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Diet, Exercise Are a Good 1-2 Punch for Older Adults, Study Says

Seniors exercising in a gym.
A study using inactive overweight older people has found that those in an exercise program for four months became more fit and burned off more fat than those who relied only on a diet.

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January 9, 2012

The best way for seniors to keep valuable lean muscle mass and lose weight at the same time is a combination of exercise and dieting. And keeping weight off is a way to slow the aging process, according to a study. However, sometimes older adults — like the rest of us — need a little motivation.

Q. My 77-year-old father is on a diet and losing weight, which is great. But he says he doesn’t want to or need to exercise. Is he right?

The benefits of weight loss have been documented for all ages, including seniors. However, a study using inactive overweight older people has found that those in an exercise program for four months became more fit and burned off more fat than those who relied only on a diet.

The study also showed that when older people diet without exercising, they lose more lean muscle compared with those who exercise, said senior researcher Bret H. Goodpaster from the University of Pittsburgh.

When the research subjects combined weight loss with exercise, it nearly completely prevented the loss of lean muscle mass. The results are important because older people tend to lose muscle mass as they age and too much muscle loss may interfere with their ability to handle activities of daily living.

Researchers divided the 64 overweight and obese seniors aged 60 to 75 into three groups of exercisers only, dieters only and those who combined both. Among the results:

  • Exercise group drew more on fat stores as the source of their body’s fuel.
  • Diet-only group did not gain efficiency in performing the exercise task, even though they weighed less at the end of the experiment.
  • Diet-only group’s weight loss resulted from a loss of both muscle and fat.
  • Exercise plus diet group was the most efficient at the exercise task at the end of the experiment. This shows an additive effect of both dieting and exercise, but most of that benefit was due to exercise.
  • Exercise plus diet group, like the exercise-only group, drew more on fat stores as an energy source.

If it’s impossible to exercise, seniors should consult their doctors about dieting before embarking on one. Calorie restriction has long been shown to slow the aging process in rats and mice. Research has moved from animals to humans. A study in Rejuvenation Research, found that calorie restriction — cutting about 300 to 500 calories per day — had a similar biological effect in humans and, therefore, may slow the aging process.

While scientists do not know how calorie restriction affects the aging process in rodents, one popular hypothesis is that it slows aging by decreasing a thyroid hormone, triiodothyronine (T3), which then slows metabolism and tissue aging, according to the report by Saint Louis University researchers.

“Over recent years, there has been a huge amount of debate about whether calorie restriction slows the aging process in humans,” said Edward Weiss, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University’s Doisy College of Health Sciences and lead author of the study.

“Our research provides evidence that calorie restriction does work in humans like it has been shown to work in animals. The next step is to determine if this in fact slows age-related tissue deterioration.”

Encourage your father to talk with his doctor about these issues. If it is motivation that he needs, suggest he join a seniors’ exercise group. Call your local senior center or fitness club for more information. Or contact your local Home Instead Senior Care® office. The organization’s CAREGiversSM often encourage seniors to practice a healthy lifestyle such as participating in exercise programs, at their doctor’s recommendation.

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