Privilege Blog

25 Ways To Maintain Your Shape At 50+

I have been asked several times, recently, for a post on how I maintain my shape. I’ve written about it before, tongue-in-cheek, in 11 Sneaky Tricks Of The High WASP Diet, and here, earnestly, in the Building Attractive series from last year. But maybe I haven’t yet answered the question usefully enough, so here’s another try.

In brief, I both count my lucky stars and work at it.

Water Under The Bridge, Or, What We Are Given

First of all, we’ve all got baseline genetics. Muscularity runs in my family. I think it’s easier to stay lean if you build muscle easily. (Downside is, I build muscle on my calves so well that running gives me terrible shin splints and if chased by wolves I will just have to hope for trees. Tall trees or small wolves.) In other genetic news, I’m long-waisted. I think that allows a lot of space for middle-aged chub to hide. Finally, I’m neither gluten nor dairy-intolerant, so I’ve got great choice in foodstuffs.

Then, of course, there’s privilege. I am sure that early diet has enormous effect on late-in-life weight, and I was extremely fortunate. My mother fed us lots of fish and vegetables, and fruit. She cooked our every meal, except when she and my father were out, leaving us TV dinners with the babysitter. (That I loved Salisbury Steak is only one more data point proving the theorem, Children Are Crazy.)

I am also sure that childhood activity levels have an impact. We always lived in places with room to move. While we didn’t have sports at school – Title IX hadn’t happened yet – we did have a mother whose primary strategy for dealing with 4 young children was to slide open the glass door and say, “Go outside!”

I am very grateful for all this healthy infrastructure. That said, I think that getting on track with nutrition and exercise is sort of like re-parenting ourselves, and much can be done by adult intent.

The Things To Which We Can All Pay Attention

There is nothing new here. No unknown diet, no secret exercise program. It’s just about finding a way to make what you already know work for you without exhausting your precious will power. I need my will power for virtue, writing responsibly, and paying bills. I do not want to use it up on calorie management. Onward.

A Relationship With Food & Its Consumption

  1. I don’t like fast food, so I don’t eat it. McDonald’s doesn’t have to be part of your life; for nomadic lunches a turkey sandwich will do. If delis squeeze your budget, make a sandwich at home. Or turkey rolls – slices of roast turkey rolled around gherkins or cheese.
  2. I don’t like fat, so I don’t eat it in quantity. Fatty meat doesn’t appeal, and I banish potato chips and their sneaky buddies from the pantry, saving my fat indulgence for good cheeses, nut butters and an occasional pat of the dairy stuff. Oh, and the heaven that is avocado.
  3. I like whole wheat. When you find the right product, in my case the La Brea Whole Grain bread sold at Whole Foods, whole grain is a joy, not a chore.
  4. I’ve internalized “sparse eating.” I don’t like the way stuffing myself feels. The only way to get here is practice. Practice eating slowly, and stopping exactly at satiation. Pay attention.
  5. Speaking of which, I’ve narrowed down the trigger to satiation for me. It is a BIG LUNCH, with protein, vegetables, fruit, chocolate, and carbs. If I don’t experience that click of satiation before about 12:30pm my entire day will spiral into snacking and crankiness. Your biological clock is your own, research it thoroughly.
  6. Turns out satiation is aided by psychology. Yet another reason to sort yours out.
  7. I’ve directed my splurges to reasonable foods, i.e. a whole wheat tortillas warmed in the microwave for 30 seconds, or two squares of dark chocolate paired with two of milk.
  8. I’ve even defined, and thus limited, debauchery – If I need the emotional charge of throwing all caution to the wind I will cut some of this chocolate cake, drink 3 glasses of red wine, and eat a lot of popcorn. But I throw the cake I don’t want in the trash. And the extra wine puts me to sleep. I can’t eat any more when I’m asleep, I’ve found.
  9. I love the food I eat, and I eat the food I love.
  10. In order to make the above statement true, I focus on the quality of my food purchases; i.e. grass-fed, free-range, wild-caught meats, poultry and fish, organic canned beans, mandarins in season, organic chocolate, etc.
  11. I also grow a teeny little patch of herbs and vegetables in my front yard. I like to plant from seeds, sow too thickly, and then thin the rows by eating the sprouts as they grow. It turns out radish sprouts are peppery and delicious.
  12. I cook, as well as I can, without using anything containing ingredients I don’t recognize.
  13. I bake chicken, not desserts. Why present myself with that untamed sensory input?
  14. To keep myself honest, I weigh often, and allow myself a 4 pound fluctuation. Over a certain weight and I eat very carefully for the next 3-4 days. Under a certain weight, I eat big.
  15. Finally, I do not suffer. Never do I feel that eating like this is a burden, a difficult No said to life. It feels instead like a Yes to my body, to purity, and to the savoring of foodstuffs.

