Breaking Through A Weight Loss Plateau

My friend Tim asked me over on the Facebook if I have any ideas for breaking through a dieting plateau. Having been on and off of diets for most of my adult life, I have encountered a few of them. So let me tell you about a conversation I had with a doctor once when I was on a medically-monitored weight loss program. I was frustrated at having hit a plateau, and asked her what I could do. She said there were three options.

1. Eat more.
2. Eat less.
3. Exercise harder.

I was surprised at the first and asked her to elaborate. She said, dubiously, that some people think that if you eat more for a short period of time, like one or two weeks, then when you go back to eating less you will break the plateau. However, in the meantime you are going to gain, and that can be very demoralizing for somebody who’s been on a plateau already, so she didn’t recommend that option at all. To be honest I’ve never tried this one because when I’m working hard to deficit day after day, the last thing I want to see is a gain, planned or not.

As for option 2, I told her that I was already deficiting pretty heavily, consuming the absolute least I could possibly eat and still function, so that was probably not feasible for that particular plateau. However, sometimes eating less is a very real option depending on your current intake. If you are facing a weight loss plateau after losing steadily for a while, it might be a good time to recalculate your BMR for your current weight to ensure that the target caloric net you are aiming for hasn’t gone from being a weight loss level to a maintenance level. This happens because your Base Metabolic Rate (BMR) is based upon your weight. So, for example, let’s say you start a weight loss program as a 250 pound man and your BMR is approximately 2300 calories per day – that’s your maintenance requirements just to keep your body breathing. You set your target caloric net while you’re dieting at 1900 calories – you deficit 400 calories per day, at which you can expect a slow, steady rate of loss. You lose 50 pounds and then one day you find you can’t lose another pound come hell or high water. That’s because at your new weight, your BMR is now 1900. You need to reduce your target caloric intake if you want to lose more weight.

And finally, our conversation turned to option 3 – exercise harder. At that time I was walking 30 minutes each way from the train station to work in downtown SF, plus often I would take a 30-45 minute walk at lunchtime. An hour and a half a day or more! I told her how much walking I was doing and that I just didn’t think I could find any more time for it and she stopped me and said, “I didn’t say exercise longer, I said exercise harder. I want you to get sweaty – you should be breathing heavy, your face should be flushed and red, and you should be sweating heavily. Running, aerobics, jumping rope, anything that gets you panting 3 to 4 times a week for at least a half an hour.” I considered, and the next day I started running – short runs around the block at first, then building up to longer distances. Vigorous exercise broke the plateau, and I didn’t have to do it for nearly as long as lower-intensity activities.

The next time I faced a plateau was when I was injured and unable to run for about 6 months. Due to my exhaustive record keeping I was able to look back, after the fact, and realize that my plateau corresponded exactly to the period of time in which I was unable to run. I was able to maintain a steady weight, and, obviously, I could gain weight during that time, but losing was just impossible without hard, vigorous exercise.

I don’t know if that will work for you, for all I know you already have an exercise regimen that gets you hot and sweaty, but if you don’t, consider giving it a try. It doesn’t have to be running, many forms of physical activity can get you to the level of effort required – cross-country skiing machines (or real cross-country skiing, if you happen to live somewhere with snow), stair climbing (real or machine), rowing (real or machine), jumping rope, and aerobics or step classes are all good options for getting the blood pumping. If you’re already doing regular vigorous exercise, consider giving high intensity interval training a try.

What strategies have you tried to break through a plateau?

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6 Responses to “Breaking Through A Weight Loss Plateau”

  1. J. Says:

    Another option is to change WHAT exercise you do (similar to going from walking to jogging) – if you go to a gym and use the cardio machines – switch type of machine. Or if you are outdoorsy – go from running to skating etc.

    • Laina Says:

      True. Any activity you do regularly for a long time your body becomes more efficient at doing. Not at all what we want! Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Tim Converse Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my question!

    I’ve been heading towards upping my level of exercise. Currently I tend to walk about half an hour every day at lunch (about a 2.5 to 3 mph pace) and I do my fencing once a week for about an hour to an hour and half depending on a) how many people make it to class and b) how many people I need to be teaching versus how much time I get to actually practice.

    I was also hitting the gym to swim laps for half an hour straight. This is my preferred method of exercise when I get to the gym but my schedule hasn’t been letting me get there as much as I would like lately. Clearly I need to refocus on getting that back into my routine.

    Thanks again!
    -Tim

  3. Nicole Says:

    Ugh. Clearly I’m not exercising enough. I can’t take a lunch break, so my exercise has to be when I wake up or when I get home. When I get home leaves too many options for NOT doing it– which sadly leaves me with getting up earlier.

    If I want it, I have to do it.

  4. beanolc Says:

    Oooh. I like it.

    Sleep is precious. Until March, I was driving 120 miles a day for my job–hubband and I kept that up for 6 years(!). I’ve been 25 miles from work for 6 months now, and life is levelling out; time to commit.


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