Few things are more discouraging than stepping onto the scale after a week of working out hard and eating right to find that the number hasn’t budged. The reason for frustrating weight loss plateaus is relatively simple: If our bodies become used to a specific exercise, weight loss will plateau.
“As you learn how to do something, and your body is adapting to the newness of the activity, it changes” said Le Bergin, co-owner of Total Fitness and a certified personal trainer.
But once you get into a comfortable groove with an exercise, you get diminishing returns.
“There are so many different cult followings for active people — runners, Crossfit, boot camp and Zumba,” Bergin said. “When you enjoy something, you stick with it, but, eventually, if your workouts don’t change, neither will your body. You have to go longer, or lift heavier.”
There’s a delicate balance between varying your workouts too little and too much.
“You can’t change so often that you don’t have consistency,” Bergin said. “For people who are new to fitness, and have just joined a gym, I would try all of the different classes, because there is enough to keep you varied.”
Generally, Bergin recommends a day of yoga to stretch the muscles; a day of weights or something like boot camp for strengthening; and a day of cardio, and then repeat.
Understanding your Basal Metabolic Rate, which is the amount of energy your body uses while resting, also is key.
“With BMR, you get an idea of how well you burn calories. As you become more active, you’re going to be much more efficient, and you must demand more of your muscles” said Julie Dial, Clinical Applied Exercise Physiologist and Senior Wellness Program Coordinator at the University of Texas Medial Branch in Galveston.
Take, for example, weight training, Dial said.
“As you continue to weight train, hopefully you’re getting stronger, so you need to add more repetitions or lift more weight,” Dial said.
The same goes for cardiovascular activity.
“If you’re running or walking and you never change your speed or surface area, you’re going to plateau,” Dial said. “You have to challenge and stress your system to continue to make improvements.”
This can be accomplished with fairly simple changes.
“Play speed tag with yourself or walk backward to use different muscles,” Dial said.
Eating habits also play an important role in weight loss plateaus.
“Change up the foods you are regularly eating and evaluate your water intake,” said Shellie Long, owner of La Marque studio Transform Fitness. “Food plays a huge role in the weight loss process, so be real with yourself on what you’re taking in and make adjustments as needed.”
If you’re eating right, and doing a good mix of strength training and cardio, there may be a physiological reason you’re not losing weight.
“What I do with patients that I see as a physiologist is I make sure that they have had a blood work-up,” Dial said. “All of their blood values need to be looked at, because there is a possibility that there is a medical reason that they’re stagnating.”
Possible medical reasons could include problems with the thyroid or the pituitary system, or, particularly with women, hormonal issues, Dial said.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when you’ve encountered a dreaded plateau is to not give up on exercising.
“The older we get, it’s like filling up a deflating balloon,” Bergin said. “There’s always going to be a little hole in it and you just have to keep filling it up. You would never say, ‘I was so good when I brushed my teeth last month.’ The same goes for workouts.”
Weight loss, as with everything in life, comes down to a mindset, Long said.
“When people can learn to embrace plateaus as part of the process, they can better accept them as they come and power through them rather than become discouraged and stop,” Long said. “It’s quite simple: If you stop pressing forward, you certainly won’t achieve your desired result.”