Why we plateau

April 6th, 2013 Features, MSN

It can be very disheartening when your rate of weight loss slows down or stops altogether, but it’s actually an important part of the process if you listen to what it’s telling you.

You’ve been working hard for months and the results are showing. So why, just when it’s feeling right, does your body betray you, your weight loss grinding to a halt even though you’re keeping up the effort?

Don’t reach for the Tim Tams to drown your sorrows or give up just yet – a little information about how the body works will help you get over it and put you back on the road to even better results.

The right type

One of the keys of weight loss is that there are three types of weight you’ll lose with diet or exercise – fat, muscle mass and water.

“When people exercise and start to lose weight, they lose fat and water but often lose muscle mass as well,” says Dr Belinda Parmenter, an exercise physiologist from the University of NSW’s Faculty of Medicine.

As Parmenter explains, you have to be careful about the type of weight you lose. “As you lose muscle mass your metabolic rate – the amount of energy expended – will decrease.”

The result is that the same amount of work in your exercise regime will burn fewer calories, leading to the dreaded plateau.

At three to six months in, you’ll actually be burning less fat than when you started, even if you’ve stuck to the same exercise plan. “A lot of people stay at the same exercise intensity,” Parmenter says. “But they need to increase their workload.”

The right balance

It also comes down to keeping what’s called a negative energy balance. “It’s supply and demand,” Parmenter explains. “The supply is the amount of food or fuel, and the demand is the amount of exercise we’re doing. A negative energy balance comes when the amount of fuel is less than what we’re burning.

Watching your balance lets you concentrate on muscle – more specifically, not losing too much of it.

Muscle is the biggest component of the body that burns energy. If we’re doing the wrong program for us or not eating the right food we might be losing more muscle than fat.

“You don’t want to lose water because that’s very easily replaced,” Parmenter adds. “People who lose large amounts of weight in small periods of time tend to lose a lot more water than fat. Safe weight loss is when you’re losing one to two kilograms a week.”

Plan early

The best approach is to talk to a dietician or exercise physiologist who can do an in-depth assessment on you as an individual before you ever start. Talk about your goals, because they’ll affect the program you should use.

A tailored approach is important because there are actually a lot of surprising facts surrounding weight loss. “A lot of people don’t understand this, but you have to work at a certain level to burn fat and it tends to be lower rather than higher intensity,” Parmenter says. “Intensity of exercise is really important to your outcomes.”

Armed with the right information for you, it might be possible to avoid the spirit-crushing plateau altogether. The key is to keep the demand on your body – not the exercise regime itself – constant. As your body gets fitter, you’ll need higher impact to maintain the same result.

“It’s recommended when you’re exercising to be slightly out of breath,” Parmenter says. “You can run or work out and if you’re having a conversation you should be a bit short of breath. As you get fitter you’ll be able to do the same workload and not be out of breath. That’s a clear sign you’re not working hard enough.”

Flex your muscle

Another great way to increase or maintain your metabolic rate by not losing muscle mass is by including strength training.

“If you can increase rather than lose muscle mass your metabolic rate will increase, which essentially means your body will burn more fuels at rest,” says Parmenter. “Adding strength training like lifting weights into a workout will help, and the workout can be tailored so you don’t add muscle bulk.”

Body signals

The weight loss plateau is nature’s way of telling you you’ve lost all the weight you’re going to lose with your current diet or exercise regime.

That’s your signal to go to the next phase and ramp things up. If you let it discourage or depress you it’s easy to fall back into your old habits – a surefire way of regaining the weight you’ve lost.


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