Tricks To Eat Less When It’s Called For

On those days after I’ve hit my high point – let’s say after a wedding, for example, or the holidays, or a weekend trip to Napa – I have a few tricks to bump myself back down.

  1. Hot liquids. Drink tea or coffee, eat soup. You’ll feel fuller.
  2. Lean protein. Try to address your hunger head on. On lean days I will often eat a can of tuna with oil and vinegar dressing for lunch, atop a head of lettuce. Have a power bar if necessary. I never need more than 3 lean days in a row.
  3. Speaking of lettuce, consume fruit and vegetables by the bushel. Especially vegetables.

Exercise In Its Easy Incarnation

The secret is to incorporate exercise into your life. This thought is nothing new, but just in case you had any ideas I am an athlete, um, no. I am however a perpetual mover-arounder.

  1. I do some exercise now and I have always.
  2. I don’t do very much, or anything very hard.
  3. Over the years I’ve tried a variety of formal exercise – dance classes, gym workouts with weights, personal trainers, yoga.
  4. I’ve done even more informal exercise – walking, chasing children, walking, gardening, and walking again.
  5. Life is always sweetest and general creakiness best managed when I back up regular moderate cardio with strength training and stretching of one sort or another. Twice a week with some free weights, or a yoga class, either work for me.
  6. These days I go to my personal trainer, a true luxury, twice a week. We work on rehabilitating my shoulder – the rotator cuff strain has been reluctant to play nice – and on overall strength and flexibility. If budget doesn’t allow for a trainer, I recommend resistance and weight training at home. A set of bands, or free weights, are easy to come by.
  7. I still do a fair amount of walking. To the gym, on city expeditions, and suburban errands whenever possible. We balked at carrying a large space heater in a backpack to UPS, but have become quite adept at schlepping home groceries, drugstore plunder, and shoes from Neiman Marcus, for that matter.

The primary goal of both nutrition and movement, now, in my mind, is building an infrastructure for aging. I used to work out once or twice a week, just to maintain a reasonable natural fitness. I think aging, and the 2 years in an office, has put me in a fitness hole. To feel the way I want to in the world I need to be fitter than my body is inclined, if that makes sense. This is not to say I don’t enjoy a slender appearance, but it’s not my current motivation.

Being female in America, and perhaps Europe and Australia, means both enormous pressure to be one shape, and too many opportunities to eat and sit oneself into another. There’s a lot of what we might call Myth For Pay out there, and we probably need to band together and fight back.

To that end I’m going to thank Mater for pointing me to this lentils recipe, and Miss Whistle for this incredible fish. (Note: I used halibut instead of cod.) Both Indian recipes, very high in flavor, and super easy to make. There are plenty of other things in life that demand effort and distress, eating and moving should use less willpower, and give more joy.

Edited to add this link to a fascinating New Yorker article, via @jane|simplepretty.

Mouse over the photo up top. It should show you info, I used a new tool. Let me know if it’s broken:(. No affiliate links included. However Whole Foods does offer coupons.


51 Responses

  1. “I love the food I eat, and I eat the food I love.” or my version, “I live to eat, not eat to live.”

    Everything in moderation, even Salisbury Steak (my mother did the same TV-dinner-with-babysitter) and exercise disguised as fun – hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing. We even hired a trainer and organized a neighborhood stretching class (husbands too) two evenings a month.

  2. Yes, the baseline genetics. That is what keeps me going to the gym – I cannot change the basics of what I have and do not have, but I have seen female relatives and know what I will look like if I do nothing.

    That, and I want to be able to get up if I fall.

  3. Genetics plays a far larger role in our ability to manage our weight than most of us realize. It does not rule it, however – genetics in this area to a large degree can be overcome, but one must work, and hard, to do so. You are absolutely right, too, in that there is no one optimal diet for all people, and you must find yours. I’ve spent the last 4 years tinkering with my diet and will continue to do so. I’ve found that the short-term diet that heals is not necessarily the long-term diet that nourishes and sustains.

