When it stops working out: Overcoming a weight loss plateau

A weight loss journey is full of ups and downs – both on and off the scale. Shedding a few pounds after several weeks of a healthy diet and regular exercise motivates us to lose more, but while the weight tends to come off fairly rapidly at first, sooner or later our efforts seem to be in vain because the weight just won’t budge.

This inability to lose weight is known as a ‘weight loss plateau’, and it can be both frustrating and discouraging. But before you throw in the towel, know that it’s completely normal – and you can overcome it.

Although professionals are not set on one particular reason why weight loss plateaus occur, some theories include:

  • The body adapts to weight loss and defends itself against further weight loss
  • The metabolism slows down if a person loses weight too quickly
  • People stop following their diets after a few months into their weight loss journey

Researchers who studied this issue found that although a person’s metabolism can change as they lose weight, this does not explain why the weight loss plateau occurs and, alternatively, a plateau may happen because the person isn’t fully adhering to their diet plan.

Yet, what might appear as a person not conforming to their diet could also be due to a lack of knowledge about how the body adapts after it has lost weight, and how this has a knock-on  effect on the amount of calories we consume, how we proceed with our exercise regimes, and how we measure weight loss – potentially determining whether we experience a plateau or not. 

Once you have set guidelines to work from, you can often avoid plateaus before they come around by seeing where you might be going wrong. It’s important to understand why plateaus can occur so you better understand your body and be one step ahead. Here are some common reasons why plateaus happen and some strategies to help you deal with them: 

You’re only focusing on the scale

Even though the scale might not be changing the way you hoped for them to, it’s likely your shape will be. It’s common to still lose body fat but also build muscle, which is great news because you want to lose body fat, but you don’t see this result when you weigh yourself because your new muscle mass adds to your overall weight. 

To avoid this, it’s a good idea to use something other than the scale to gauge your progress. By having your body fat measured regularly you’ll be able to monitor your fat loss rather than stepping on the scale and feeling discouraged. Looking at photographs can also be motivating because you can see how your body shape has changed, you’ll also be able to feel if your clothes fit differently or may even start to notice some muscle definition. 

You’re doing the same exercise routines over and over again

Doing the same exercises week after week will not get you results as the body gets acclimated pretty quickly. As our bodies are incredibly smart, they learn to adapt to stress faster than we may realise. so although you’ll exert the same amount of energy, and your smartwatch will tell you you’re burning the same calories, the weight will stop dropping off. 

In order to get the best results, change parts of your workout by adding another set, working out longer, or simply ramping up the intensity. This surprises the body and shocks the muscles to keep them challenged. If you’ve been using the same weight for the same amount of reps for months, increase the intensity. If you’ve only been doing cardio, add some strength training and resistance to your workout. Resistance bands are a great place to start, they are surprisingly effective and there are many ways you can incorporate them into your exercise routine. 

You’re overtraining 

Overtraining boosts production of the stress hormone cortisol and an imbalance in it can result in problems such as an unstable mood, irritability or insomnia, and also promotes visceral fat. Not getting enough sleep triggers your body to release more ghrelin, the “hunger hormone”, that regulates your appetite, making you want to eat more – thereby increasing your weight.  

Make sure to prioritise your sleep and get the recommended 7-9 hours a night, and practice good sleep habits such as switching off your electronic devices 30 minutes before bed and setting a good sleep schedule. Be mindful of how often you’re working out, and that too much can leave the body exhausted. Taking at least one day off per week to allow the body to rest will reduce the risk of you burning out. 

You’ve become less conscious of your diet 

When you lose weight, your metabolism slows down and this slows your weight loss, even if you eat the same number of calories that helped you lose weight, as the calories you burn equal the calories you eat, resulting in a plateau. 

Also, you might be less conscious of your diet at the weekend – that’s not to say you can’t enjoy some pizza or wine here and there, but eating a calorie surplus over Saturday-Sunday can shrink your overall weekly calorie deficit. 

If you’ve lost weight, your body requires fewer calories. Here’s what you can do to keep your calories in check: 

  • Re-calculate your new calorie needs using your current weight with a calorie calculator.
  • Eliminate sneaking in little bites here and there, because although they might seem harmless, those calories still count, even if you don’t count them.
  • Remember that alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, so if you like a drink but want to lose weight, stick to spirits with a zero-calorie mixer. 

Your body is experiencing a readjustment 

If your measurements and photos haven’t changed in 3-4 weeks, you are sleeping well, managing your stress, exercising and switching up your routines regularly, and are 100% consistent with your diet, your body may just simply be readjusting. Because of the different alterations, your body sometimes needs to just catch up. Be patient, it will happen. Allow the body to adjust for 2 weeks before measuring fat loss success again. 

In short

Although it’s a pretty normal part of the dieting process, hitting a weight loss plateau is discouraging. Changing your eating habits, increasing workouts, and learning to cope with stress can all jump-start weight loss. 

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