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Looking to Downsize Your Waistline? Try a Weight Loss Challenge for Active Older Adults

African American active older adults jogging

WEIGHT. Losing It is Challenging for Active Older Adults

Many active older adults experience weight gain as we age. And it's a medical fact that shedding those pounds becomes more difficult as we age. So unless we're like Charles Eugster (a Londoner who began bodybuilding at age 87 and continued till his death at age 96) we're less likely than "the kids" to stick to a regular exercise and fitness routine. And as active older adults, we're more likely to have various and sundry aches and pains, sports injuries from, like, a million years ago, and good old-fashioned arthritis. Experts recommend joining in on, or creating our own fitness and weight loss challenge with older people of a similar age. The camaraderie and accountability can really help us achieve our goals.

It seems as if a week doesn’t go by that we don’t hear about a new challenge. Social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube have created a worldwide arena where folks can challenge each other for record holder or bragging rights, for philanthropy, or simply for their 15 minutes of fame. 

There are myriad personal challenges that we can undertake, such as quitting bad habits, giving up certain foods or food groups, and adapting more ethical ways of living. One of the most popular (if not the most popular) is the weight loss challenge. There are literally thousands of websites, games and apps designed to help us lose weight. The office-wide weight loss challenge has been around for decades. Betting on who can lose the most weight is a popular motivator. And when friends, family and co-workers are in on the bet, it makes it harder to quit and easier to be driven.But is entering into a challenge with friends, family or coworkers the best way to succeed? 

This blog examines the dynamics of the weight loss challenge and how participants use competition to reach their goals. We also discuss the ways active older adults can make this challenge work for us, and stay healthy while doing it.

two active older adults on treadmills

Lose Weight and Gain Community

Competition can really motivate some of us to lose weight. But as older adults, we need to pick our competitive group with our physical limitations, weight goals and capacity for exercise in mind. Our competitors can offer strength and support, but those who are more advanced in terms of physical capacity and general health should not be competing with folks who have significant orthopedic issues or are very overweight. Keeping any type of challenge rolling along requires momentum, and when we’re in it alone, it’s much easier to lose the forward force. But competing against well-matched people around our same age and physical condition--even same weight and weight loss goals--can really help keep us encouraged. 

Personal trainer Q Jefferson of SWAT Fitness in Tucson, Arizona told in a recent article that establishing a competition can give people motivation that they haven’t felt in a long time. Having a goal and a prize at the end of the process is great, but people also get a sense of community, a gym to call home, and a bunch of new friends with a shared experience, too. “Competition fabricates motivation for people…What do we do when someone is positive we can’t do something? We make it our goal to prove them wrong, and most of the time we end up accomplishing whatever the challenge was.” 

The article reports that Jefferson created a program called the Sisterhood of the Shrinking Pants, a four-month-long women-only challenge dedicated to losing body fat and building lean muscle mass. For every percentage of body fat lost and every pound of lean muscle mass gained, the competitors earned one point. At the end of the challenge, the person who had accumulated the most points wins a grand prize of $6,000. Jefferson shared that while the competition got the group into the gym initially, people often find themselves no longer caring about winning the prize, because they’ve “won” a gym to call home and friendships. And they’ve lost weight, which was the ultimate goal in the first place.

older male adult working with personal trainer in gym

"Put Your Money Where Your Fat Is"

But there are detractors to this idea. According to the New York Times article “Dieting? Put Your Money Where Your Fat Is,” “Most diet bettors agreed that while losing weight was the ultimate goal, winning the bet—and pocketing the winnings—soon became the main reason they stuck to their diets.” A study in the December 2008 Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who had financial incentives to lose weight were much more successful at dieting than those who did not. This line of thinking has led to articles such as “7 Ways to Wager on Weight Loss” and apps such as Competish “where weight loss competition with friends meets The Biggest Loser.” Websites like DietBet offers dozens of ways for you to “set up or join a weight loss challenge.” Others like inKin use "Social Fitness" concepts to let you link personal health devices across platforms and engage your whole community in a variety of macro- and micro-challenges.  Whew. I’m worn out just thinking about that one.

It seems as if there are two schools of thought behind weight loss competitions. Those who value the camaraderie and seek the goal of weight loss, and those who are in it for the prize money. I wonder which group is more likely to keep the weight off? If we are empty-nesters or retired, or both, older adults are more likely to have extra time to coordinate gym meet-ups Pilates sessions and yoga classes. I believe that as active older adults, we have a greater capacity to incorporate fitness routines into our daily lives, now that we've raised our families and downsized our households. I believe that entering into a weight loss challenge could lead to the establishment of an active older adult fitness community. Winning prize money sounds great, but being fit until we're 96 years old sounds even better!

older active adults taking selfies in the gym

WE Love the Challenge

The jury is still out on whether any of the weight loss challenges actually work in the long-term. Because at least here in the U.S., we’re more overweight than ever. According to the latest large-scale federal survey that is considered the gold standard in health data, nearly 40% of American adults were obese in 2015 and 2016, a sharp increase from a decade earlier. The report, published in March 2018 by JAMA, indicated that the prevalence of severe obesity in American adults is also on the rise in recent years. 

These statistics are certainly disheartening. But for those of us who require outside motivation, rest assured there will remain plenty of competition-based weight loss games to play. And in the spirit of healthy competition, we active older adults won’t give up. Because we love the challenge.

Part II of the Challenging Times blog involves making personal lifestyle changes that coordinate with your ethical and moral beliefs. Living Without Plastic in a Mostly Plastic World chronicles the odyssey of those who have taken on this seemingly insurmountable challenge. And how you can do it, too.

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