    I know I could comment on this particular subject all day, so I’ll spare you and just finish by saying your mother was far more tactful than my own, who was wont to shove us out the door in the morning and yell, “I don’t care where you go, but don’t come back before dinner time!!”

  4. You’ve got an excellent attitude – and system! It’s totally laudable. Gotta say, though, I don’t think you can underestimate the role of genetics in the equation. I sense you are still slender because you have always been so, and are predisposed to be so. That in no way discounts the work you do to retain your lovely figure in middle age. And, natch, what the hell do I know – I haven’t observed you from childhood on! Just saying that the WASPs tend to be very blessed in this respect, while I’m generalizing…

  5. A sensible yet inspiring post — and you’re welcome for the pointer to the dahl recipe (and thank you for the nod — I’ll have visitors stopping by all day!). In fact, I’ve not made that for a few weeks and think it might just be time to indulge again.

  6. Thank-you very much for the information and guidance you have given here. I have recently tried to address my weight issue and find that what you say accords with my own feelings. I’ve only recently discovered your site and I am loving it – particularly your beautiful grey hair. I’ve been battling with the temptation to dye my grey away recently but brave individuals such as you give me inspiration. Will drop in again soon – Judy. (I read, I sewed, I crocheted)

  7. Lisa your approach is sensible and it sounds like it works for you.
    Your four pound fluctuation to allow for trips and special events is brilliant and even better that you compensate when you get to the top of that mark. Weighing instead of using how your clothes fit guide is much more accurate and really we all should be hopping on the scale to remind us that we need to be mindful, a simple helpful habit that can make all the difference.
    I thought I was in tune to my diet and for years was actually in the obese category when configuring the BMI. It took a high blood pressure diagnosis by my GP to scare me into losing weight. Walking was key and I am grateful that I joined Weight Watchers. I never knew that it would really work for me but if I can do it anyone can!
    30 pounds took me a sensible 8 months to lose. I have a hypo thyroid condition so others may do it faster plus I am post menopausal nudging 60 so that factors in.
    You have such a wonderful no nonsense approach to life too…your mother must be an incredible role model. As to those TV dinners we had them on occasion and the mashed potatoes were quite strange! Did you ever experience Tang? The astronauts took it to space!
    Would love to know more about your Mother and her child rearing techniques….she sounds intriguing.

    1. @Bungalow Hostess, Hostess, congratulations again on your success! And I will maybe have to write a whole post on my mother’s childrearing strategies:). She put her whole heart & mind into the process.

  8. At fifty four, I finally learned:

    Breakfast: high fiber cereal, milk, fruit
    Lunch: one of those liquid meal drinks and a
    fruit or vegetable
    Dinner: Whatever (reasonably healthy) you want, including dessert!
    Change this, but only slightly, depending on activity level and mood :).
    I do think genetics play a role but only to a small extent. That’s why foreigners don’t seem to have our “metabolism disorders” and when slim foreigners move to our country, they tend to gain weight.

    1. @Jane,

      Yes. This applies to other areas of health too (incidence of different cancers, diabetes, etc) and examining the health of people who move country and culture is one of the most interesting and informative ways to study disease. To this end the World Health Assembly endorsed a Resolution on the Health of Migrants in May 2008, with monitoring migrant health as one its key resolutions, with the aim both of informing public health policies and learning more about disease and ill health.

      I think culture and behaviour (patterns of eating and exercising) have as much to do with body shape and weight as what we eat.

  9. Oh I do wish I had your genetics, we are a very, very overweight family, and it has been a constant battle for me since I was ten, I just had to face up to the fact that I could only eat half of what my genetically slim friends ate.
    It is indeed a struggle every single day. I lost 45lbs three times – don’t want to to go through that ever again, so hunger has to be my companion, leptin is a bugger.

  10. Genetics seem to be on my side, if weight distribution is the issue, but, like you, I pay attention to my one particular body and try to give it what it needs. Thank you so much for emphasizing that knowing oneself is the fundamental key to it all. I appreciate very much your thoughtful statements – the only one that made me cringe was “I throw the cake I don’t want in the trash.” I absolutely cannot bring myself to do that – which would make sense if I had experienced deprivation in childhood, but I did not. Still, no throwing away of good food can happen around me (I have been known to rescue leftovers from hostesses who appeared to be giving them the deep six). A quirk, a powerful quirk, but it gives me a chance to work on those old devils, self-control and deferred satisfaction.

