How Body Fat Changes with Age
You’re getting older and notice that you’re gaining more body fat than you would like to have. “Suddenly”, you can “pinch an inch” in your love handles, or that dress or suit that used to fit you so perfectly now feels tighter. What can you do about it? Pretty much nothing. Just sit back and wait for the impending doom of middle and old age, as you gain body fat, and can do nothing about it?
Age is no excuse to gain tons and tons of body fat.
And that’s what we’ll explore in this article. We’ll talk about:
- How maturation and age affect body composition if you don’t exercise
- How age affects body composition if you do exercise
And if you want to skip all this information and just to want help yourself with losing body fat, regardless of your age, you can see if you qualify to work with us by responding to this email with the subject line “Fat Loss Help.”
How Maturation and Age Affect Body Composition If You Don’t Exercise
Up until the age of 11-13, boys and girls have fairly similar body fat. Around puberty, boys lose fat and gain muscle, and girls gain both fat and muscle.
Assuming a steady diet and exercise pattern, body fat stays stable until about 40, and then, starts to rise. You might be thinking “wait, I gained a lot of body fat before 40… what happened?” This is most likely due to changes in exercise and nutrition. Usually, no changes in nutrition or exercise = no changes in body fat (though there are exceptions, such as hormonal reasons).
Between ages 40 and around 75-85, body fat increases. Usually, not that much, again, assuming that exercise and nutrition patterns haven’t changed. Perhaps an increase of only 2% in body fat is the difference between a 40 year old and a 75-85 year old.
Around 75-85, an interesting thing happens. Body fat actually drops but not because of a concerted effort to lose body fat. More likely due to a decrease in appetite, a lower food intake. That’s good, right? Actually, not so much. Yes, fat is lost but unless the 75-85 year old does some form of strength training, muscle mass is lost as well. So yeah, you have relatively low body fat, but you’re also frail and may need the help of other people to take care of you. You can’t perform the regular activities that you took for granted earlier, like just going for a walk, carrying your groceries, doing household chores, and even playing with your grandkids.
The distribution (location) of body fat also changes with age. Men typically gain fat in the stomach, up until about 40. Then, it goes to both the stomach and the chest. Men start to grow breasts. In a healthy man, the chest should be one of the leanest areas. Maybe only 3-5 mm, as measured by calipers. But in many men that we work with, who are over 40, and don’t properly exercise, the chest is frequently one of the top 3 areas that we measure (out of 11), with measurements as high as 25-28 mm.
With women, during puberty, fat is gained around the hips, thighs, and backs of the arms. But with aging, and especially during menopause, fat is actually lost in those areas, and gained around the waist, and upper back.
Between about 11-13, up to about 40-45 years, there’s a very minimal change in body fat, on condition that the same exercise and nutrition habits are maintained over that period of time.
By looking at the location of the person’s body fat (not the quantity), you can actually infer their hormonal profile. I talk about this in much greater detail in my article on biosignature.
How Age Affects Body Composition If You Do Exercise
Notice how in the earlier section, I kept repeating that body fat doesn’t change (or doesn’t change much) if exercise and nutrition doesn’t change? That’s a real highlight. Because by far the biggest impact on your body composition is not your age. It’s your nutrition and exercise habits. A 40-year-difference doesn’t have nearly the same impact as a 1000-calorie difference (like the difference between eating 1800 calories, and 2800 calories per day. Or the difference between burning 1000 calories per day less).
This means that you can’t use your age as an excuse for the extra body fat. You only have your own nutrition and exercise habits to blame.
Proof? In one study, from the European Journal of Clinical Investigation, the researchers investigated body fat increase over the years due to age, or due to decreases in physical activity. The study group of people were divided into 3 groups:
- Group 1: young people (average age of 31) who did not exercise
- Group 2: older people (average age of 69) who did not exercise
- Group 3: older people (average age of 67) who had been regular exercisers for at least 10 years.
The study results showed:
- Group 2 had higher body fat (by as much as 4 kg) compared to group 1.
- Group 3 actually had lower body fat (by 1 kg), compared to group 1, and 5 kg less body fat compared to group 2.
- Group 3 also had an average of 4 kg more lean tissue, compared to group 2.
Another Study, “strength training and body composition in middle-age women“, compared women, all of the same age (around 50) in relationship to:
- Frequency of exercise
- Intensity of exercise
The surprising results:
- The women with the highest frequency and intensity of training had the lowest body fat.
- For every day per week spent strength training, body fat was 1.3% lower, compared to women who didn’t exercise at all. If a woman was exercising 5 days per week, her body fat would have been on average 6.8% lower, compared to a woman who did not exercise.
- For every day per week spent strength training, lean tissue was about 1.5 pounds higher, compared to women who didn’t strength train. A woman strength training 5 times per week had 7.5 pounds more muscle, compared to a woman who did not strength train at all.
Again, all women studied in this study were of the same age. Any differences in body composition can’t be attributed to age. They can only be attributed to training frequency and intensity.
In yet another study, researchers studied 2 groups of postmenopausal women:
- Group 1 had an average age of 60.5 years, and exercised consistently for at least 2 years prior to the study
- Group 2 was of the same age and didn’t exercise.
What did the researchers find? Exactly what you’d expect: the group that exercised had lower fat, and higher muscle, compared to the group that didn’t exercise.
Empirically, we also know that age is not the primary (or even secondary) factor when it comes to changes in body composition.
After all, if age was the biggest factor in body composition changes, wouldn’t everyone gain body fat with age? What about the people who were unhealthy, and overweight in high school, and actually lost fat, as they adopted healthier habits? What about the few people who actually are now in their 60s and 70s, and are within 5 pounds of where they were when they were around 25-30?
Once again, if you want help figuring out how to bring your body fat down, regardless of your age, just respond to this email with the subject line “Fat Loss Help” to see if you qualify to work with us.
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