If losing weight is hard, figuring out how to maintain weight after that loss can sometimes feel even harder.
According to a UCLA research review, about two-thirds of people who successfully lose weight gain it all back — and often more — within five years of ending their programs. The operative word there? “Ending.”
“Many people think that when they lose all of the weight that they are ‘done,'” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It. “But, in fact, they are entering a new stage of self-care that requires staying consistent with healthy habits.”
Two weeks of inactivity is all it takes to notice significant declines in strength and cardiovascular fitness, according to a study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine. Indeed, the body is incredibly efficient at adapting to whatever demands (or lack thereof) are placed on it.
The good news: When you’re consistent — with your nutrition, exercise, and overall lifestyle — you end up establishing a new, healthier “normal” for yourself, suggests a comprehensive review of weight-maintenance research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
It shows that once people have successfully maintained their weight loss for two to five years, their chances of keeping the weight off for the rest of their lives greatly increases.
So now that you’ve crossed the finish line, how can you keep from backpedaling and losing what you’ve built? Just follow these simple steps.
1. Eat Breakfast Every Day
According to the National Weight Control Registry, which follows more than 10,000 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept them off, at least 78 percent of successful maintainers eat breakfast every day.
It appears that, whatever your starting weight, breakfast can help you maintain a healthy one going forward.
For instance, in a Journal of the American College of Nutrition study, people who ate fiber-packed oatmeal reported feeling significantly more satisfied and less hungry hours later compared to people who started their days with ready-to-eat cereal.
2. Cut Back Your Workouts Gradually
Smart training plans can allow you to work out five or six days a week with no ill effects (read: overtraining). But once you reach your strength and endurance goals, you can reduce your workout frequency without losing your hard earned gains, according to a study at the University of Alabama.
The researchers found that adults aged 20 to 35 who worked out just one day a week not only saw no loss of muscle, but actually continued to gain it (albeit at a greatly reduced rate).
Our recommendation: Start by reducing your workout frequency by a third, then a half, and so on until you find the minimal effective dose that’s right for you.
3. Think Quality, Not Calories
“Counting calories is great to do for a short period so that you gain awareness of what you’re putting into your body,” McHale says. “But once you get a feel for things, you shouldn’t worry about counting calories, and should instead focus on making the food choices you know are going to support your goals.”
That’s in line with Cornell research, which shows that people who are able to maintain healthy weights most often focus on food quality — such as whether a food is whole or processed — rather than calories. After all, if that pint of ice cream says it’s low in fat, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
If you’re not sure what or how much you should eat to maintain your weight loss, BODi’s Portion Fix Eating Plan can clear up the confusion.
A simple equation determines your weight maintenance calories (factoring in your daily activity level and exercise routine) so you can find the total daily calorie range you should stick to in order to keep your weight stable.
The color-coded container system not only helps you keep your portions in check so you don’t have to count calories, but it also ensures that you’re eating an appropriate balance of carbs, protein, and fat (including the occasional treat) so your body gets the nutritious fuel it needs.
4. Keep Your New Workouts Intense
Even a single set of a strength-training exercise can produce hypertrophy (i.e., muscle growth), according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
So if your goal is to hold on to what you have, one or two sets per move per workout should do the trick. The key is to keep them challenging; you should always feel like you stopped two reps short of failure.
Take a similar approach with cardio. In a recent study in the journal Physiological Reports, a team of British researchers found that a single, intense, 20-minute interval workout every five days allowed participants to maintain levels of cardiovascular fitness built through much higher frequency training programs.
5. Move in Some Way Every Day
“Everyone should move at least some every day, even if it’s just by going on a 20-minute walk during your lunch break or cycling to work,” says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder and president of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City.
It’s important to think of physical activity as something that happens not only in the gym or your living room, but also in daily movements (think: climbing the stairs, carrying heavy stuff, etc.). That said, full-blown sweat sessions can’t go overlooked, especially when it comes to strength training.
Performing regular resistance exercises (with or without weights!) is critical to preventing the loss of lean muscle as you age; this can result in a lower metabolic weight and weight gain through the years.
In fact, in one Harvard study that followed 10,500 healthy men over the course of 12 years, those who strength trained for 20 minutes every day gained less age-related abdominal fat compared to those who spent 20 minutes per day doing cardio.
6. Ask for a Hand
You know how critical support — whether it’s through Facebook and other online groups or in person with a workout buddy or accountability partner — is when trying to lose weight.
But regularly getting that support is equally important when you’re trying to keep it off, according to research in Public Health Nutrition and Epidemilogy, that found that women who receive social support during their maintenance phase are significantly more likely to be successful compared to those who try to do it on their own.
Consider checking into a healthy-living Facebook group each week, posting your maintenance progress to Instagram daily, or signing up for a group workout class that will help keep you accountable and feeling supported.
7. Keep Tabs on Your Weight
“Losing weight has identifiable perks. You see it in the mirror, you feel it in your energy levels. Weight maintenance is much more difficult because you’re not actually getting a noticeable return on all your work,” Gavin says. “Your success is in not seeing anything change. This makes it much harder to wrap our heads around.”
That’s why it can be so helpful to track your maintenance, either by weighing yourself, regularly trying on one choice pair of jeans, or measuring your body fat percentage.
In fact, according to the National Weight Control Registry, 75 percent of people who are able to maintain their weight loss over the long term weigh themselves at least once a week.
“Some days you might lose a little weight and on others, your weight might rise,” Taub-Dix says. “But the change never strays too far from that sweet spot — the weight at which you look and feel your best. That’s a weight you should want to hold on to.”
8. Be Honest About What’s Doable Right Now
“You have to be ruthlessly consistent with your habits, so make sure they can fit into your lifestyle. If you try to fit a square peg into a round hole, you’re bound to fall off the wagon when life hits you in the face — and it will,” McHale says.
For example, if you’re a nine-to-fiver who’s exhausted at the end of the workday, maybe after-work workouts aren’t the most practical for you, but early morning or lunch-hour sweat sessions can be.
Realize, though, that your lifestyle won’t always be the same and, as your lifestyle changes, it’s OK to adjust how you implement your healthy habits.