You have worked really hard, had ups and downs, learned a whole bunch, and finally you have reached a point where you are happy with your weight.
That is a huge accomplishment!
Seriously take a moment to give yourself a pat on the back, you are awesome!
You should celebrate and be proud of what you have accomplished!
However, the journey is not over yet, now you need to learn how to maintain that weight. This can be just as hard or harder than losing weight.
Hopefully through, the journey you went through to reach this point has allowed you to develop habits that will help you maintain your weight loss.
The first step in maintaining weight loss is deciding if the weight you reached is maintainable for you. I think most people tend to overshoot their weight loss goal. Maybe they set a goal and keep going, or their goal is actually too low in the first place. It feels good to not only meet your goal, but surpass it. However, it’s one thing to be able to reach a certain weight, it is another thing to be able to realistically maintain that weight for the long term.
It is OK if your current weight is not maintainable, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that, you are being realistic with yourself. In addition, your weight loss is not just about the number on the scale, it’s about reaching a weight that makes you feel your best while being able to enjoy your life. In order to find out if the weight you are currently at is maintainable in the long term the only thing you can do is live your life. Are you able to do the things you like, the things that make you feel whole, happy, and complete?
If you can only maintain your weight by never having a piece of cake again for the rest of your life is that something you are willing to do?
If it meant you had to weigh 5-10lbs more and be able to celebrate the birthdays of the ones you care about by having some cake with them, is the trade off worth it? That is something you need to decide, but in my option it’s a no brainer, EAT THE DAMN CAKE!
You can expect that finding the right maintenance weight can take several months. After all, you need to live your life in order to figure it out, so just like losing weight takes patience, apply that same mindset to finding your maintenance weight.
It is also likely that your maintenance weight will not be a single number, it will be a range. As you know since you have gone through a weight loss phase, your weight is going to fluctuate. It is likely that your maintenance weight will actually be a maintenance range of 5-10 lbs.
A final note about maintenance is that you can most likely expect your weight to increase a bit due to eating more food, most of that is literally more food sitting in your stomach, IT’S NOT FAT! Some people might experience the opposite and lose more weight. This is because coming out of a caloric deficit can lower cortisol and cause you to release a bit more water. Whatever happens, a small shift in scale weight either up or down is expected so don’t freak out!
When it comes to adjusting your calories to get back to maintenance calories, my preference is to use the scale as your guide, just like you would use it to decide if you are in a deficit. You can start by adding back 200-300 more calories a day and monitor your weight for 3-4 weeks. If it stays the same on average, good you’re done. If it’s still going down after 3-4 weeks add another 200-300 calories and repeat until you get to that stable weight. Once your scale weight is stable ON AVERAGE, you have found your maintenance calories.
The other question many people have is where do these extra calories come from?
There are a few different options and much of it depends on the diet you want to maintain moving forward.
Regardless of your current macros, protein is relatively the same across all diets. However, when we are in a caloric deficit, protein tends to be a bit higher (at least it should be) in order to prevent lean mass loss. When we return to maintenance calories you are no longer at risk of losing lean mass due to a caloric deficit so you can actually drop protein a bit IF you raised it when you went into the deficit. This is completely optional, but it’s something to consider as you are deciding how to add in more calories.
Outside of protein, most people will be adding calories in the form of fat, carbs, or a little of both. If you have been removing carbs in order to get into a caloric deficit then it might make sense to add some back in to get to maintenance calories. If you have been restricting fat, then you will likely be adding most of your calories in the form of fat. If your macros are more balanced across the board, then you can add calories in the form of both carbs and fat.
Of course you don’t need to even worry about macros at all if you weren’t tracking them during your weight loss phase. If you were using a strategy like hand measurements or a simple food journal and if it worked for you to lose the weight it can work for returning to maintenance calories as well, so just stick with it!
The world is your oyster when it comes to adding calories back. You get to choose where to add them in, and how you do it as well. In general most people enjoy adding more food in than they do taking it out so this should be pretty fun!
When it comes to weight maintenance it is not all about diet though.
While diet plays the main role in weight loss, studies show exercise plays the main role in weight maintenance!
In one study, thirteen obese women were put on a diet where they lost 8-10% of their body weight and then were split into two groups. One group continued the same practices from the weight loss phase but were eating maintenance calories. The other group was given no dietary restrictions or instruction but was prescribed a cardiovascular exercise routine that burned 400 calories per day for 5 days a week. After 12 weeks of maintenance there was no difference between the groups.
In another study obese adults were put on a low calorie diet and managed to lose an average of 13.1kg (26.2 lbs) over 8 weeks. They were then split up into 4 groups. This study was testing the effect of a medication called Liraglutide, so one group performed just exercise and was given a placebo pill, another group was given Liraglutide alone, another group performed exercise and was given Liraglutide and the final group did no exercise and was given a placebo. After 1 year, the exercise only group and the Liraglutide only group were able to maintain the weight loss and all health improvements they saw from the initial weight loss phase. The group that did no exercise and received the placebo medication regained half of the weight and all measured markers of health began to deteriorate again. Surprisingly the exercise plus Liraglutide group not only maintained their weight, they saw an additional weight loss of 3.4 lbs.
