Healthy Lifestyle—The Next Step

PapayaNick’s coworker Marvin fondly thought back to his early 20s when he was the skinny kid on the block and tried so hard to put on weight. His mom had told him the pounds would come. Now he knew she was right. In the 15 years since he turned 40, Marvin has gained more than 15 pounds. What happened? And what should he do about it now?

As you grow older, if you continue eating the same types and amounts of food but do not become more active, you will probably gain weight. That’s because your metabolism (how your body gets energy from food) slows with age. Your body uses less energy, and that means it needs less food to make the energy it needs. The energy your body gets from the nutrients in the food you eat is measured as calories.

You may have heard the phrase “calories in, calories out” or maybe “energy in, energy out.” It’s true—as a rule of thumb, the more calories you eat, the more active you have to be. Likewise, the reverse is also true--the more active you are, the more calories you need. If you eat more calories than your body uses, you could gain weight. As you age, your body might need less food for energy, but it still needs the same amount of the nutrients we just described. What should you do?

Here’s a tip

To learn more about calories, go to, and put “Make Your Calories Count” in the search window. To check how many calories are in a food, go to

Taking in Calories

Writing down what and how much you eat each day will help you keep track of your total daily calories and also help you see if you are making the best choices. If you and your healthcare provider are worried about weight gain, you should choose nutrient-dense foods. These foods give you lots of nutrients without a lot of extra calories. On the other hand, foods that are high in calories for the amount of food are called calorie dense.They may or may not have nutrients. High-calorie foods with little nutritional value, like potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, candy, baked goods, and alcoholic beverages, are sometimes called “empty calories.”

Can choosing a nutrient-dense food instead of a calorie-dense food really make a difference? Here are some examples of nutrient-dense choices side by side with similar foods that are not nutrient-dense, have more calories, or both (from

Hamburger patty, 4 oz. precooked, extra lean ground beef
167 calories
Hamburger patty, 4 oz. precooked, regular ground beef
235 calories

Large apple, 8 oz.
110 calories
Apple pie, eighth of a 2-crust 9” pie
356 calories

Two slices of 100 % whole wheat bread, 1 oz. each
138 calories
Medium croissant, 2 oz.
231 calories

Medium baked potato with peel, 2 tablespoons low-fat sour cream
203 calories
French fries, one medium fast-food order
457 calories

Roasted chicken breast, skinless (3 oz.)
141 calories
Fried chicken wings with skin and batter, (3 oz.)
479 calories

Another way to think about the idea of nutrient-dense and calorie-dense foods is to look at a variety of foods that all provide the same calories. Let’s say that you wanted to have a snack that contained about 100 calories. You might choose one of these:

  • 7- or 8-inch banana
  • two ounces baked chicken breast with no skin
  • three cups low-fat popcorn
  • two regular chocolate-sandwich cookies
  • half cup low-fat ice cream
  • one scrambled large egg cooked with fat
  • 20 peanuts
  • half of the average-size candy bar

Which would make a better snack for you? Although these examples all have about 100 calories, there are some big differences:

  • banana, chicken, peanuts, or egg are more nutrient dense
  • popcorn or chicken are likely to help you feel more satisfied
  • chicken, peanuts, or egg have more protein
  • cookies, candy, and ice cream have more added sugars

What is BMI—Body Mass Index?

Your doctor might mention BMI when talking about your weight. Your BMI—body mass index—is a number based on your height and weight that can be compared to a chart to see if you are considered overweight or underweight.

Obesity is a growing problem for all age groups in the United States. In older adults who are overweight, the decision whether to lose some or all of that extra weight is complicated, and BMI is just one factor. Body changes that come with age and health problems may mean that an older person’s desired weight is higher than for someone younger. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of NIH, has information on obesity and physical activity at and on BMI at Or you can call NHLBI at 1-301-496-3583 to order publications.

Burning Calories

We all need to burn off calories to help maintain a healthy body weight for our size and age. You use some calories simply without thinking about it in your day-to-day activities. How active do you have to be beyond that? There is no simple answer. The important thing to remember is that many people need to become more active than they are now, and you might be one of them.

Each person uses different amounts of calories doing the same type of activity. In general, heavier people use more calories. Those who weigh less use fewer. Women also probably use fewer. Experts do not know how the number of calories used during an activity differs for older people compared to those who are younger. As an example, if an average younger man—around 5’10”, 154 pounds—eats a wedge of apple pie for dessert (about 356 calories), how long would he have to ride a bicycle to burn off the calories? More than an hour based on some estimates. We don’t know if it’s the same for you, but whether you would have to ride even longer or a little less, that’s still a long time on a bike. And what if you ate an apple (about 110 calories) instead of that pie? You’d have to spend less time on the bike to burn the calories.

Balancing the calories you eat and drink with the calories burned by being physically active helps to maintain a healthy weight. Check your weight once a week. Then you’ll know whether you are balancing the calories in and calories out or whether you need to be more active.

How much physical activity? Although any amount of regular physical activity is good for you, aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Unless you are already that active, you won’t do that much all at once—10-minute sessions several times a day on most days are fine. People over age 65 should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions will allow. Doing anything is better than doing nothing at all.

Here’s a tip

From time to time, you could keep a food diary. By keeping track of what you are eating for a few days, you might be able to see if you need to be more active to burn off all the calories you are eating.

Balancing Calories (Energy) In and Calories Out
Energy in = Energy out Maintaining Weight
Your weight will stay the same when the calories you eat and drink equal the calories you burn.
Energy in < Energy out Losing Weight
You will lose weight when the calories you eat and drink are less than the calories you burn.
Energy in > Energy out Gaining Weight
You will gain weight when the calories you eat and drink are greater than the calories you burn.

Most older people can be moderately active. But you might want to talk to your doctor if you aren’t used to energetic activity and you want to start a vigorous exercise program or significantly increase your physical activity. You should also check with your doctor if you have health concerns like dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, an irregular heartbeat, blood clots, joint swelling, a hernia, or recent hip or back surgery. Your doctor might have some safety tips or suggest certain types of exercise for you.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money joining a gym or hiring a personal trainer. Think about the kinds of physical activities that you enjoy—for example, walking, running, bicycling, gardening, housecleaning, swimming, or dancing. Try to make time to do what you enjoy on most days of the week. And then increase how long you do it, or add another fun activity.

Go4Life LogoThe National Institute on Aging (NIA) wants you to be more physically active. To help you fit exercise and physical activity into your daily life, NIA created the Go4Life campaign. Go4Life offers a variety of free, evidence-based resources for older adults in one convenient spot —

Grandchild canoening with grandfatherOn the Go4Life website, you will find:

  • sample endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility exercises with print and video demonstrations
  • My Go4Life, an interactive tool you can use to set personal exercise goals and track your progress
  • motivational tip sheets
  • personal success stories
  • and much more!

You can also order Go4Life materials by calling NIA at 1-800-222-2225 (toll-free).

Go4Life is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Fecha de publicación: Septiembre 2011
Última actualización: Enero 22, 2015

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