If you're feeling blue because the old, faded Levi's in the back of your closet don't fit over your hips anymore, don't despair. It's simply not realistic to judge your body by high-school standards. Heredity, hormones, metabolism, declining muscle mass and a more sedentary lifestyle are a few of the factors that lead us to gain weight over the years and then the struggle to take it off. While you may never slide into those high-school jeans again, you can aspire for your own "healthy" weight. And by healthy, we mean a weight that's not only attainable, but also maintainable through healthy eating habits and plenty of physical activity.
Why We Gain Weight
Before you can find your healthy weight, it helps to understand why you may have added pounds over the years. Poor eating habits and insufficient exercise are common culprits. But other factors come into play.
Heredity. Genetics may help explain your weight gain. If your parents and siblings tend to gain abdominal weight, for example, then you may struggle with stubborn abdominal fat, too.
Pregnancy. Many women find it difficult to return to their prebaby weight and may become discouraged by their newfound belly fat, which can be difficult to exercise and diet away.
Hormones. Women tend to add body fat in the years leading up to menopause, gaining about one pound a year. And they may continue to gain weight during menopause, possibly because of declining estrogen levels. Menopause-related weight gain isn't inevitable, but it does require extra effort to avoid. After menopause, most women can maintain their weight on 1,500 to 1,600 calories a day, according to the Mayo Clinic. For men, a gradual decline in testosterone levels contributes to more body fat and less lean muscle mass. And for both sexes, aging brings a decreased metabolic rate; you simply don't burn calories as efficiently as you once did, so it takes more physical activity to get similar results.
Find That Magic Number
A healthy weight will be different for everybody, says Robin Bowman, RD, bariatric program dietitian for Summa Health System's Advanced Bariatric Care and Weight Loss Management program, in Akron, Ohio. "If you're happy with the way your clothes fit, and you're healthy and able to do the things you like to do--whether it's exercising or chasing kids--then you've probably found the weight that's right for you," she says.
One obstacle to finding and staying at your ideal weight is a trap known as "false-hope syndrome," when you set yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations, says Bowman. You may set unattainable goals by wanting to lose too much weight too quickly. Sometimes, failing to achieve those goals may send dieters into a cycle of weight gain and loss. A better approach is to think about your lowest and highest adult weights. Unless you've always struggled with overweight, your healthy weight is likely to be the one in the middle of these, and the one you can maintain over a long period of time. For those who have struggled with a weight problem, you probably need the help of your doctor or registered dietitian to help you determine where your weight should be.
Reaching a weight that's healthy for you may mean increasing your physical activity, adding resistance training to build lean muscle mass, and consuming fewer calories or less fat. A dietitian can help you develop a weight-loss program tailored to your needs. To find a dietitian, visit www.eatright.org, the website of the American Dietetic Association. You may want to hire a personal trainer, who can help you develop a customized exercise program that combines aerobic activity and resistance training. If you've never been active or if it has been a long time, check with your doctor to be sure what's right for you.