  11. This has to be one of my favorite posts! It has taken me over a year to lose 35 lbs (thank you, My Fitness Pal). I still have more to lose. Your ideas are both sound and practical. I, too, love the La Brea whole grain wheat. I get mine at Costco, where I can pick up two loaves for just about the price of one at WF. My favorite Justin’s nut butter is the vanilla almond. That one is only available at WF.

    So, thank you for this great post. Onward to health and a slender appearance!

  12. Oh, and one does have to be prudent when enjoying any go those delicious nut butters!

  13. Oh I am writing a post about eating vegetables at the moment! It’s more strident than my usual stuff, so I would value your opinion.

    ‘I need my will power for virtue, writing responsibly, and paying bills. I do not want to use it up on calorie management.’ Brilliant.

  14. Coming to this late after the posting, but I do want to add that my partner and I, as part of our New Year’s Resolutions, decided to eliminate as much sugar and as much processed food as possible from our diet. This hasn’t been easy––there is soooooooo much processed food out there! Much easier to eliminate sugar since neither of us is particularly drawn to sugary foods. The result is I now have to work to keep my weight UP and my insomnia is almost eliminated (and I have no scientific proof one has to do with the other!). I am also slender by genetics and I take a pilates class three days a week. Pilates is what works for me. I think finding the exercise that is right for your personality and body be it walking or running or a spin class or yoga or pilates or weights and bands or skiing or swimming or whatever appeals and works is crucial to keeping your flexibility and strength as you age and both of those are a MUST!

    1. @C.W., Not late at all:). And I am coming to believe I need to cut back on sugar (dang you glycation!) and it’s hard!

  15. Love this post Lisa, your methods speak to me! You helped me cut back my wine consumption when you wrote that excellent post on how you yourself cut back, I still use your methods and it has been so easy.
    We eat in a very similar way except that I have to be gluten free. You are correct about a bigger lunch, I’ve just started doing that recently and it makes a big difference. Lean protein as you say is key.

  16. I think genetics main role is in shaping our exercise and diet preferences.

    After all we have become a obese nation but the gene pool has not changed…

    I stay slim by not eating unit I’m full, avoiding sugar and junk food, walking every day, weighing myself every day.

  17. A very sensible and helpful post. I’m still struggling in this area. I managed to lose about 16 pounds a couple of years ago and have been bouncing up and down a few pounds above that, but not managing to get back on the permanent downward slide again.

    I think the main problem is that I don’t really have the motivation to stick to healthy eating and exercise as a large part of me is quite happy as is. Even though I’m still in the ‘overweight’ category.

    Still, I do eat MUCH more healthily and move a lot more than I did a few years ago and I think that’s a permanent change, so that’s something good.

  18. Excellent post – would love it if you would address those of us that have husbands who like a large, but healthy dinner. I find that hardest to manage.

    My husband wants all the food groups at dinner, and likes to dine every night.

    I find it hardest for me, not in limiting the portions, but in not pouring the second glass of wine for myself!

    I know you have a new husband, so how do you manage that?

    Also, my mother was a big Adele Davis fan, so have been eating healthy my whole life.

    1. @kathy, Significant Husband has conference calls in the evening, so we don’t do a big joint dinner. Problem solved;).

    2. I’m wondering what the concern is? I have that, and one steeped in French culture to boot. I don’t always eat all the dishes at a meal and have much smaller portions; his chicken may be sauced, mine is not. I have moved him to more vegetables (bringing the dish gradually closer to his plate over the years until he was curious) and he likes salads. You can work with it.

  19. This is very useful advice, and I’m rather grateful to you for posting it, but I can’t get over the image of you and your shapely calves hotfooting it away from a pack of timber wolves, really, really elegantly. I have a new respect for you, my dear! xo

  20. T.V. Dinners, I loved the fake potato and fake butter the best but Salisbury steak was second. I have moved on thankfully and now depend on a smoothy for breakfast to maintain weight and health. High protein and high veg with fruit to sweeten. If nothing else came my way all day I’d be healthy albeit a bit hungry. Eating high fiber and being very regular is a huge part of weight maintenance.
    You write beautifully.

