The Real Reason the Scale Won't Budge
How Your Metabolism Works Against You
There's no question that your metabolism slows as you lose weight. That's because, as your body size decreases, you use less calories to perform everyday activities, so your caloric needs drop. For example, a 160-pound woman who loses 20 pounds requires at least 100 fewer daily calories than she did at her heavier weight. If you continue eating the same number of calories, but your body gradually uses fewer and fewer every day, you may hit a plateau, often around the 4- to 6-month mark.
Unfortunately, the science of weight loss gets even more discouraging. Many studies show that your calorie requirements decline even more than predicted by a decrease in body size, both during and long after weight loss. According to some research, an obese person who drops more than 10 percent of his or her body weight may require 200 to 500 fewer calories at this new lower weight than someone who has always been at that weight. Experts refer to this phenomenon as "metabolic adaptation," and it may very well be one of the major reasons it's so easy to plateau ... and so easy to gain back weight during maintenance.
Recent studies using very precise methods show that the biggest decline in metabolism during and after weight loss results from a drop in calories burned during physical activity,nota decrease in resting metabolism (the calories your body burns for essential life activities like breathing and pumping blood). This decline in calories burned during physical activity can occur even if you exercise regularly. It may result in part because your muscles start to work more efficiently (so they use fewer calories to do the same activities), and in part because your body automatically reduces spontaneous movement, like fidgeting.
How to Move Past (or Avoid) a Plateau
That's a whole lot of information, calorie math, and scientific jargon, but the bottom line is, if you're looking to get past a plateau, or avoid regaining the weight you've worked so hard to lose, exercise is absolutely key. By adding extra minutes to your workout and increasing your calorie burn from exercise, you can work to offset the natural decline in metabolism — and specifically, calories burned during physical activity — that comes along with weight loss. Exercising while dieting also helps you lose more weight as fat and less as muscle, which may to help to blunt the decline in your metabolic rate. Lastly, ramping up your exercise spares you from having to eat even fewer calories as you trim down and your calorie requirements fall.
That said, it may take a bigger exercise commitment than you're used to. According to one weight-loss study, participants who burned at least 2,500 calories per week working out were the most successful at maintaining their loss long-term, keeping off about 25 pounds. For many people, 2,500 calories might equate to an hour of aerobic exercise — like walking, jogging, or biking — five or six days a week, which is quite significant. If you can't get there overnight, that's completely fine. Try adding five to ten minutes to your current sessions, and work up from there if and when the scale stalls. There is no easy solution, but if you strategize and stay the course, you can move past a plateau.
Video: Losing inches but the scale won't budge?
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