After you succeed at burning off the fat, what then? How are you going to maintain your new body? What does your next set of 12 week, 6 month and 12 month goals look like? What’s your next fitness challenge? What’s going to keep you interested in training? How do you plan to stay motivated? What will prevent you from slipping back into old patterns?
There’s a price you must pay to get what you want. There’s also a price you must pay to keep it. Once you reach your ideal weight and body fat level, you’re not finished. You’re just beginning. It may seem like an oxymoron to approach maintenance with the attitude of continuous improvement, but if you do, it will be the start of an exciting and rewarding new lifestyle, not a tedious fight against backsliding.
Even better, as long as you’re willing to take a long term perspective, develop new habits and go through the full learning process rather than seek quick fixes, your new lifestyle will eventually become automatic. Your daily program will become so habitual you won’t even have to think about it anymore. Eventually, your unconscious mind will run the whole show for you.
Well, almost. You can never let down your guard or take your success for granted. As Thomas Jefferson said, “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
The relapse problem
A woman in a support group once said, “I’m an expert at losing weight because I lost 200 pounds!” Everyone in the room gasped with respect and admiration. Then she finished her sentence. “Unfortunately, it was the same 20 pounds 10 times.”
Relapse has always been a problem with health-related behavior change. Relapse rates for drug, alcohol and tobacco dependency have been reported in the range of 50-90%. Relapse rates for weight loss are typically 70-90%, according to very reliable sources.
A study from Oxford University on weight maintenance and relapse published in The International Journal of Obesity confirmed the statistics we’ve all heard so often in the mass media:
“It’s a consistent finding that the weight lost by obese patients as a result of the most widely available treatments is almost always regained over time. Usually about half the weight lost is regained in the first year with weight regain continuing thereafter, so that by 3-5 years post-treatment about 80% of patients have returned to, or even exceeded, their pretreatment weight.”
Obviously, there are some big differences between substance abuse relapse and weight relapse, namely the pharmacology of drugs, nicotine and alcohol. But there are also some striking similarities, including the relapse statistics themselves. So similar are the mental and physical challenges, that many people believe overeating and obesity are addictive disorders and should be treated as such.
Whether you think that regaining lost weight is as serious as substance abuse relapse or not, don’t take it lightly. Maintaining a stable lean bodyweight is a very important health goal. It’s dangerous to repeatedly gain and lose weight. Research in animals and humans has revealed that weight cycling can make your metabolism less efficient.
After each bout of weight loss and regain, it becomes more difficult to burn fat the next time. You also become more predisposed to sudden weight regain if you binge or even if you reefed to previous maintenance levels. Long term, your body composition may get worse, as you lose large amounts of lean tissue during the weight loss phase, but regain more fat than muscle on the rebound. In the end, you’re heavier than when you started or you’ve become a skinny fat person.
Weight cycling has detrimental effects on your health as well. Usually, your blood pressure and blood cholesterol will go down in parallel with your body fat level. However, when you regain weight in repeated cycles, the negative effect on your blood pressure and cholesterol can be greater than the positive effects you got from losing the weight. Some experts even propose that weight cycling can shorten your lifespan.</p>
Avoid these weight relapse mistakes
One piece of good news is that the reasons for relapse are not a mystery. We know why weight regain happens and it’s not difficult to predict. Weight relapsers have been studied in great depth and their behaviors are quite distinct from maintainers. If you take an inventory of which regainer behaviors you’re engaging in and then avoid these mistakes in the future, you can avoid relapse right from the source of the problem.
Relapse mistake #1: Choosing the wrong diet to lose the weight.
Maintenance begins with choosing the right nutrition program during the fat loss phase. The first mistake that leads to relapse is following a fad diet or any diet so extreme or restrictive that it triggers binging or is simply too difficult to stay on for long. This includes not only the eating plan itself, but also any other weight loss methods, such as supplements or drugs.
One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that far more relapsers had lost weight by fasting or taking appetite suppressant pills than maintainers. Apparently the fasting helped take some weight off and the pills helped curb hunger, but neither helped keep the weight off.
Relapse mistake #2: Unrealistic deadlines.
Many authorities say that unrealistic weight goals are one of the biggest causes of failure and relapse. There’s truth in that, but provided that body composition is kept in mind, I think the real problem is unrealistic deadlines, more so than unrealistic goals.
Most people sell themselves short and don’t set their fitness standards high enough. Puny goals and low standards are set for one main reason: fear. By setting low standards, you don’t risk disappointment. You can play it safe if you choose, but if you do, that’s the same as accepting mediocrity. We all have genetic constraints and we can’t change our inherent body structures, but as long your goals aren’t so outlandish that they’re merely wishful thinking, I believe you should set big, ambitious goals. You simply have to be smart about choosing deadlines.
To calculate the time frame, divide your amount of weight loss desired by the ideal weekly weight loss target of two pounds per week. If you want to drop 30 pounds, at two pounds per week, that’s 15 weeks. If you factor in some water weight loss or above average fat loss, you might get there in 12 weeks. But if your goal is 30 pounds in 30 days, you’d better think twice about that deadline. Even if you met that deadline by dropping large amounts of water and lean tissue, it would have been counterproductive because there’s a direct correlation between speed of weight loss and relapse.
Relapse mistake #3: Abruptly stopping a nutrition or exercise program.
Carmen was a 43-year-old mother of one who I worked with several years ago. I remember her well because she experienced some of the best results I have ever seen. Her motivation was driven to an all time high by entering a 12 week before and after competition which offered a hefty sum of prize money to the winner. She hired me to measure her body fat percentage every week.