  21. I love this post, and I especially love the line about eating the food you love and loving the food you eat. My parents both cooked, and they cooked every meal from scratch using healthy ingredients. I think this solid foundation and the fact that we were sent outside to play as much as possible is critical. I still prefer to cook, and if I eat out I want it to be something special. For every day I make simple but delicious meals. I don’t like fast food, and I’m not particularly happy with most mid-price chain restaurants either, so I mostly avoid them.

    I’ll admit that I was thin until my husband got sick and stress did me in. Stress can affect the metabolism in an unhealthy way, and I will admit I also engaged in unhealthy eating behaviors during that period. But it is probably due to good upbringing, and a preference for many fresh vegetables, that, having finally calmed down I have easily lost 20 pounds so far this year and will probably be back to my mid-adult weight well before the summer is over. This despite the fact that I am not yet exercising due to a back injury. I’ll also admit that I will never be as skinny as I was in my 20s and 30’s because I didn’t know I was celiac or had a hole in my heart at that time, so my metabolism was unusually fast. I come from a long line of large boned blocky Germans, and although my bones are smaller than some of my relatives (thank you English great-grandmother) I will never be willowy again, and that is fine. I want to treat my body well.

    Oh, and that fish recipe has been a favorite of mine for some time. I didn’t realize there was a link to it on the web. And I’ll have to try the dal.

  22. You covered it all so nicely! I started eating my biggest meal at lunch a few months ago, and it does make a huge difference. I make a layer something – either a salad with meat and vinegrette at athe bottom, next layer veggies – shredded carrots, peas, beans, radishes, olives, etc. – lettuce on top to mix up and consume at work, or a “casserole” of layers – protein, steamed veggies, topped with brown rice to heat and eat.
    I’m gluten free, and miss La Brea Bakery Whole Wheat bread immensely.
    Truly the best bread ever!

  23. Once again, this is brilliant. I find that I’m getting a bit softer than I’d like, but I also don’t run, do Pilates, or yoga like I used to, either. And I had major surgery a year ago. Still, I eat similarly to you (save for the wheat/gluten. I hate celiac) and prefer walking for errands than driving. One more dictum to the brilliant advice you provide? If it doesn’t truly taste delicious, don’t eat it. I know so many people who eat things they aren’t thrilled about, simply because they don’t want to waste it, they’re bored, or whatever else rationale they use. A couple slices of amazing cheese is so much better than a few cookies that are “meh”. And the protein and calcium will do your body a favor!

  24. Thank you for a pleasantly low-key exhortation to eat and age as well as one can — despite genetics and access to meaty treats. My family photos reveal a pack of Teutonic Corgis: I protest to Greyhound friends that for my breed, I am tall and slender!

    One agrees it is essential to keep moving on a daily basis. My healthy indulgence is a masseuse who keeps my knees and left shoulder mobile. Pain is a rumble strip on the path to health.

  25. Living as I do now, with a 22 year old French girl, I am so aware of my daily food choices.

    We do not and I cannot eat the same foods.

    I err on the side of slender right now but hope as my recover continues and I’m able to add weights over 2lbs I will regain carefully cultivated muscle all gone after surgery.

    I am not of an age where missing muscle is flattering.

    And where did my breasts go?

    Still I continue to eat modestly and never approach full.

    Might up my lunch portion though. good idea thanks.

    xo J

  26. Ditto on hitting the scale regularly. I lost 12 ponds and dropped a size last year while visiting an ashram in India. I’ve managed to keep it off by facing that scale every day, adjusting my intake accordingly. No way I’m giving up my new clothes!

  27. I love this post and thank you for sharing it! From my own personal experiences, I so agree with you about childhood ‘patterns’ of cooking, family meals and space for movement and activities. I’ve tried to carry all of them over for my own children. It’s really quite simple when one thinks about it and I try to remind myself of that rather than make excuses.

  28. I follow Mark Bittman’s guidelines, enjoying food and maintaining healthy weight:

    re “I bake chicken, not desserts; why present myself with that untamed sensory input”, I enjoy baking; I follow the “French Women Don’t Get Fat” three-bite guideline. There are other fools that I go wild for, so I don’t have a deep fryer in the house!

  29. I love the photo and explanations. And your comment about the tight calve muscles and shin splints was like you turned on a light. I too have calve muscles that build quickly (I look like a runner and I am not), and my shin muscles frequently cramp from walking fast somewhere, even. Is there something to do about this? I guess I could research exercises for shim muscles or something to balance it out…

Comments are closed.