Anyone who has tried to lose weight has experienced a weight loss plateau – large or small. You lose, you lose, you lose – and then it stops. Some times you regain weight that was lost. Sometimes the plateau is a week or two. Other times it lasts months.
Plateaus occur in part because the human body has set points. Your body will reach a new set point approximately every 12 weeks. What does that mean? You can expect a plateau every 12 weeks – if not every six. NOTE: This varies on an individual basis, but these are common benchmarks.
Research shows that we can use plateaus to benefit the long term journey (Fairburn, 2008). The best plan is to be prepared.
Six month rule
For a client who is looking to lose a significant amount of weight (>40% of her bodyweight), I implement a six month rule. We work together to set weekly and monthly short-term goals and six-month, long-term goals. At the six month milestone, all weight goals pertain to weight maintenance.
Yes, maintenance, not loss.
Physiologically, the body has been in a deprived state for a significant amount of time. While the ideal program will have guided you to avoid reaching the physiological starvation mode, at some point your body is going to adapt to the deprivation. NOTE: I do not even like using the word deprivation, as a weight loss that results from deprivation is a band-aid, not a long-term solution. Further, deprivation bares a negative connotation and negativity is detrimental to goal attainment.
After six months of dedication to strict meal planning and lifestyle changes, it is a good idea for you to allow yourself to simply BE. Maintain what you have worked so hard to achieve. Accept it. Appreciate it. Recognize it. At this point on your journey, it may be difficult to see what is real when you look in the mirror – and you may see a previous version of yourself. The phantom fat phenomenon may be preventing you from being able to see your results. This can add discouragement and frustration to a lengthy, taxing process.
I encourage clients to take at least a month to focus on maintenance at the six month mark. During this time goals do not increase physical activity, nor do they change eating habits. Goals focus on the established lifestyle. If a client had previous goals of working out 3 times a week, we retain that goal for the 4 weeks – but we do not reach for more. I do not encourage her to stretch herself. We work to maintain the changes made so far and adopt them as part of a lasting, healthy lifestyle.
If you choose to maintain – you retain the control instead of allowing the plateau to control you.
A time to rest
Sometimes we just need a break. Sometimes you just need to be easy on yourself. You also need to know, that it is OKAY to rest. In fact, you need to rest. Why do most individuals quit weight loss programs?
Grow tired and weary?
The mental fatigue of constantly thinking about what you need to do next?
The lack of results?
We often view the plateau as a failure. Change your thinking and use that time as an opportunity for rest. Rest the mind – knowing that where you are today is better than where you were yesterday. Stop thinking about what you need to do differently or more of this week or next. Just allow yourself to BE.
A time to check in
A plateau is an opportunity to rest. It is also an opportunity to check in with yourself. Be honest.
How are things working?
Are you putting forth enough effort?
Do the workouts fit into your lifestyle as a long-term addition?
Can you maintain the ‘diet’ in the long term?
Are your goals still realistic or do they need to be modified?
Something has got to change
This is the common advice for anyone looking to break through a plateau – you have to change in order to see change. This is true. The human body is highly adaptive – it takes six exposures (give or take) to an exercise before the body adapts to it. What does this mean? You need to change – the load, mode, duration, etc. For once the body adapts, you will no longer obtain results by doing that same thing.
However, it is not that simple. Most individuals who experience significant weight loss followed by a lengthy plateau lost the weight by creating a huge dietary intake deficit. To some of you this may sound good. It can actually be detrimental to long-term success. The result is a slow and groggy metabolism. Sometimes the necessary change is to eat more – revving up that metabolism. Example: I spent a summer working for a weight loss resort, essentially eating what the guests ate. I gained almost 15 pounds – my dietary needs were not being met and it slowed my metabolism WAY down. I lost that weight quickly and easily by eating more.
Plateaus are going to happen. It is best to be prepared for them. There are ways to reduce the frequency of plateaus, using science-based workouts and programming. You will not find this in a DVD or in a standard group fitness class. You will not get this programming from your average personal trainer, either.
My best advice to you – plan for maintenance every 3 to 6 months. Use this time to be proud and regroup. Rejuvinate. Enjoy what you have earned.
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Cooper, Z., Fairburn, C. G., & Hawker, D. M. (2003). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Obesity: A Clinician’s Guide. New York: The Guilford Press.
Fairburn, C. G. (2008). Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders. New York: The Guilford Press.