Debbie Zeger had the world at her fingertips: A recent college graduate in New York City, she was eager to try new restaurants with friends, grab drinks with colleagues and say yes when someone cute asked her on a date. What she wasn’t eager to do was exercise or continue the Weight Watchers plan she’d started soon after graduating.
“It wasn’t fitting my lifestyle, and I wasn’t necessarily willing to make the changes I had wanted to long-term,” says Zeger, who’s now 29 and works for a university’s development office.
So Zeger, who swam in high school but stopped exercising consistently in college, continued to put taking control of her health on the back burner and look the other way when it came to the scale. It wasn’t until she accompanied a colleague to a Weight Watchers meeting last January that Zeger felt ready to make a change. “You weigh in and you see the number, and it’s real and you can’t hide from it,” says Zeger, who re-joined program the next week.
“I hear so many people say, ‘I want to lose 10 pounds or 5 pounds, and they say this for their whole life,” she continues. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be there.’”
While weight-loss discussion, research and interventions tend to focus on children and middle-aged and older adults, millennials (generally defined as people born between 1980 and 2000) are just about as likely to be overweight and obese – and more likely to be so than when their parents or even older siblings were their age, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The obesity epidemic for this generation is quite a problem, and that’s really shifted,” says Jessica LaRose, associate professor of health behavior and policy at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, where she studies obesity prevention and treatment in young adults.
That may be in part because – on top of universal contributors to weight gain including environmental, genetic, lifestyle and socioeconomic factors – some issues like high stress levels and poor sleep habits seem to be intensified among members of this generation, LaRose says. What’s more, she adds, the increasingly drawn-out transition to adulthood “is also associated with peaks in unhealthy eating-related behaviors.”
All that adds up to an increased risk of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease later in life because “the earlier the onset of overweight and obesity,” LaRose says, “the [more the] health consequences are intensified.”
But millennials – who are more often stereotyped as privileged, green juice-sipping yogis than as battling significant health problems – face some barriers to weight loss that older people tend not to.
For one, young adults are less likely to seek professional help for weight loss, so it’s hard for researchers to study what works best for them, LaRose says. At the same time, millennials value convenience and low price tags, so traveling to see (and pay for) nutritionists, trainers and psychologists, or to join weight-loss support groups, is less appealing, finds Artem Petakov, who co-founded the behavior change program Noom. “Millennials just don’t have time,” he says.
And then there’s the power of social media, which can promote a negative body image and relationship with food. “You can’t win – no matter what, there’s always going to be someone saying something negative about the way you look,” says Lindsey Corak, a 26-year-old personal trainer at Life Time MetroWest outside Boston who weighed both 240 and 115 pounds before settling at her current healthy weight. “That’s definitely something we struggle with at a young age that I don’t think the older individuals struggle with.”
Indeed, a recent survey of nearly 1,500 14- to 24-year-olds in the U.K. found that all social media platforms except YouTube had a negative impact on mental health – raising anxiety, depression and body image issues. Alexis Joseph, a dietitian and founder of Hummusapien in Columbus, Ohio, believes it. “I see people in 7th and 8th grade and high school getting obsessed to an unhealthy degree with healthy eating, and then they end up in my office and it started because they saw someone on Instagram using coconut flour and paleo blah blah blah,” says Joseph, a millennial herself. “The diet culture has almost been accelerated because of social media.”
All that said, millennials have some key advantages when it comes to successfully losing weight or getting healthier. For one, they benefit from advances in nutrition research that support eating a variety of unprocessed foods over low-fat, packaged diet foods, as well as strategies like intuitive eating over calorie counting, experts say. “It’s really focusing on a holistic approach,” says Corak, who also runs Life Time’s group weight-loss training program, TEAM Burn, which draws people ages 18 to 78.
Advances in exercise science that promote high-intensity interval training and strength-training over long stretches of cardio for fat and weight loss have helped, too. “It used to be, ‘Work as hard as you can, burn as many calories as you can,’” Corak says. “Now it’s more, ‘Work smarter, not harder.’”
Millennials also tend to more readily embrace the behavioral component of weight loss, Petakov of Noom finds. “That psychological awareness has been really resonating with people because they say, ‘I was waiting for people to talk to me not just about the calories in and out, but rather: How do I feel? How do I get myself to stick to this? How do I make lifelong changes?” he says.
And again, technology can be as much of a help as it is a hindrance among this population. “Younger patients have the benefit of being more tech-savvy,” and they grasp tools like FitBit with ease, finds Dr. Tyree Winters, an associate professor of pediatrics at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine who specializes in weight loss and maintenance among young patients.
Ultimately, though, the pillars of a healthy lifestyle – eating plenty of (but not only) vegetables, moving daily (but not obsessively), sleeping enough and managing stress – cut across ages, and the best methods to achieve it vary by person more than by age, experts say. While Petakov has seen over-65-year-olds lose weight and maintain it with Zoom (a virtual tool), for example, Zegar lost 60 pounds – and has kept it off – after enrolling in Weight Watchers the second time. Her advice? “You just have to start. Pick a day and commit to yourself that you’re going to change your lifestyle.”