Has the scale stopped moving? Don’t panic. Instead, do this.
Losing weight is never easy. But shedding those last 10 pesky pounds often seems impossible—no matter what you eat or how much you exercise.
It’s not your imagination. The more weight you lose, the harder your body works against your efforts.
“The body thinks, ‘There’s a famine going on,’ so it slows metabolism to help conserve energy,” explains Craig Primack, M.D., a board-certified obesity medicine physician with the Scottsdale Weight Loss Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. “It doesn’t know that losing weight is actually the goal.”
In fact, Columbia University research shows that losing 10 percent of your body weight significantly lowers your basal metabolic rate, or the number of calories that you burn each day to maintain basic biological functions (read: stay alive).
This means that to keep losing weight, you have to either continually burn more calories, consume fewer calories, or a combination of the two.
Exhausted yet? Don’t give up—we’ll show you the way.
First Things First: Do You Really Need to Lose Weight?
The benefits of dropping pounds diminish at a certain point, according to Primack.
“After losing about 15 percent of your body weight—assuming you needed to lose that much in the first place—you’ve kind of maxed out the metabolic benefits you’d receive, such as lower cholesterol and improved insulin health,” he explains.
So, if you go from 200 to 170 pounds, you’ve already gained most, if not all, of the health benefits of weight loss. If your goal is still 10 or 20 pounds away, you might need to reassess what your healthy weight actually is, he says.
Plus, the key to weight loss, according to Primack, is finding a diet and exercise regimen you can stick to consistently. “Whatever you do to lose weight, you have to do forever to some degree to keep it off,” he says.
In other words, if you felt as though your diet and exercise regimen was easily sustainable when you initially shed pounds, it might be wise to not push your efforts further.
“Consider accepting that you are metabolically as healthy as you’re going to get from weight loss,” Primack says.
How to Kick Your Weight Loss Efforts into High Gear
That said, if you’re determined to lose those last 5 or 10, you need to adjust your approach to the big three: nutrition, exercise, and rest.
At the beginning, weight loss is about the big rocks or foundational changes. At the end, it’s about the fine-grit sandpaper that polishes everything up.
“Only try to change your current approach to nutrition, exercise, or rest one component at a time,” says kinesiologist Ryan Campbell, a training specialist at Anytime Fitness in southern Wisconsin. “A good rule of thumb is to only make a change every two weeks.”
This approach ensures you have an accurate idea of what is and isn’t moving the needle. “This is evidence-based decision-making,” Campbell says. “If weight begins to decrease, stay with the strategy until the weight stops decreasing for two weeks. If that happens before you reach your goal, then reassess and make changes from there.”
Here are the three steps you need to take to assess your big three, and get your scale moving in the right direction again.
Step #1: Determine What’s Missing from Your Workout
“If your workout is the same day in and day out, then you need to change it up,” Campbell says. “The human body will adapt to cardiovascular training in about four weeks and resistance training in about six to eight weeks.”
Changes in running speed, loads lifted, set and rep schemes, workout duration, and exercise difficulty all impact how hard the body must work—and therefore, create a greater calorie expenditure, Campbell says. This works for both cardiovascular and resistance training.
For example, if you were able to lose the initial weight by sticking to four 30-minute running sessions on the treadmill per week, try increasing your sessions to five or six per week for 45 minutes at a higher incline and faster pace. Once that becomes less challenging, up the ante even more.
If your workouts have been exclusively cardio, embrace strength training. And if they’ve all been strength-based, sprinkle in some cardio, Primack says.
Performing a combination of both is ideal to keep the body adapting, burning calories, and also building muscle, which can reduce—or even eliminate—any metabolic dip that comes with continued weight loss.
Lean body mass is a primary determiner of basal metabolic rate, so if you lose fat, you need to gain muscle to mitigate metabolic adaptations.
Step #2: Track Everything You Eat
Logging your food intake will help you identify areas of your eating routine where you have room for improvement, Campbell says. For at least two weeks, record the following:
- When you eat
- What you eat
- Each food’s calorie total and macro (carbs, protein, fat) breakdown
- How you feel both physically and mentally before and after each meal
Then ask yourself, “What can I improve?”
For example, maybe you notice that your meals are spread so far apart that you end up scarfing them down in seconds. In that case, you might need to eat smaller, more frequent meals.
If you realize that your protein intake is much lower than 1 gram per pound of your body weight, you likely need to increase it and cut calories elsewhere.
Maybe you notice yourself eating when you’re stressed rather than hungry. There’s another opportunity to cut unnecessary calories.
Step #3: Double Down on Rest and Recovery
Going harder isn’t always the best approach to weight loss. Sometimes, you need to pull back the intensity to increase the amount of rest and recovery you’re getting, both from exercise and in day-to-day life.
If you regularly feel fatigued, stressed, or sore, your body is probably asking for more rest. That could mean swapping some of your high-intensity workouts for active recovery such as yoga, improving your stress management, or simply sleeping more, Campbell says.
For example, in one University of Chicago–led study, when people aspiring to lose weight slept 8.5 hours per night over the course of two weeks, half of the weight they lost was from fat. But when people slept only 5.5 hours per night, their rate of fat loss plummeted—even though they were eating the exact same diet.
Campbell recommends getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night. But if you’re exercising regularly, you’ll probably need more. A good rule of thumb: If you need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning, you’re not getting enough shut-eye.
Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.