Understanding Weight Loss Plateaus

Obstacles to Strength, Endurance and Weight Loss

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If you've spent any time and effort losing weight, you may have noticed how hard it is.  It seems like, just when you start to see progress, your body just stops responding to what you're doing. 

If you've experienced that, you're not alone.  The thing is, as hard as you work at losing weight, the human body works even harder to keep energy intake and output in balance. In other words, your body doesn't like to lose weight.

  And, even more frustrating is the fact that very efforts you make to burn more calories may eventually slow it down.  Here are some of the mistakes we make that may contribute to weight loss plateaus.

Problem 1. Reducing your calories too much

Fact: It takes calories to burn calories. When you decrease your food intake, your body simply lowers its metabolic rate in response. This still allows the body to function properly but, because there aren't any extra calories around to fuel all the other things you're doing, your body may move into starvation mode, holding onto extra fat as fuel.

Keep your calories slightly below your maintenance calories so that your energy and metabolism remain high. A deficit greater than 500-700 calories makes it much more difficult to maintain your lean body mass. One basic formula to calculate your daily calorie needs:

  • Men
    kg (body weight) x 24 = kcal/day

    kg (body weight) x 23 = kcal/day

    note: kg = pounds divided by 2.2 (i.e.: 180 lbs / 2.2 = 81.8 kg)

    You can also use Nutrition Expert Shereen's excellent calorie calculators to get a rough estimate of how many calories you need each day. More about calories and weight loss.

    Next page More Ways to Break the Plateau!

    Problem 2. Loss of lean body mass
    Fact: Muscle burns fat and losing muscle means burning fewer calories. Lean body mass uses five times the calories as fat mass so, if you lose it, your metabolism drops and your weight loss stops.

    Make sure your exercise program is combined with a fully nourished body. You can accomplish this with a diet that creates a safe calorie deficit along with some type of multivitamin to help with any nutrient deficiencies.

    Problem 3. Weight loss
    What? But you thought that's what you wanted! However, what you may have forgotten is that when you weigh less, it takes less calories to move your body. A loss of any amount of weight will lead to a reduced energy requirement.

    Make sure you start (or continue) a weight training program to help increase lean body mass, which can help compensate for the loss of calories.

    Problem 4. The 'Adaptation' Phase Ends
    When you start a new exercise program, your body responds because it is required to make numerous changes to adjust to different workloads. So, your muscles are rebuilding themselves and this consumes all kinds of calories. But, at some point your body will stop adapting to the new workload and, as a result, you burn less calories for the same activities.

    Don't let your body get used to the exercise. Maintain your body's adaptation period by changing the intensity, duration, frequency and/or the mode of exercise and include interval training if necessary.

    Problem 5: Exercise Efficiency
    The more you do something, the better you get at it. As your body becomes better at performing your exercises, it can actually use fewer calories during the exercise. Think of it this way: trained athletes often use fewer calories than untrained athletes with similar body types and workouts.

    So, if this describes where you are, consider yourself a trained athlete and read on!

    The solution to this is the same as for Problem 4; don't get used to the exercise. Concentrate on more dramatic changes such as trying brand new activities. For example, if you use the treadmill for two weeks, switch to something different like the rowing machine or the bike. Don't forget to make changes in your weight training routine as well!

    Problem 6: Over-training
    Just like not eating enough can lower the amount calories you burn, so can over-training. When you exercise too much, there is a point of diminishing returns when an increase in exercise energy expenditure is negated by an equal decrease in non-exercise energy expenditure. In other words, when you increase your exercise intensity, your body responds by decreasing the amount of calories you burn during the rest of your day.

    Take time to recover. If you reach exercise burnout, this is a great time to take a break for a few days, or try something gentle like yoga or a stretching routine.

    After you've rested, get back to exercise but lighten up your original routine and increase your intensity only as necessary.

    7. Enhanced Physical Condition
    As you get into better shape, your body is more efficient and it costs fewer calories to operate. Improved health means a lower resting metabolic rate and fewer calories are burned during normal daily activities. Part of this is because your cardio-pulmonary system is more efficient now and you have a lower resting heart rate.

    Congratulations! You're officially in shape and healthy. Focus on that and feel good about yourself. Concentrate on changing your routine as described in Solution 5.

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