How Do I Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau?

weight loss plateau

It’s a familiar scenario. People tell me how great their workouts were going, how much weight (fat) they were losing, but then <BAM!!> a brick wall in the form of a weight loss plateau. 

But what IS a weight loss plateau, what causes it, and how do you overcome it and get back on track towards your health and fitness goals?

What Is a Weight Loss Plateau?

A weight loss plateau is when, after a period of progressive weight loss, your body weight stabilizes and refuses to budge further.  It can be frustrating and leave you disillusioned.

What Causes It?

1) Sudden Lifestyle Change

If you’ve made a rather abrupt change in your lifestyle from washing cheeseburgers down with milkshakes one day to eating birdseed and tofu followed by pumping iron and a 10km run the next, then you can bet you’re going to see quick results up front.  But your body’s innate internal metabolism is much smarter than you and will eventually begin to counter your efforts.  Any drastic overnight change in either food intake or exercise habits is viewed as a threat to your internal balance (homeostasis).  Your metabolism’s sentinels come running back to central command screaming “FAMINE!”  Thus, your body will start to conserve energy and make weight loss a stubborn exercise in futility.

2) Stale Exercise Routine

If you’ve been a Steady Eddie and made small lifestyle changes over time, then your weight loss plateau might stem from a stale routine.  I used to see it all the time in my personal training days:  people going to the gym, week in and week out, doing the same old boring routine like programmed automatons.

In the exercise business, an exercise prescription is based upon the F.I.T.T. principle (Frequency, Intensity, Time (duration), and Type of exercise).  If you’ve been attending the gym the same number of days each week, doing the same intensities for the same duration, then you’re on a collision course with a weight loss plateau.

The objective of exercise is to stimulate your body above and beyond the level to which it is normally accustomed.  This is known as progressive overload.  If you keep on doing the same old stale exercises, then there is insufficient stimulus for your body to build valuable metabolism-stoking muscle.

3) Closet Compensator

One of the things I talk about in my seminars is something I call “closet compensation.”  Bear in mind your internal homeostasis is striving to maintain the status quo – stave off famine at all costs!  So while you may very well believe you’re eating less and moving more (i.e., exercise), it is possible you’re inadvertently sabotaging your efforts by eating imperceptibly larger portions or saving energy at other times of the day (i.e., sitting a tiny bit longer).  Thing is, these little changes are insidious.  They sneak up on you without your being cognitively aware.

4) Snacks and Sports Drinks

While you may be eating all the leafy greens the dietitians tell you to eat, it’s those little in-between snacks and sports drinks that can throw a monkey wrench in the proverbial machine.  You’ll see it in every gym.  People doing about 30 to 60 minute workouts while toting a sports drink and nibbling on an energy bar.  Thing is, they both have calories (or kilojoules) and while it might not seem like much in the moment, those calories add up down the road and can sabotage your dieting efforts.

5) Hypothyroidism

In a small percentage of cases, there are people who have low levels of thyroid hormone, a condition known as hypothyroidism.   Before you self-diagnose and assume you have hypothyroidism, talk to your doctor for a proper evaluation and treatment plan.

How Do I Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau?

In categorical response to the above points:

1) Sudden Lifestyle Change

Make small changes that are realistic and sustainable.  I see a lot of people try to make too many big changes virtually overnight.

By trying to do too much too soon, you overload the neural circuits in your brain which can deplete your willpower  and leave you feeling dejected.  More importantly, small changes will be viewed as less of a threat to your metabolism and will allow you to continue to lose weight.

In my experience with people who’ve just had a heart attack, angioplasty/stent, and open heart surgery, they get a health scare and then want to turn their worlds upside down and start doing Iron Man triathlons the day they’re released from the hospital.  I have to grab them by the scruff of the neck and pull them back down to planet Earth.

2) Stale Exercise Routine

If your exercise routine has gone stale, mix up the exercise prescription variables for added stimulus.  If you’re only attending the gym or doing your morning walks twice a week, increase the frequency to 3-4 days and see how you go.

If you’re already doing adequate frequency, then consider increasing your intensity or duration.  For example, if you’ve been working at 55% of your max heart rate then consider bumping it up to 65-70%.

If an increase in intensity is not feasible, then bump up your duration from, say, 25 minutes of walking to 35 minutes.  You can also have a tinker with your rest intervals. For example, you might reduce the amount of rest between sets in your weight routine.

Most importantly, you must be putting additional exercise stress on your body, but also getting adequate rest days in between to minimise the risk of overtraining.

Finally, consider mixing up the type of exercise you’re doing.  If you’ve only been doing 20 minute leisurely strolls on the treadmill, then perhaps you could consider a bike or the elliptical trainer.  If you’ve been doing exercise machines that move you through a fixed range of motion, then consider swapping out some exercises for freeweights.  This will force you to both balance AND lift the weight which will recruit more muscle fibers and enhance the training effect.

3) Closet Compensator

If you’re a “closet compensator,” you may need to pay special attention to your portion sizes and/or how much time you’re spending sitting or lying down.  Portion out your meals so you know precisely how many calories you’re consuming.  A journal may help you to document your habits and shed some light in these areas.  Alternatively, it may be wise to have an exercise buddy keep you on track (i.e., friend, spouse, etc).

4) Snacks and Sports Drinks

Cut out the energy bars and sports drinks.  Unless you’re engaged in endurance events lasting several hours or more, you don’t need them.   For most people undertaking recreational exercise, a bottle of water will suffice for hydration and your post-exercise meal will replace what you used.  You are highly unlikely to become dehydrated or hypoglycemic during a standard gym routine.

5) Hypothyroidism

As I mentioned above, it is highly unlikely you’ve got hypothyroidism (sorry Charlie), but if you suspect it, then you should visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Check out this article from the Mayo Clinic on hypothyroidism for more information.

Weight Loss Plateau: The Bottom Line

There are a number of reasons which might explain a weight loss plateau.  While the above discussion is far from comprehensive, it will likely hit the nail on the head for most people.

In the grand scheme of things, forget “weight loss” and look more to losing stored body fat – and keeping it off.  Anyone can lose weight on a crash diet, but this is not sustainable and will only leave you worse off in the long-run.

Remember that a side-effect of exercise is an increase in muscle mass which might translate to a slight increase in scale weight.  But fear not, this is a good thing because muscle is more compact (takes up less space) and stokes your metabolism to burn more calories.  Bottom line: Instead of fixating on your scale weight, focus instead on how your clothes fit.

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