When Weight-Loss Wanes
If the meaning of insanity is doing the same thing again and again but always expecting a different outcome, I must be certifiable. Why am I running an hour almost every day, thinking the scale might finally tip to within 10 pounds of my goal? I have this thought each morning while programming (read: punching) my weight into the treadmill console. Though the first 8 pounds came off relatively quickly, and I've been good about eating light and exercising, I am the same lousy weight I was five months ago.
Is Your Scale Stuck?
Turns out there's a good reason so many of us hit the "final 10" wall. In a word: biology. "All of us have a built-in mechanism that protects against starvation. When caloric intake falls below caloric expenditure, a series of metabolic and physiological responses kick in to preserve and replenish energy stores," explains Barry Levin, MD, professor and vice chair of the department of neurology and neurosciences at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark. So when you first begin to shed pounds, your metabolic rate slows, your energy use becomes more efficient, and your brain starts sending SOS messages that you're hungry. By the time you're down to the last 10 pounds? Your body is fighting to recover and will hang on to every ounce tighter and tighter.
That anyone manages to keep lost weight off and continue to lose is a testament to that person's determination. After all, motivation is highest at the outset, when the first dropped pounds are mainly water, says Judith S. Beck, PhD, director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in Philadelphia and author of The Beck Diet Solution. "But once weight loss slows or plateaus, impatience can creep in," she notes. What's more, with your last 10, the finish line is in sight, so you want to sprint.
Don't Fixate on the Number
So what's a frustrated woman to do? Beck recommends reassessing your goal weight; you may not need to lose any more pounds. "Perhaps you can reach your number. But the question to ask yourself is, once you get there, can you maintain approximately the same exercise and diet pace for the rest of your life?" she says. Instead of aiming for your lowest achievable weight, you might want to shoot for your lowest maintainable weight. "It's not giving up," she adds. "It's being realistic and shifting to a maintenance strategy before you get completely demoralized."
Another good way to gauge whether you've lost enough weight is to consider your body fat, says Dr. Levin. The simplest test is to see where it's deposited. "If it's in your stomach, you probably ought to keep trying, since abdominal fat poses a real health risk for everything from diabetes to breast cancer." See "The Best Way to Beat Belly Flab." But if the fat is in your hips and butt and your body-mass index is within the healthy range (18.5 to 24.9), Dr. Levin suggests rethinking your desire to lose those last 10 pounds. "They're probably not medically harmful, and in trying to get rid of them, you'll be triggering all of those protective mechanisms that in turn make it even harder to mobilize the fat," he explains.
Alternatively, measure your waist and hips. "If your waist is bigger, your risk of chronic disease is increased," says Diane Finegood, PhD, scientific director of the Canadian Institute of Health Research's Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes in Vancouver. In this case, you have medical cause to lose more weight; the same goes if your waist measures more than 35 inches.
Finally, there's your body-fat composition, the percentage of your body that is fat. This number is a far better measure of how fit you are than what the scale tells you, because muscle is denser than fat, says Steve Ball, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Missouri at Columbia. You can determine this number in several ways, but the one method you can use at home is bioelectrical impedance analysis, which calculates body fat based on how quickly an electrical signal moves through your body. Nowadays, it's available as a scale. (A great one is Tanita's FDA-approved InnerScan Body Composition Monitor, model BC-533; $120.) What's the number to target? "There's no absolute, but women generally want to be under 35 percent," says Ball.
Getting the Scale to Budge
If you still feel you could stand to lose the last 10, experts agree you need to change things up (and not, as I did, optimistically stay the course). Here are four strategies.
Scrutinize your diet. It's likely you've become a little loose with your program, Beck points out. To correct this, she recommends writing down what you plan to eat for the day and checking off each item as you go. "Just doing this will often make people more conscious of what they're eating and help them to regain control," Beck explains.
Slash 100 calories from your daily intake. You may need to cut back more than before, since the lighter you are, the fewer calories you may need. "When you're on a trajectory of losing weight, you've got to continually reduce intake," says Finegood.
Increase the number of calories you burn. Longer workouts aren't necessarily the solution, says Ryan Andrews, RD, an exercise physiologist at Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. Try a new activity to work different muscles. "Or bump up your speed or intensity level, or do intervals," Andrews suggests.
Switch your workout to a different part of the day or go to a different gym. This will make your routine feel fresh again. "Change is stimulating, and it can motivate you to exercise harder," Ball says.
Personally? I'm taking my run outside for a change of terrain and scenery; I've had enough of staying in one place, both body and weight. And now when I get on the scale, I remember it's just a number — not the only reflection of my health.