specialist at the University of British Columbia. People who faithfully keep an online food journal lose more weight than those who use it more sporadically, according to a study published last year in the medical journal Obesity.
Do basic body-weight exercises
Simple moves like squats and push-ups are an easy way to build metabolism-boosting muscle in minutes at home. “It’s easy, cheap and accessible, and doesn’t require a gym,” Peeke says. If you’re just starting, try moves like squats, wall push-ups, toe stands, step-ups, side hip raises, pelvic tilts, sit-ups and floor back extensions.
Eat one less serving of processed food each day
A study published last year in the journal Cell Metabolism found eating an ultraprocessed diet versus a whole-food one led to weight gain in as little as two weeks. (The ultraprocessed group gained 2 pounds, while the whole-foods group lost 2.)
One reason may simply be that processed foods are easier to overeat (subjects ate the processed foods faster than the whole ones), so people end up consuming more, says Libby Mills, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Processed foods also tend to contain less-filling fiber. Start with cutting out one serving a day and gradually continue cutting back over time.
Eat within a 12-hour window
Intermittent fasting, a way of eating in which you alternate between periods of unrestricted eating and periods in which you sharply limit calories, is all the rage. But consuming all your calories in an eight-hour window or fasting two days a week is often too difficult for most folks.
But you can get many of the same benefits by simply limiting your eating to a 12-hour window during the day. “Your body is most sensitive to insulin — a hormone that moves glucose from food into muscle cells — during the day, and most resistant to it at night,” Peeke explains. Research shows that when you eat late in the evening, for example, you’re not only more likely to gain weight but also to raise insulin and cholesterol levels.