Last week was not a good week for Tyler.
Tyler, a 24-year-old from South Carolina, writes the blog 344pounds.com, which documents his progress as he tries to lose weight. Since beginning the site in January, he’s lost 109.8 pounds, thanks to an intense exercise regime. (As part of a blog promotion, for instance, he performed over three hours of cardio one Friday night). But last week—his birthday week—he gained weight for the first time since beginning his blog, a fact he chalked up to lowered standards: watching TV, indulging on his birthday, and skipping the gym in favor of surfing the Web. “This week should show to you that if you don’t put in the work, you won’t lose the weight. It’s not rocket science. I’ve lost weight 26 weeks in a row without fail—the first week I give just a little bit of slack I gain half a pound,”
Tyler then resolved to resume his arduous exercise routine and cut back on the junk food. His plan sounds both admirable and exhausting, and raises the question: after all the work of losing weight, can one ever sit back and enjoy the results? Or does keeping weight off mean keeping constant guard against Netflix, Gmail, and birthday cake?
The secret to losing weight is pretty uncomplicated—eat fewer calories than you burn. It's what happens after that can get tricky. “You can lose weight on the grapefruit diet. You can lose weight on the protein diet. You’ll also gain it back,” says Dr. Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. “The key right now is weight maintenance. We don’t have a strategy for that on the shelf at this point.”
Neither does Tyler, who admitted that despite his resolve, he too, might backslide. “I probably will gain some of the weight back,” he says. “I have no idea how to sustain weight loss. The most I’ve ever lost before is five to seven pounds, and I don’t really have a maintenance plan.” He could look to some of the nascent research in weight maintenance, and the example of those who have gone before him. The National Weight Control Registry monitors those who have lost more than 30 pounds and kept if off for two years or longer, and in doing so have identified some trends amongst successful maintainers.
First, they exercise on a consistent basis. “Certain people can lose weight with just managing diet alone, but real sustained weight loss has to have both diet and exercise,” says Dr. Jamy Ard, assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. If you’ve managed to lose weight through exercise, then you need to continue that pattern even after you’ve hit your target weight.
A recent study published in the journal Obesity makes the unfortunate discovery that those looking to keep pounds off may have to work harder than those who want lose the weight initially. The less you weigh, the fewer calories you burn as part of your day-to-day activities, says Raina Mekary, a Harvard professor of nutrition and the study author. Exercise is needed to make up the difference. (Mekary’s study was only on premenopausal women; she asserts that men may have less of a problem because they have more muscle mass, and increased muscle mass leads to an increase metabolism).
Those who keep weight off are also more likely to eat breakfast. Breakfast consumption alone may not be the secret, but an indicator of more healthful patterns. “It’s more of a marker of the fact that they eat on a regular basis,” says Ard. “They don’t skip meals.” Eating at least three meals a day prevents unhealthy overeating brought on by getting too hungry, and having a eating routine makes one less likely to make poor choices. Ard notes that by eating lots of nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, people who eat consistently and healthfully end up eating a lot more, and feeling more satisfied than people who “diet” by restricting their intake.
The third factor in successful weight maintenance is accountability: those with long-term weight-loss success are vigilant about their routines. "Once you reach your goal, you don’t get free reign. The monster creepsback up on you very slowly," says Eric Forand, a New-York City-based personal trainer. By keeping a food diary or joining a running group, those who have lost weight can ensure that they stay on track and are aware of their caloric intake and output.
While losing weight can feel arduous, there are rewards, in the form of compliments from friends, looser-fitting clothes, and an ever-dropping scale. When all that stops, so can the desire to hit the gym. “It’s not nearly as exciting to step on the scale and see the scale stay the same,” says Ard. “The motivation and the goals and all those things have to be reset.”
Then there’s the sad truth about our bodies: most of us, men and women alike, could diet and exercise our way down to a size 2 dress. For some it would take just a few skipped meals, while others would have to live on a weight-loss ranch, Biggest Loser style, for a year. “There is a variability in terms of different shapes and sizes, and people might be genetically predisposed to being a certain size,” says Leslie Heinberg, director of behavioral services for the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at Cleveland Clinic. If you're genetically disposed to being a little heavier, keeping your weight at an "ideal" size could be exhausting. After a few months of chasing down your "dream weight," you may realize you’re just as happy—and healthy—a little heavier than imagined, and that fighting your body’s natural size and shape isn’t worth losing time with your family or a blown ACL.
Because of these realities, after losing the weight it’s important to set metrics that emphasize health and wellness, not the figure one cuts in a bikini. “Rather than getting people to get so fixated on the magic number, it's about setting a goal of getting of their hypertensive medication. Setting the goal of running the first 5K, then maybe moving it up to a 10K,” says Heinberg. "Having fitness goals could be more beneficial than what the scale says."
Blogger Tyler is already thinking ahead: he’s scheduled his first 10K for this time next year.