Spinning Your Wheels? How To Break A Weight-Loss Plateau And Start Seeing Results Again

You've worked hard to lose weight and, for a while, all that cardio, resistance training, and those dietary changes began to pay off. You feel better, you look amazing, and the effects seemed to snowball at first. But then, in spite of you keeping up your lifestyle changes and workout routine, the results seemed to stagnate, keeping you from reaching your weight loss goal. You vent your frustrations to your doctor during a routine checkup, and she tells you, "You've probably hit a weight loss plateau."

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What is a weight-loss plateau?

A weight-loss plateau is what happens after that initial cascading success: Those initial few weeks when your body adapts to reduced calorie intake, metabolizing stored glucose and releasing all the water that's a byproduct of burning off those reserves. Then, as you gained muscle, you continued to burn fat and those stored calories even at rest. Your metabolism sped up, adapting to this sudden change of diet and exercise, and now that it's reached an equilibrium, it's started to coast.

That's the plateau. Your goal now is to give your metabolism a  jump-start into the next phase of your weight-loss program.

Learn how to break a weight-loss plateau

Just as you did when you first started down the road to weight loss, it's time to make changes to your goals, habits, and routine. Here's what you need to do to begin burning more calories and losing more inches.

Adjust your attitude

Has your mindset changed since you first got excited to jump onto the bathroom scale? "Coasting" might refer to more than your metabolism: it's possible you're resting on your laurels. You might discount how hard you've worked, thinking you can cheat on your diet a bit more frequently because a) you've earned it, and b) you'll just hop right back into your gym routine on Monday... right? Cheat days are important so you don't feel you're depriving yourself, but don't let them turn into cheat weeks. Keep cheering yourself on, using positive internal dialogue to get you motivated and back on track.

Rewrite your goals

Take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself if you like what you see. You should, because hitting a plateau means you had to work hard to get there in the first place. Do you really need to lose those last ten pounds? Are the goals you set six months ago as important to you now as they were then? A healthy weight is important, but so is a healthy body image. Take this time to appreciate how far you've come, and practice using positive thoughts and internal compliments to build and reinforce your new, positive body image.

The plateau is the perfect time to make sure your long-term diet and exercise plans will realistically mesh with your lifestyle moving forward. Don't make promises that are impossible to keep.

Rewrite your menu

Increase your low-calorie protein intake, add more fiber, and make every carb count. Reserve the latter to fuel your body for long cardio sessions, and pack more fiber and protein into your day-to-day meals. For an extra boost, break the three daily meals into five smaller ones. Your body, thinking nutritious food is always within reach,  won't be as likely to store as many reserves. However, if you drop more than 200 calories in one fell swoop, your metabolism might slow down, thinking it's facing famine¹. The protein will help your body recover in-between workouts, and the fiber will help keep you feeling full.

Getting bored with the diet you adopted during your initial weight loss plan? Tired of preparing meals when, after a long day, all you feel like doing is nuking a bean burrito or emptying a can of potato chips?

  • Research and experiment with new recipes, making sure to include your favorite "good" ingredients.

  • Set aside two evenings a week to make the next few days' meals and snacks. Consider investing in a quick cooker to make the job easier and faster. 

  • Look into meal and grocery delivery services that offer quality food options. 

  • Make your cheat day count on all fronts: Come up with delicious desserts that barely qualify as "bad", but whatever you do, don't neglect to spoil yourself.

Increase strength training exercise

A major cause of the weight loss plateau is keeping up the same caloric intake throughout your weight loss program while burning through muscle². If you're not skimming off calories and building up lean muscle, at some point you'll hit the status quo: muscles burn calories even at rest, but a restricted caloric intake reduces muscle mass as well as fat. Your choices are to either eat fewer calories or spend more time building muscle.

Whether or not you decide to trim down your caloric intake, building muscle mass is an excellent option for overall fitness: Resistance training strengthens bones and prevents injuries, and muscle burns calories even when you're taking a break in front of your TV.

Get fired up again with new cardio routines

Don't turn your plateau into burnout. You've already been inspired to add a little spice to your menu. What about your fitness routine? If you're in a rut, sit down and think: What can you do to reignite your motivation?

Ellipticals and treadmills are easily accessible if you have a machine at home or at a fitness center, but for most of us, using them feels like a chore. According to kinesiologist Dr. Christy Greenleaf in an article for the Association for Sports Psychology³, a positive body image will make you more likely to take on new exercises so take a second look at activities you used to dread when you were out of shape: Hiking, swimming, paddling, road or mountain biking, or even running. Experiment with new-to-you cardio activities, starting with those you've always wanted to do.

The important thing to know about your cardio routine is that you need to ratchet up the intensity. That means running a faster mile or adding more sprints to your jog. Same for paddling, swimming, and cycling; keep your heart rate elevated longer, and you'll lose more calories.

The lowdown

  • Weight loss plateaus happen when your metabolism slows due to an equilibrium in metabolism and caloric intake.

  • Plateaus are very common, but they're beatable. 

  • Simple tweaks to diet and exercise can trigger your metabolism once again. 

  • Be sure you're setting healthy and sustainable goals

  • Fend off discouragement with positive self-talk and internal cheerleading. You got this far, and you WILL cross the finish line.

Feeling more confident about your plateau breakthrough?

Now you know why your weight loss seems to have hit a wall, and you've got the tools to power through, start your modified routine and diet as soon as possible for the best results. Keep your goals reasonable, and your mindset positive: You'll soon start seeing results again.

  1. 6 Mistakes that slow down your metabolism | Healthline

  2. Getting past a weight-loss plateau | Mayo Clinic

  3. Body image and physical activity | Association for Applied Sports Psychology

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