A weight loss plateau is beyond frustrating, and the worst part is it’s not even really about what you’re doing right or wrong. A plateau is the result of our bodies’ evolution and a survival mechanism that has helped our species thrive. (Caroline Dooner talks a lot about how our bodies’ survival mechanisms are meant to thwart weight loss efforts in her F*ck Your Diet series.) A weight loss plateau is the outcome of our bodies needing less energy to function, and our metabolism slowing, when we lose weight. Our biology isn’t that happy with our weight loss. It triggers a signal that we’re about to go through some trying times. It thinks we’re about to run out of food. So when we lose weight, our bodies start to tell us to hang onto the nutrients in the things we eat, and slows down our metabolism.
Here’s the science behind a weight loss plateau (get ready for some math):
Metabolism (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) = Basal Metabolic Rate (the bare minimum number of calories you need to survive at complete rest) + Exercise (calories burned during exercise) + Non-Exercise Expenditure (calories burned through other activities other than exercise) + Thermal Effect Of Food (energy used to digest the food we eat)
So, generally speaking, if your intake is greater than your metabolism, it will lead to weight gain, and if your intake is less than your metabolism, it will lead to weight loss.
Simple enough, right? We’ve heard of different variations of this same equation before (we’ve all heard “calories in vs. calories out” at one point or another), but our bodies are so clever that once we lose weight, the calories used at rest will also decrease. Therefore, if every other aspect of your energy expenditure stays the same (exercise, non-exercise expenditure, and thermal effect) then your overall metabolism will be lower. So what gives? Am I telling you that now you have to spend another 30 extra minutes in the gym to compensate? No, not unless you feel like it. Here are four other ways to get over a weight loss plateau.
Sneak In More Non-Exercise Physical Activity
A lot of people have the mindset that you need to be in a gym to get in physical activity, which kind of limits their ability to see the opportunities we have to be active in daily life. Take the stairs instead of the escalator or the elevator when you can, walk or bike instead of driving, and stand instead of sitting. Go for a walk with your dog, or go for a hike with a friend instead of going to get drinks (or hike to get the drinks). You can even just stretch while watching TV. Little things add up. A study was published that claims fidgeting and working to maintain correct posture burns up to 800 more calories than sitting still. So just get moving in some way.
Don’t Work Out Longer, Work Out Smarter
You can still limit your workouts to an hour and increase the efficiency if you maximize your time. Working smarter in the gym means less rest, more resistance, and more sets/reps. Just make sure you’re not doing the same workout at the same intensity as the day you started months ago, because your body needs you to step your game up. Another way I like to add intensity to my workouts is to add more combined movements, so instead of just doing squats, I’ll add in a shoulder press at the standing part of the movement. More muscles worked means more calories burned in the same amount of time.
Don’t Neglect The Weights
By now, you should know that weights don’t make you bulky. If you have more muscle cells, you’ll be burning more energy at rest than if you had more fat cells in your body. This will help you to maintain that same metabolic rate pre-weight loss.
If you’ve found your weight loss plateaued and your exercise routine consists of mostly cardio, it’s time to incorporate weights in a more significant way. Cardio is fantastic, and those who are starting on their fitness journey can find great results with it. However, because cardio does very little in terms of muscle building, cardio-focused individuals will hit a plateau early on because they lose the weight and then their metabolism slows. My recommendation is to cut the cardio portion of your workout routine in half and use the other half of the time to complete a few resistance training circuits. So if you’re used to doing an hour of cardio, do 30 minutes and use the other 30 to do three to four sets of five to six resistance training moves.
So, here’s a wild concept: your body actually burns calories when digesting. The dietary-induced thermal effect—sorry, more science—is the energy needed after we eat a certain food to digest and absorb the nutrients in our body. So if you’re trying to get over a weight loss plateau, it might be time to eat a little smarter. And by that I mean, eat more foods that take more energy to burn. This is called the food’s thermogenic rate. Fat, for example, uses 0 to 100 calories to digest for every 100 calories consumed (or, it has a thermogenic rate of 11-18% for non-obese individuals). Protein, on the other hand, has the greatest thermal effect of about 20-30%. This means your body uses the most energy to digest protein which means more calories burned! According to the same study, protein also helps you stay full the longest. By making protein the spotlight of your meals, you can increase your metabolism rate.
A weight loss plateau is something that is probably going to happen to you at some point. The good news is that we can mitigate the effects of it by controlling other aspects of our energy expenditure. A plateau could also mean that it’s time to take a step back and appreciate your journey so far, because you didn’t get to this plateau without having first put in the work! It is also a sign that you’re ready to step your workouts to the next level if you’ve been stuck in a pattern or routine for a while. So while plateaus can feel discouraging, it’s a sign that you’re physically ready to advance to the next level. Your body is ready to take the stairs instead of elevators, to do faster sprints and that extra set of bicep curls. Instead of being down, pat yourself on the back and go do those sprints!