“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Sometimes weight loss can feel a little like both. Of course, real healthy changes take time and weight loss doesn’t happen all at once. But anyone who has embarked on a fitness journey knows that there are weeks where the pounds practically melt off and other weeks where nothing changes, no matter what you do.
It’s frustrating to feel like your effort isn’t yielding any results. You may feel like you’re having to sprint in the middle of a marathon. Even Olympic marathon runners don’t like to do that!
To better understand this fat-burning phenomenon, we spoke with Jessica Arroyo, RD, the lead dietitian at Banner - University Medicine Obesity and Bariatric Surgery Center in Phoenix, AZ. She explained, “Plateaus don’t always occur at the same time, it’s different for everyone. But don’t be discouraged! They are a normal part of the weight-loss process, and nearly everyone experiences a stall at some point on their weight-loss journey.”
Has my progress really stopped?
It’s important to remember that just because the scale hasn’t moved doesn’t mean progress has stopped. For many people combining exercise with diet, muscle mass (weight) is being added at the same time as body fat is reduced. In these moments, body composition is a better measure for health than body weight alone. Regarding body composition, Arroyo said, “Achieving a healthy body fat percentage (<25% for males and <32% for females) is just as important as losing weight. Lowering your body fat lowers your chronic inflammation and improves your chances of keeping the weight off.”
A true weight-loss plateau is when there is no change in weight or body composition. In other words, you’re not losing pounds or inches.
When should I expect to hit a weight-loss plateau?
Diet and exercise may be the answer for just about everyone hoping to lose weight. But that doesn’t mean the journey will be the same for everyone. So many factors can influence your story including:
- How much weight are you hoping to lose?
- Are you dealing with medical conditions or restrictions?
- Have you been prescribed medication that could affect your ability to lose weight?
- How much time do you have to dedicate to exercise?
- What access do you have to healthy food options?
- Genetics, such as your baseline metabolism.
There is a milestone where everyone can expect a plateau. For some, there may be occasional speedbumps and for others, the plateaus may feel like frequent, difficult obstacles. Don’t blame yourself if your journey is different from a peer’s. Many of these factors are out of your control.
What causes a weight-loss plateau?
Many things could be behind your latest weight-loss plateau. Arroyo proposed five possible reasons why you may be struggling to see consistent progress.
The body adapts to changes in your diet and exercise to keep you healthy and nourished. “It has been well-documented that weight loss and energy restriction result in a decrease in energy expenditure – in other words, the less you weigh, the less calories you burn at baseline,” said Arroyo. For this reason, weight loss may get harder the more you lose.
Not every body has the same ideal weight, or “weight set point,” as Arroyo called it. Even two people of the same height could have drastically different weight set points. Setting a realistic and healthy goal for weight loss is something you can do with a professional. They will help you understand your body composition and weigh other factors to set a target weight that is within reach and healthy for your body type.
Many people fight to achieve a target weight that is below a healthy expectation for their body. While the goal may technically be achievable, it may require them to push their body in unhealthy ways.
In the beginning of a diet, focus is strong, and motivation is brimming. You’re cutting out the bad stuff and getting into a regimen. After a few weeks or months, old habits begin to slip back in. If you’ve been seeing good progress, you may not see the harm in loosening up a little bit. Those little exceptions can add up over time and, while you may be doing better than you were before the diet began, you may not see the same progress you’re used to. Write down the details of your plan and check in from time to time to see if you’ve deviated from the rules. Arroyo cited this as the most common reason she sees for weight-loss plateaus.
Slowing on exercise
Similar to the changing habits, exercise is a habit that can slip. Especially if outside factors are pressing for more and more of your schedule. Maybe your workload at the office has increased, your kids may be home for the summer, or holiday season house guests are competing with exercise for your time. Try keeping a record of workouts in your phone, so that you can see if you’ve gotten a little distracted from your schedule. Arroyo recommended about 150 minutes of moderate to strenuous physical activity weekly.
Depending on where you started your fitness journey, your body could be much stronger and fitter than it once was. By measuring things like heart rate throughout your workout, you may find that the original workout plan just isn’t burning calories like it once did. Consider turning up the dial on your activity levels from time to time to make sure you are still finding that ideal level of strain and caloric output.
In some cases, prescribed medications such as beta-blockers, antidepressants and even some migraine medicine can cause weight gain as a side effect. Of course, these medications serve an important purpose. If you are struggling with losing weight and think your medication could have something to do with it, don’t neglect your prescription. Rather, speak with your doctor to discuss alternatives and options.
Getting to the other side
Have you fallen victim to one of the common pitfalls listed above? That’s OK! In weight loss, as with any goal, it’s perfectly normal to take two steps forward and one step back. The trick is treating yourself with patience and getting back on that horse. It’s never too late to keep going. Arroyo recommended four tactics:
1. Keep a journal
If you feel stuck, it’s time to double-down on tracking your routine. Keep a record of your diet, your exercise and how you’re feeling. Write down your long-term goals and what you plan to do each day. Oftentimes, the answer you’re looking for is in the numbers.
2. Evaluate your results and set new goals
Weight loss can require constant fine-tuning. Keeping within healthy limits, turn the dial up on your diet and exercise as needed. Celebrate the work you’ve done to strengthen your body and continue to push it to get even stronger. Be sure to include both cardiovascular and strength training in your workout plan.
3. Work with partners
Fitness doesn’t have to be lonely. In fact, you’ll find better success when someone else is helping you be accountable to your goals. That person doesn’t have to be on the same routine as you to be supportive. Bring them into your plan and ask them to follow up on your progress.
Remember that health care professionals and trainers can also be partners in your fitness journey. Share your successes with them and lean on them when you need support or guidance.
4. Keep smiling
It’s not easy. But it’s worth it. Even when the pounds aren’t pouring off, remind yourself that healthy habits are never a waste of time. Take care of your mental state and forgive yourself when you get down. It’s a marathon, after all. Even if a few sprints are also found along the way.
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