As anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight will attest, the extra pounds and inches pile on much more easily than they slide off. But for men and women in their 50s, 60s and older, the weight-loss challenge comes with some powerful motivators to succeed, as well as some particular difficulties.
On the motivation side of the equation, excess weight puts us at increased risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, stroke, sleep apnea and more. It worsens arthritis, back pain and joint deterioration and strains our hearts, lungs, livers and other essential organs. It also can interfere with our relationships, our social lives and routine activities, from maintaining personal hygiene to driving a car. These considerations can lend powerful support to a midlife decision to slim down.
But aging also poses some real hurdles to weight loss. It can be hard to change longstanding eating habits, for one thing, especially those that are enshrined in family or community traditions. Becoming more active is difficult if you’re already experiencing the pain of arthritis or are so out of shape you have trouble walking across your yard. And for some, the shame of being overweight or obese leads to self-imposed isolation, overwhelming any impulse to seek help and get started on the journey to a healthier weight.
Breaking through the shame
In Bangor, Cindy Bailey, 62, keeps a small photo album that documents her weight as it grew to nearly 400 pounds over the course of her 30-year marriage. She’s not quite 5 feet tall.
“Each time I had a picture taken, it was because I was going to [start a weight-loss campaign] that day,” she said, flipping through the pages of front and side-angle photos. Instead, year after year, she just kept binge-eating and getting heavier. Even after her marriage failed and she relocated to Bangor from her home in Baileyville to be closer to her daughters and grandchildren, she was unable to change her habits.
On a typical day, she said, she would skip breakfast altogether, then start eating in the early afternoon. “I thought I’d have a decent meal, but the minute I put something in my mouth I wouldn’t be able to stop,” she said. “It kept me calm and gave me something to do.”
Other than eating, she really didn’t do much. “My whole life, I hid. I never wanted anyone to see me,” she said. “My shame was really, really deep.” She missed birthday parties, family weddings, holiday gatherings. Getting in and out of her car was an ordeal. People, including young children, ridiculed her to her face. She never went anywhere if she could avoid it.
The important exception was the time she spent babysitting her grandchildren.
“When they were little, they didn’t realize grannie was obese,” she said. She spent her happiest hours in their accepting companionship, knowing they loved her for her innermost self, the person she truly was.
“But when they started school, they wanted me to go to their sports events and band concerts,” she said. The prospect terrified her — but not as much as the possibility of losing touch with her beloved grandchildren or having them become ashamed of her.
“On Aug. 31, 2014, I said, ‘I’m going to do it today,’” Bailey recalled. She weighed 362 pounds, down from her top weight of 396 in 2010. That day, she launched into a strict regimen of counting calories, limiting herself to 1,300 to 1,400 per day.
“I made it through the first day, and then I made it through another day,” she said. Eventually, she discovered MyFitnessPal, a free online tool that she used to help plan and track her diet choices.
After 17 months of strict dieting, Bailey had dropped more than 140 pounds. “But my old habits started slipping back in, and I was starting to get scared,” she said. That’s when she joined TOPS, a national nonprofit organization with a mission of supporting people who are trying to lose weight. She also started a walking routine — first making a slow daily circuit of the quiet housing compound where she lives and then, when she had more stamina and self-confidence, joining a local gym.
At TOPS — the name stands for Taking Pounds Off Sensibly — she dropped another 85 pounds to reach her target weight of 137 pounds. The Maine chapter celebrated her achievement at the organization’s annual recognition event in Bangor on May 12 of this year.
Cindy Bailey’s case is unusual, both for the extreme amount of weight she gained and for her success in losing it. But approximately 37 percent of Americans 60 and older are obese, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 30 percent, approximately, are considered overweight but not obese.
While rates of overweight and obesity have trended upwards for decades, they are beginning to level off in children and teens, thanks, in part, to effective public health campaigns in schools and communities. But in older adults and seniors, the problem continues to grow.
“Our bodies do change as we age,” Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, said. A natural tendency toward lower metabolism and a more sedentary lifestyle means most older adults need fewer calories to maintain a healthy weight, she said. But many adults do not change their eating habits, so the weight piles on.
Camire, who recommends a diet built on the recommendations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the first step toward successful weight-loss should be to increase physical activity.
“From our 30s on, we lose muscle mass steadily unless we’re actively working to build it,” she said. Allowing healthy muscle tissue to be replaced by fat not only slows the rate at which the body burns food calories, it also destabilizes balance, flexibility and strength, increasing the likelihood of injury and threatening mobility.
At the Bangor YMCA, senior fitness manager Greg Zielinski oversees a range of fitness classes for people 50 and older.
“Anyone can join,” he said, regardless of physical ability. “You just do what you can. All the moves can be modified.” From general cardio, cycling and weight training to yoga and water exercises, classes are designed to meet older adults at their present fitness level and build strength gradually.
For 68-year-old Andrea Hand of Bangor, the Y’s 50+ ‘N Fit class has provided a boost to her physical health and her spirits. Like many in the class, she is not overweight. People often express surprise when she tells them she’s joined an exercise program. “They say, ‘Oh, you’re so thin, you don’t need to exercise,’” she said after a recent vigorous workout. “But being thin has nothing to do with being fit.”
When she started the class three months ago, Hand said, she had so little muscle tone that she could barely do some of the exercises. She also suffered from seasonal depression and low energy. Now she’s feeling feeling better on all counts. “This ‘50 and over’ thing — I thought it might be a little cheesy,” she said. “But it’s really been just right.”
A lifetime decision
Older adults who struggle with obesity may also be candidates for gastric bypass surgery, an operation that drastically reduces the capacity of the stomach and demands a dramatic and permanent change in eating habits.
“We know older patients are no more likely to have a complication like bleeding, clotting or leaking than a younger patient, but they are less likely to survive a complication,” Dr. Michelle Toder, a surgeon who heads up the surgical weight loss program at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said.
While all patients are carefully counseled and undergo a comprehensive educational process, she said, those 60 and older are even more rigorously screened for underlying health conditions or other risk factors.
“Everyone should try behavioral changes first,” Toder said. “But trying to diet and exercise off 100 pounds or more is just about impossible.”
For Cindy Bailey, still celebrating her 225-pound weight loss, the future looks better than ever. She’s enjoying time with her family and has developed a supportive network of neighbors and friends. She has joined a couple of civic organizations. She recently became engaged to a man she met through an online dating service. They enjoy going to dances together — an unthinkable option just a few short years ago.
But she knows she’s not out of the woods and never will be. Keeping her weight off will require a lifetime of vigilance. “I’m cooking for two now,” she said, and that poses some challenges.
What’s on the menu? For breakfast, two links of turkey sausage, a scrambled egg, a tangerine, an ounce of walnut meats. Lunch is a big green salad with some lean ham and a bit of low-calorie Italian dressing. And supper is chicken in the crockpot, a baked potato and some kind of green vegetable, followed by sugar-free Jello and whipped topping.
“That is my day,” Bailey said, smiling, “and I can repeat that day forever and be happy.”