Losing weight is only half the battle. Then, you have to maintain it! The odds of maintaining a lower body weight after you lose a lot of weight are overwhelmingly against you. Research shows 80% or more of people who lose 10% or more of their body weight gain it back and, often, more. You may have heard that diet is more important than exercise for successful weight loss, but, according to a new study, exercise gives you an edge for maintaining the weight you lose.
Your Body Sees Weight Loss as a Threat
What could be more frustrating than losing 30 pounds and regaining 35 pounds? It happens all the time – but why? Your body is a master at regulating itself and has an arsenal of hormones and brain chemicals that impact your body composition and how much weight stays on your frame.
When you lose a significant amount of weight, your body makes adjustments that affect your appetite and how active you are. These adjustments are beyond your conscious awareness. You unconsciously eat more and move less after losing weight. Even though you’re happy at your new weight, your body sees the loss as a threat to homeostasis. So, your body subtly shifts your physiology, so it tips back toward gradual weight gain. It wants to make sure you have enough stored fuel should a famine come along! But in modern times, you have to worry more about excess as opposed to a famine.
You might think watching everything you eat would be more important than moving your body for avoiding weight regain. However, a new study suggests exercise matters for weight maintenance after significant weight loss and if you don’t stay physically active, you’ll likely end up back where you started.
New Study Shows Why Exercise Matters
A study published in the journal Obesity looked at the lifestyle habits of people who had successfully lost weight and maintained a lower body weight for at least a year. All the subjects lost at least 30 pounds of weight. Surprisingly, the study showed those who maintained the weight they shed consumed a similar number of calories as those who weren’t as successful at maintaining their new body weight. Dietary habits between the two groups were similar! The difference was the amount of physical activity each group performed. The successful weight loss maintainers were physically more active than those who regained the weight.
What makes this study different is the researchers actually measured daily energy expenditure and resting metabolic rates on the subjects, so they could precisely understand how much energy they were taking in and how much they were expending through physical activity. This provides a higher level of accuracy than using food and activity questionnaires.
Other studies have also looked at how people who are successful at maintaining a lower body weight after weight loss and those who regain weight over months to years are different. A 2014 study found that physical activity wasn’t strongly correlated with the initial weight loss, but physical activity was important for weight loss maintenance. Most studies confirm these findings. Physical activity is less important, relative to diet, for losing weight initially, but it’s critical for not putting the pounds you lose back on.
Other studies show people who successfully maintain lower body weight over many years have other commonalities. Successful weight loss maintainers were:
· More likely to have healthy eating habits. (no bingeing or drastic calorie restriction)
· Less likely to eat fast food and convenience food
· Less likely to smoke and use excessive alcohol
· Less likely to sit for long hours during the day
Strength Training Is Vital for Weight Maintenance
Based on these findings, exercise is important for preventing weight regain, but let’s not forget about the other physique benefits. Exercise, particularly strength training, helps you maintain healthy body composition. It’s not weight that matters as much as the composition of that body weight. Even normal-weight people can be obese based on body fat measurements. Strength training helps you hold on to and build lean body mass for healthier body composition. Therefore, strength training is a must for preserving muscle.
Also, research suggests that the quantity of exercise you need to ward off weight regain is higher than the amount established for heart health. The quantity of exercise recommended for cardiovascular fitness is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity physical activity per week. If you’re trying to hang on to lower body weight, you may need to move a little more than the established minimums.
Don’t Let Small Gains Turn into Big Ones
Studies suggest that monitoring your body weight closely can work in your favor. Research shows successful losers who weigh themselves more often, even daily, are better able to maintain their weight. By weighing frequently, you’re aware of small changes in body weight and can take action before they turn into big ones. But you don’t want to be obsessed with numbers either. If you have had an eating disorder in the past, following the scale this closely may be unhealthy.
Get Back to Basics
If you’re trying to avoid regaining the weight you lost, make sure your lifestyle habits are sustainable. Excessive calorie restriction isn’t something you’ll be able to or should maintain long term. Upgrade the composition of your diet so you’re eating more whole foods and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables rather than obsessing over calories. Food quality matters for weight control and for your health. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and managing stress too. Lack of sleep and chronic stress can elevate cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite and weight gain long term. Finally, eat mindfully. Studies show we’re satisfied with less when we consume our food in a slow, mindful manner.
· Science Daily. “Exercise is more critical than diet to maintain weight loss”
· Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2014 Jan-Feb; 56(4): 441–447.
· Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2018 Jul – Aug;61(2):206-213.
· Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Sep; 21(9): 1789–1797.
· Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Jan-Mar; 15(1): 18–22.
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