As we know though it’s not all about the number on the scale, body fat percentage is a more effective marker of how much of the weight loss was body fat. When we look at body fat loss during the one year of maintenance the exercise group lost an additional 1.8%, while the Liraglutide group lost 1.6%, and the Liraglutide plus exercise group lost 3.5%. Only the no exercise plus placebo group gained body fat.
In addition to fat loss we can also look at how much lean mass the different groups gained. Lean mass is incredibly important for health and weight maintenance. If we look at all groups, the exercise alone group fared the best gaining the most lean mass while also losing fat mass. Yes, the placebo group gained more lean mass but they also gained half of the weight back and saw a deterioration in health markers….that’s no good. Also notice the increase in cardiovascular fitness in the exercise group, yeah it wasn’t as much as the exercise plus Liraglutide group, but it was still damn impressive!
At this point I hope you are wondering what kind of exercise the participants were doing?
Glad you asked.
All they were doing was 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise based on the World Health Organization’s recommendations. Participants had the option to complete this exercise on their own (verified via a heart rate monitor) or participate in a group exercise class which consisted of 30 minutes of intense cycling and 15 minutes of circuit training.
Given the change in lean mass in the exercise group I was curious as to what the circuit training looked like because circuit training isn’t your traditional resistance training workout used to build lean mass. Below is a description of the group exercise classes from the supplementary materials of the study .
“Cycling sessions were performed on stationary exercise bikes. The cycling programs were simple and were primarily built up of intervals with specific heart rate targets but did also include sprint intervals and intervals with focus on high resistance and/or high cadence. Participants could manually change resistance on the bike and/or cadence in order to reach target intensities. Circuit training is a set of exercises that can be resistance‐based, high‐intensity aerobics, or muscle endurance‐based. A circuit refers to the completion of a single set of all the planned exercises in the program. Several circuits are performed, and rest between exercises are kept short (15‐30 sec). The following aerobic exercises were used: Elliptical training, rowing, running/brisk walking, arm cranking, rope skipping, step exercises, stair climbing, jumping jacks, boxing on bag. The following muscle strengthening exercises using own body weight were used: air squats, lunges, glute bridges, sit‐ups/crunches, plank, push‐ups, chest press and rows in suspension trainer, back extensions, and bird dog. The following muscle strengthening exercises using external resistance were used: leg press, chest press, shoulder press (with dumbbells or in a machine), pulldowns, rows, kettlebell swings, and Russian twists. All programs included at least one high‐intensity aerobic exercise, one upper body strength exercise, and one lower body strength exercise. Given heterogeneity in baseline fitness level and physical functioning among participants, most exercises were presented in several versions with varying difficulties. If an exercise could not be performed by a participant, he/she was instructed to do an easier version of the given exercise. For example, rope skipping could be changed to jumping jacks or high knee walk; push‐ups could be performed on the knees, etc.”
The participants were doing some resistance exercises but it was not a lot, just more proof that you don’t need to do some kind of crazy resistance training routine to see gains in lean mass.
While this study was clearly designed to prove the benefits of Liraglutide, I interpret this study as a clear win for exercise when it comes to maintaining weight loss. If we just look at the weight loss alone the exercise group fared OK when compared to the drug interventions. However once we factor in things like fat loss, and lean mass gain, the exercise alone group did better than the Liraglutide only group and the combinationLiraglutide and exercise group. In addition, the drug intervention groups in this study had more side effects than the exercise and placebo groups. When you take that into account my preference for weight loss maintenance is exercise!
Weight loss maintenance is hard. On average after two years people will regain half of the weight they lost, after 5 years they will have regained 80% of their initial weight loss . If you want to be successful in maintaining the weight you have lost and all the health benefits that come along with that you need to have a strategy to help you combat weight loss reversal.
The first step is finding the right caloric intake you can comfortably maintain, enjoy life and look, feel, and perform your best. In addition to the correct caloric intake though, maintaining all the healthy habits you established during your weight loss phase is also going to be critical, sleep, social connection, movement, and particularly exercise is going to play a key role in weight maintenance just like they did for your weight loss. Exercise is critically important because it will help promote good sleep, it obviously gets you moving, it generally involves other people so you get some social connection, and it can help regulate your appetite helping you eat the appropriate amount of food .
It is no surprise that the things that help you lose and maintain weight loss bring us closer to our ancestral norms. Once we align our lifestyle with what you bodies expect we unsurprisingly see drastic improvements in not only our weight but our overall health. There is no one magic thing we can do to lose and maintain our weight. For best results for our overall long term health we need to align our lifestyle with the way we were meant to live and that means eating whole foods, moving our bodies, exercising, sleeping well, and connecting with other humans. This overarching ideology makes up the basis of how I help clients reach their own goals, whether that is weight loss, athletic performance, or just feeling and functioning better in everyday life. If you would like to get actionable information like this that you can incorporate into your life on a weekly basis delivered right to your inbox sign up for my newsletter using the form below.
(n.d.). Effects of Exercise during Weight Loss Maintenance on Appetite …. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7978467/ ↑
(n.d.). Healthy Weight Loss Maintenance with Exercise, Liraglutide … – NEJM. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2028198 ↑
(2018, July 25). Acute and Chronic Effects of Exercise on Appetite … – NCBI – NIH. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6164815/ ↑