If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you don’t need anyone to tell you how hard it is. But in many cases, losing weight is the easy part. Your diet is structured, your motivation is high, and the feedback is immediate. Each time the scale flashes a smaller number, or your clothes feel bigger, or someone who hasn’t seen you in a while mentions how great you look, you feel better about yourself.
Eventually, though, your body fights back. Research by Kevin Hall, Ph.D., at the National Institutes of Health shows that weight loss usually stalls after a few months, due to an increased appetite and decreased satiety after meals. You start eating more even though you’re trying just as hard to eat less.
In a 2018 summary of his research to date, Hall put some startling numbers on the challenge of continuing a strict diet: For each pound of lost weight, your body burns 10 to 15 fewer calories per day, while making you hungrier for 50 more calories of food.
So imagine that you’ve lost 20 pounds. Your body responds by burning 200 to 300 fewer calories, and increasing your appetite to the tune of 1,000 calories. Each day.
To keep that weight off, Hall calculates that you’ll need 300 to 500 calories a day of “increased persistent effort.” That is, when you eat just enough food to maintain your new, lower weight, it’ll feel like you’re eating substantially less, and you’ll be hungry for substantially more.
Now imagine how difficult it would be to try to lose 10 more pounds while your body fights back against the 20 you’ve already lost.
What’s the alternative? “Not gaining weight is better and healthier than losing weight,” says Jason Karp, Ph.D., a running coach and author of eight books, including Run Your Fat Off.
It sounds counterintuitive, but consider this: The average American gains a pound or two a year, and more than 20 pounds between early adulthood and middle age. Granted, most of those people aren’t exercising in any serious way, much less training for a Spartan race. But studies have shown that even dedicated runners gain weight over time; they just gain a lot less than people who aren’t as dedicated.
Moreover, by focusing on holding the line at your current weight, you don’t have to worry about a ravenous appetite or slower metabolism. Nor will you deal with the daily stress of a body fighting to weigh more than you want it to.
The following are tried and true ways to keep your weight where it is now, whether you’ve recently lost a few pounds and are trying to keep them off, or you simply want to avoid gaining those pounds in the first place.
Step #1: Exercise Almost Every Day
“The research is pretty clear,” Karp says. “Cutting calories gets the weight off, and exercise keeps it off.”
How much exercise? In 2009, he notes, the American College of Sports Medicine recommended at least 250 minutes a week to maintain weight loss. The National Weight Control Registry, which keeps track of more than 10,000 people who’ve lost at least 30 pounds and kept them off at least one year, consistently finds that its members average close to an hour a day of exercise.
For those trying to avoid long-term weight gain, a 2007 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that runners who averaged 15 or more miles a week put on less weight over time than those who ran fewer miles.
You don’t have to run, of course; any type of serious, consistent exercise should work. But if you like to run, it’s hard to beat it for weight control. “Running is perhaps the best way to maintain lost weight because of its huge caloric burn, and because it’s a very sustainable strategy,” Karp says. “People don’t start running to lose weight and then stop. They continue with it for the rest of their lives because they get caught up in the lifestyle and the community.”
Step #2: Don’t Fear the Scale
Three-quarters of the weight registry’s participants weigh themselves at least once a week. That may seem like a lot to those who hate or fear the scale. But lots of research shows that the more often you weigh yourself, the easier it is to maintain, whether you’re trying to avoid packing on pounds in a situation where it’s likely to happen (like a 2014 study of college freshman) or prevent lost pounds from coming back.
Step #3: Circle the Wagons
If you’ve ever been described as a “creature of habit,” it probably wasn’t a compliment. But people who resist weight gain are very much defined by daily routines that are out of step with a society in which it’s normal to add a couple pounds a year. Among the weight-stabilizing habits identified by the registry are these:
- Regular meals. Most registry members eat breakfast every day. That doesn’t mean that a morning meal has magical properties, but it does show the benefit of controlling when you eat, rather than waiting for hunger to control you.
- Home cooking. The more meals you prepare, and the less frequently you eat away from home, the easier it is to monitor both the quantity and quality of your food. Here are six ingredients to avoid.
- Limited variety. Like daily weighing, a monotonous diet sounds bad, but research shows it’s easier to manage your daily calories when you eat more or less the same foods. If nothing else, it makes your life simpler; once you hit on a combination that gives you enough energy to train hard without gaining weight, you’ll spend a lot less time planning meals and shopping for ingredients, and food prep will be easier and less stressful.
The best news about weight management is that it gets somewhat easier over time. Research on weight registry members shows that the first year of weight loss is the most perilous. Those who start regaining before the year is out are least likely to keep it off long-term. But those who can hold the line for at least two years are the most likely to keep their weight steady long into the future.
As for those who’ve never lost weight, the same tactics should guarantee that you never have to worry about it.
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