The hardest part about weight loss is not the actual losing of the weight. It is keeping off the weight that is lost. Sometimes, people think this is not something they have to think about until goal weight. But, that isn’t true. Weight regain can happen during the weight loss phase and can be devastating in terms of slowing down overall weight loss progress. I ended up losing about a quarter of a pound a week from the time I went back to Weight Watchers in August 2010 until I got back to goal. But, if you pull out all the time when I regained about 3/4 of what I had lost and had to lose it again, I would have been at an average loss of a half pound a week. During that period of gain, if I had simply maintained my existing weight loss even if I didn’t lose anything more, I would have been so much better off.
So, yes, maintaining lost weight is hard. I’m not saying weight loss itself isn’t hard. But, I find it easier to lose than to maintain the weight loss. During weight loss you get lots of positive feedback for that. Going to meetings and getting a star for losing 5 pounds. Seeing the number go down on the scale. Buying a smaller size pair of jeans. All of that is very reinforcing and fun.
Maintaining isn’t so exciting. You aren’t changing much during maintenance. You are just staying the same. It can get to be a drag. And, it can be hard to balance. That is, it can be hard to get to a point where you neither gain nor lose. And, people get used to you being your new weight so you don’t get that constant positive feedback. You have to mostly rely on yourself to keep it all going.
A recent study addressed weight maintenance and what helps. The answer is fairly simple: increased physical activity.
The link above goes to the actual study itself. A little more accessible and easier to read is this article in the New York Times that discusses the study.
This study is a follow up to a study that was published about a year and a half ago talking about 14 Biggest Lower competitors. That study talked about the fact that 6 years after the competition the mean resting metabolic rate of the competitors was about 500 calories a day less than expected based on the body composition and age of the subjects. I wrote about this study last year in my post that “Maintenance is Hard.”
This new study follows up and compares these contestants dividing them into maintainers and regainers. The median weight loss for the entire group of 14 was about 13%. But, in reality you could divide the group into maintainers and regainers. The maintainers have maintained an average weight loss of about 25%. The regainers had regained more weight. 5 of the 14 contestants had regained to within 1% of their starting weight or more.
The huge difference between the groups was in physical activity. Maintainers increased their physical activity by 160%. Regainers increased theirs by only 34%. The conclusion of the study was that large and persistent increases in physical activity may be required for long-term maintenance of weight loss.
And, as the New Times points out, they meant large increases: 80 minutes a day of moderate activity (such as walking) or 35 minutes a day of intense activity (such as running). The article in the New York times highlighted a couple of people. One of them was one of authors of the study who had lost over 100 pounds in the Biggest Loser competition. She said that she tracks all that she eats and that she exercises on an elliptical 35 to 40 minutes a day, as well as doing a lot of walking around the hospital. Another contestant lost 120 pounds, and has regained only 8 pounds. The article said that she exercises “rigid portion control” and engages in intense exercise, such as Beachbody workouts, 6 days a week for 45 to 60 minutes.
The bottom line was that the big difference between those who regained and those who didn’t was level of physical activity. Yes, of course, absolute food intake matters. But, the exercise was the most striking difference between maintainers and regainers.
As I said last year: Maintenance is hard. And, increasing physical activity (whether by purposeful exercise or simply being more activity on a daily basis) is what makes a huge difference. I know that for me I do better when I exercise, when I track my food, and when I pay a lot of attention to how much I eat (“rigid portion control” isn’t necessary 100% of the time for me, but it is my norm).
It would be nice to think that I could lose weight and I would be just like someone who had never been overweight and I could just kind of go on cruise control. It doesn’t work that way. I don’t get where I want to be without exercise. And, a lot more than 30 minutes a few days a week. Most of us don’t want to think about it. We want to think that maintenance is easy and the hard part is over once we lose weight. But, it doesn’t work that way for most of us.