If you looked up “motivated’ in the dictionary, you would see a picture of Carmen. She trained her butt off every day and got leaner every week, shedding a total of 10% body fat in 12 weeks without losing any lean body mass. At the end of the 12 weeks, she took her “after” photos in the best shape of her life. The last day I measured her body fat, her jeans were almost falling off her as she was literally jumping up and down for joy.
Then the strangest thing happened. As soon as the contest was over, she stopped training and dropped out of the gym overnight. My calls went unanswered for weeks. Months later she finally turned up. She was heavier than before and very depressed about it. Carmen had not thought or planned a day beyond her 12 week goal, so when the contest ended, her reason to continue had ended.
She took for granted that the physique she developed from 12 weeks of serious effort could not be maintained without continued effort. You’d think this would be common sense, but research says otherwise. One study on long term maintenance sponsored by the Kaiser Permanente HMO organization said that the relapsers seemed to assume that their lost weight was “permanently gone” and they were surprised when they found themselves heavy again.
Relapse mistake #4: Returning to your previous caloric maintenance level without increasing activity.
After a large weight loss, your calorie maintenance level is lower than it was when you started. With a 50 pound weight loss for example, an average guy will have a maintenance level about 400 calories lower than when he started his fat loss phase. Do you see the conundrum? If he goes back to his old maintenance level, and all else remains equal, he is guaranteed to regain the weight. The math equation has changed!
Even if you’re aware of this potential pitfall, permanently reducing your calories to accommodate your new energy requirements is one of those “easier said than done” propositions. If you’ve gotten accustomed to eating a certain volume of food for years or even for an entire lifetime, it’s not always an easy adjustment to make. You have two choices. One, you can get used to eating less than you did before your weight loss. Two, you can get used to exercising more. Ideally, you’ll do a little bit of both and that will make life easiest.
This reduction in calorie needs after weight loss explains why increasing exercise has always been the single most cited success strategy for long term weight maintenance. The increased activity offsets the lower maintenance level and it’s easier for most people to stay active than it is for them to eat less than they were previously used to.
Relapse mistake #5: Dichotomous thinking.
Relapsers see situations in black or white terms without shades of grey. For example, they insist they have no time to train, rather than making efficient use of what little time they have. They’re either on the program completely or off completely. If they have one bad meal, they feel as if their entire week has been completely ruined. If they miss a deadline, instead of just pushing back the date, they think they blew an entire 12 weeks.
Relapsers also have very rigid ideas of what success means. For example, they might define success as weighing 125 pounds and anything other than 125 pounds is seen as a failure. Fitness is not a win or lose, pass or fail situation. Fitness is a journey of learning and self improvement. All or none thinking creates unnecessary stress and doesn’t allow you to give yourself credit for what you did right or to learn from your experiences. Cut yourself some slack and avoid this mistake in thinking at all costs.
Relapse mistake #6: Perpetual dissatisfaction with body weight and shape.
Relapsers express great dissatisfaction with their new body weight and body shape, even when they’ve made huge strides in progress. They tend to make comparisons of themselves to others and when taken to an extreme, this turns into perfectionism where no achievement ever seems good enough. Relapsers also tend to make judgments about themselves as a person based on strictly on their physical attributes.
The pursuit of constant improvement is clearly a virtue. Some of the healthiest and fittest people in the world credit their success to never becoming complacent and always striving for better results. This seems to be in conflict with body dissatisfaction as a cause of relapse. We can reconcile this paradox by understanding that you can strive for continuous improvement while also liking yourself at every step along the way — it’s not one or the other.
It’s also important to get very clear about how far you want to take your physical development and how much time and effort you’re willing to invest. Not everyone wants or needs the washboard abs of a Men’s Health cover model or the body shape of a figure model.
Use 80-20 thinking here. Suppose you can get 80% of the way to what you consider your physical ideal with a fairly modest investment of time and effort. To capture the next 15% takes more time and serious hard work, and the final 5% takes a monumental full time effort. How far to you want to go and how much are you willing to pay?
Relapse Mistake #7: Poor coping and stress management skills.
High levels of stress, unexpected life events and negative emotions can all lead to weight regain if you don’t have strong coping mechanisms to deal with them. Maintainers experience the same non-health stresses that relapsers do: financial difficulties, family issues and work stress. The difference is, relapsers use food to distract themselves or escape from bad feelings rather than confront their problems head on and develop alternate coping mechanisms.
Women need to be more on guard then men. According to the Styles survey, which was conducted to identify characteristics of weight maintainers, more men (35.5%) were successful at maintenance than women (27.7%). The most likely reason for this difference is women are usually more emotional than men and are more susceptible to emotional eating.
Regardless of your gender, to maintain your weight, you have to continue reminding yourself that food is for fuel, for nourishment and body-building material, not for coping with stress. If you haven’t mastered stress management and developed good coping skills during the fat loss phase, then even if you manage to reach your weight goal, it will be a struggle to maintain it.
- Tom Venuto, Hoboken, NJ.
NOTE: This article was excerpted from Tom Venuto’s national bestseller The Body Fat Solution: 5 Principles for Burning Fat, Ending Emotional Eating, And Maintaining Your Perfect Weight (hardcover/trade paperback, Avery Penguin Books, NYC). If you have ever struggled with weight relapse, self-sabotage or emotional eating, then this could be the most important book you ever read: CLICK HERE For more information about The Body Fat Solution
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