You’ve been working out and trying to eat healthy, but the pounds still aren’t coming off. It’s frustrating, we know. Thankfully, there are lots of little changes you can make to get on the right track. These are a few of the most surprising things that might be holding you back.
Everybody is different: that’s the message Bruce Lee, the executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University, wants to send when it comes to weight loss. “There’s been a lot of fad dieting and fad exercise programs,” Lee says. The reason that a single diet plan and the same exercise routine don’t work for everybody is that we all live different lives in unique bodies that have their own needs.
“You have to tailor what you do to yourself,” he says. Instead of following a specific diet or exercise plan, don’t be afraid to try lots of different things to find what works for you.
Weight loss isn’t just about working out: It’s also about what you eat. But many people still don’t pay enough attention to food and portion size, Lee says.
You won’t have much success sustainably losing weight without getting your diet under control, for two reasons. First, without the proper fuel, even getting into the gym or out on the road is hard. You’ll drag. Second, diet and exercise are both factors shaping weight loss, Lee says, and trying to figure out which one is more important is “sort of like asking ‘which is more important, your arm or your leg?’” That means you should pay as much attention to what you’re eating as you do to how you’re working out, which may mean investing more time in meal planning.
Intimidated? To start with, he suggests keeping a food diary and writing down everything you eat for a couple of weeks. Then figure out where you can trim unnecessary calories from your regular diet, as well as unnecessary dollars from credit card bill. “Eating healthy has gotten expensive,” Lee says. This method will help you figure out how to make your money count.
Sure, your time at the gym is helpful in losing weight, and we’ve got tips to help you make the most of it. But the exercise outside the gym—and the mindset that goes with it—that will help you make long term changes to lose weight and keep it off. When it comes to exercise, Lee says, “if you can’t keep doing it, it’s not going to work.”
That doesn’t mean stop going to the gym—it just means you may need to change your mindset a bit. Your day-to-day life has plenty of opportunities for meaningful exercise, like taking the stairs, walking instead of driving, or adding half an hour of vigorous playtime with your kids to your daily schedule. Taken all together, these activities help ensure that even if you don’t make it to the gym quite as often as you mean to, you can still do things that make a long-term difference in your fitness and weight.
Many people who lose weight don’t keep it off: Take the oft-cited example of ‘Biggest Loser’ contestants. When you lose weight, your body’s resting metabolic rate (the amount of calories you burn just by living) slows down. When contestants on the show lost large amounts of weight—an average of 100 pounds—over seven months, their RMRs decreased significantly.
That means they had to work harder than they previously would have had to just to keep the weight off. Researchers who followed up with 14 of those contestants six years after they left the show found that their resting metabolic weights had remained low, which contributed to them gaining back some of the weight they had lost. The key to sustainable weight loss is time, not giant scales and reality television. “What you have to do is retrain your body slowly,” Lee says.
Unfortunately, there’s no single thing that will make you lose weight. The good thing is that your weight loss goal might help you make your whole life better. “It’s more about lifestyle and long term changes,” says Aaron Roseberry, a biologist at Georgia State University who studies obesity and eating.
Plateaus happen: it’s all in how you handle them. Be patient, and don’t give up on your goals, because slow and steady is the key to sustainable weight loss. “What you have to do is retrain your body slowly,” Lee says. If you see your weight on the scale not going down for a while, that may mean it’s time to reassess how you’re approaching diet and exercise and see if there’s something you need to tweak. Check out our list of the most common reasons people plateau for some ideas.
Still bummed? There are other indicators that you’re getting healthier you can look to for motivation, like waist size. Abdominal fat, also known as visceral fat, surrounds your internal organs and is the most unhealthy kind of weight to carry, Roseberry says. Keep track of your waist measurement and how your belly looks: even if you’re not losing overall weight quickly, you’ll be able to measure a loss in belly fat as you get healthier.
Sleep is essential, both for mental acuity and to help your body recover from working out, but it can be hard to get enough good sleep. Besides making time for that 7-8 hours of shuteye, ensure you’re getting quality sleep by evaluating your sleep environment and looking at your habits for things that could be decreasing sleep quality. If you need a little extra, try folding in a nap. Oh, and don’t hit snooze. It won’t help.
“Mental health can affect [weight] in a multitude of ways,” Lee says. From stress, which can change your hormones, to depression, which can cause someone to withdraw from others and not take care of themselves, these unseen factors can have huge impact. If you’re having trouble losing weight, maybe it’s time to look at the things in your life that may be impacting your mental health and evaluate how you can address them. For some people, that might mean seeing your doctor or seeking out a therapist, something that—as our editor wrote last year—can still be very stigmatized for men. Know that you’re not alone, and that you are doing what’s best for you by considering your mental health.
In some cases, underlying conditions that your doctor can treat or help you manage may be the reason why you’re not losing weight. Head to your doctor (with that food diary in hand, preferably) and see if they can help you figure it out.
Medications you’re on may also be affecting your weight loss, such as antibiotics, says Lee. You can stop in at your local pharmacy and ask if they can help you evaluate what you’re taking and if it might be holding you back.
If the only place near your work to grab lunch is the Wendy’s, chances are you’ll lunch a the Wendy’s—at least more than you would if you had other choices. If the nearest grocery store to your house doesn’t have a lot of healthy options, you’ll probably buy and eat fewer health foods.
A common mistake people make in thinking about weight is to believe it’s all on you, Lee says. He suggests taking a systems approach to weight loss: In order to figure out why you’re not losing weight, look at the systems around you that make you keep it on. Once you’ve assessed your environment, you can figure out how to optimize the things in it that you can control. Whether that means folding in a lunchtime walk at work because your neighborhood isn’t easy to walk in during the evening, packing your lunch rather than eating out, or starting to eat breakfast, small changes can make a huge difference.
Unsure what to look at? Three factors affect weight, Lee says: diet, physical activity, and metabolism. Chances are you can make some changes in your life to affect all three. But don’t be too hard on yourself: “We’re so outcomes-focused,” Lee says. “And there’s only so much you can control.”
The good news is, you don’t have to do it alone: when it comes to habit changes, Lee says the people who participate in those habits with you can also help you change them. If you and the guys meet regularly for wing night, try mixing it up with a healthier option, or better yet, hit the courts for a game of pick-up basketball. Enlisting your friends to help you lose weight might also help them get started on a healthier path.
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