It's one of the most frustrating consequences of significant weight loss: the plateau.
After weeks or months of shedding unwanted pounds, the scale suddenly won't budge.
Your diet is the same and so is your workout routine. But the steady progress toward your goal weight has stopped. Why? Because what worked for losing the first 20, 50 or even 100 pounds of weight won't work all the way down the scale.
It's simple arithmetic: With less weight to move through space, your smaller self burns fewer calories.
"If we continue to do what we did in the beginning, we won't continue to get the same results because, as you weigh less, you have to adjust to the new calorie requirement to create a deficit," said Laura Lindsey, a Weight Watchers group leader for 10 years who has helped many clients get off plateaus.
But that's not the only issue. After months of walking in your neighborhood or going to aerobics class, your body gets used to that level and type of activity. Muscles aren't as challenged and don't have to work as hard. The result is you burn fewer calories per minute than you did early on when the exercise was new and difficult.
How do you get the scale moving? Change. A weight-loss plateau is a clear sign that it's time to re-evaluate your approach and change your routine.
Pump it up
Terri Balzer of Tampa hit a plateau halfway through her 33-pound weight loss. "It was very frustrating. It was discouraging. I was working so hard." Balzer, 56, who works for Hills- borough County, attended weekly Weight Watchers meetings, kept careful records of everything she ate and went to the gym three to four times a week. After losing 1/2 to 1 pound each week, two weeks went by without a loss. She was panicked.
The clinical definition of a weight-loss plateau is going three to four weeks with virtually no weight loss, despite exercise and diet, Lindsey said. But Weight Watchers, with its weekly weigh-ins and group meetings, doesn't let clients go longer than two weeks before suggesting changes.
Balzer and her group leader reviewed Balzer's food and exercise logs and discovered the problem wasn't with food. Balzer needed to work out a little longer, a little harder, and change what she was doing. "I got lighter and I didn't realize I needed more activity," she said.
Balzer added strength training to her neighborhood walks and group aerobics classes. That got her off the plateau.
Adding weight training to a cardio-focused weight-loss regimen is a proven way to burn more calories and lose more weight.
"Muscle burns calories," said fitness trainer and Baycare exercise physiologist Jeanmarie Scordino. "Fat just sits there, but muscle uses energy."
Weight machines, so popular in most gyms, will work, but she prefers free weights or elastic resistance bands and has clients stand while using them because it engages more muscles (and burns more calories) than sitting at a machine.
Speed it up
Scordino also tells clients to try intervals. That's where you alternate between a very high pace and a lower but still challenging pace, usually while walking, running or cycling.
For example, after warming up, do 30 seconds of your chosen activity at the highest speed you can manage without causing injury, then lower your pace just enough to bring your heart rate and breathing down slightly for about two minutes.
Perform these speed and active rest intervals for up to 10 minutes at first, then try doing it for a half-hour or longer. Gradually increase your high-intensity speed, or its duration, as you build endurance.
"You'll burn a higher total number of calories and the body will continue to burn calories at a higher rate after the exercise stops, for as long as 72 hours," said Scordino.
How do you know if you're working hard enough to get the results you want? Scordino suggests you try a couple of sessions with a personal trainer to get the guidance you need.
After that, you might wish to continue weekly, or just go once a month or so for tune-ups.
"You get a program designed for your body, your time constraints, your ability,'' she said. "Plus, you're less likely to get injured."
Which would only derail your progress and even send the scale in the wrong direction.
Write it down
Lawyer Kathryn Welsh was within 15 pounds of her goal weight when she hit a plateau that lasted several months. "I added more and more exercise to my routine and felt like it didn't matter. Nothing was changing. I felt frustrated," she said. So she made a change.
Welsh started doing jogging intervals while power walking. And she started writing down everything she ate and discovered she needed to make some dietary changes, too.
"I realized there were a lot of empty calories in my diet," said Welsh. "So, I have been swapping them out for more fruits and vegetables and that seems to be helpful. I've found I love kale."
Registered dietitian Christine Miller says Welsh has the right idea.
"With women in particular, I usually find they are eating too many starches and not enough lean protein," said Miller. "The balance of calories isn't right for weight loss."
She determines their daily protein needs and tells them to get it from lean sources like low-fat or fat-free Greek yogurt, low-fat and fat-free cheeses, egg whites, skinless poultry, very lean meats, fish, beans, nuts and seeds. She also encourages moderate amounts of fruits, plenty of leafy greens and low-starch vegetables.
After a month, clients usually get results and can reintroduce limited amounts of healthy, high-fiber carbohydrates.
"But don't go overboard," Miller warns. "It may be lean protein or high in fiber but it still has calories, and if you eat more than you need it will either stall your weight loss or, if eaten in excess, turn into body fat."
Portion distortion — when you think you're eating less than you really are — is a related problem.
"You need to go back to weighing and measuring food, tracking it more carefully, so you have a realistic view of what you're eating," Lindsey said.
If you're on a weight-loss plateau, Miller also cautions against relying on free online calculators or formulas that estimate the number of calories you need in a day. The formulas usually ask for your age, current weight and goal weight, and sometimes your height and activity level to estimate the rate at which you burn calories at rest, your metabolic rate. Miller says for some people, the calculations can be way off, giving estimates that are much too high "by as much as 300 to 400 calories." She gives clients a more accurate breath test (the Korr MetaCheck), which measures carbon dioxide output to determine how many calories they need for weight loss and for maintenance.
Welsh continues to lose weight by focusing on fruits and vegetables and exercise intervals. She walks-jogs the Belleair Causeway at least three times a week, bikes and works out with Scordino once a week.
"It was wonderful to start losing weight again. It gives you the incentive to continue and makes you work harder," said Welsh. "I've lost 5 of the 15 pounds I want to lose." And she hopes that by this fall, she'll be able to run across the bridge without taking walking breaks.
Terri Balzer has maintained her weight loss for three years and continues to go to weekly Weight Watchers meetings. She alternates between cardio boxing, spin classes, strength training, yoga and step aerobics at the gym. When she can't get there she does exercise DVDs at home or goes jogging. "I do something six days a week. Friday is my day off," she said.
It's her plan to stay healthy and fit for life.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.