Why You Should NOT Do More Cardio If You Hit A Weight-Loss Plateau

Losing weight can be tough, but you know what else is tough? Feeling like you’re doing everything right and still not seeing the number on the scale go down—especially if you’d been previously losing weight.

That, my friends, is called a weight-loss plateau—and honestly, it’s not all in your head.

TBH, your body doesn’t really want you to lose weight—when you cut back on calories, it sometimes thinks you’re trying to starve yourself. “Your body will then make you feel hungry because it thinks something is wrong and wants you to gain that weight back,” says Peter LePort, MD, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif.

Also, when you start losing weight (muscle or fat), your body’s metabolic rate slows down, which means your body starts burning calories at a lower rate, too.

Frustratingly enough, there is also a “set point” at which your body does not want to lose any more weight, says Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, an instructor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “You might notice that no matter what you try, you are always within five to 10 pounds of a baseline weight,” she says. “When you attempt to lose weight, the body aims to defend its set point, via the brain, to keep you in a certain range.”

Still, you’re not totally SOL if you’ve still got a ways to go before you hit your healthy weight. Here’s how you can push past your weight loss plateau—and start losing again.

1. Dial your workouts down a notch.

If you’re experiencing exhaustion while trying to lose weight, that could be a sign that your workouts are actually too intense. “Often, people try to ramp up their physical activity to levels that are not easy to maintain,” says Dr. Stanford. “While they may get some short-term benefit with regards to weight loss, this may be difficult to maintain which will lead to weight regain.”

One study published in the journal Current Biology found that more exercise does not equal more calories burned; instead, those who exercised moderately used the same amount of energy as those who slaved away at the gym. The best route? Stick to the Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation of least two and a half hours (or 150 minutes) per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, plus strength training at least two days per week.

2. Add more protein to your diet.

“When you lose weight, the brain and body compensate by making you hungry, which causes you to eat or store more,” says Dr. Stanford. Research published in the journal Obesity showed that patients being given either a placebo or a weight-loss triggering Type 2 diabetes drug ate 100 more calories per day for every two pounds they lost—indicating that weight loss really does make you hungrier.

To push past this, try adding a bit more protein to your daily diet (like, an extra serving of beans or lean meats), which can help fill you up faster and help you feel fuller, longer, says Dr. Stanford.

3. Try to de-stress (no, seriously).

If you’ve reached the point in your weight-loss journey where literally everyone is pissing you off (trust—it happens), it might be time to take a mental breather to keep losing weight (without losing your mind).

Women who followed a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet, according to a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, produced more cortisol, the stress hormone, and reported higher levels of stress. And a study published in the journal Obesity found that prolonged exposure to cortisol (like, several months) can actually lead to weight gain—or, if you’re actively trying to lose weight, it can at least stall your progress.

The game plan? Try some de-stressing techniques (yoga or meditation, anyone?). It’s also important for you to be aware that weight-loss plateaus exist, and to cut yourself some slack when they happen, Dr. LePort says. If you know you tend to get stressed out when things don’t go your way (fair), you can try adding regular self-care activities into the mix, like hanging in a warm bath with candles and a trashy book.

4. Keep a food journal (and actually, you know, use it).

“In the initial stages of weight loss, people may see that weight comes off rapidly because they are creating a caloric and exercise deficit their body hasn’t experienced before,” says Maya Feller, RDN. of Maya Feller Nutrition. After some time, however, it can be easy to slip back into bad eating or sedentary habits. “Relaxing the reins around portion sizes can stall weight loss,” she says.

Try keeping a food journal to keep your diet plan on track, she suggests. People who kept daily food records lost about twice as much as people who didn’t, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

5. Do more strength training.

It’s easy to think that endless cardio is the quickest way to weight loss, but “don’t skimp on strength training,” says Feller. “Cardio will result in weight loss, but you will lose lean body mass in addition to fat. And losing lean body mass will reduce your metabolic rate and can precipitate a plateau.”

Remember: Make sure you’re strength training at least two days a week. “Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning that the more lean body mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest,” explains Feller.

Moves to help you break out of your workout plateau.

6. Move more outside of the gym.

It’s great if you’re getting your 150 minutes of exercise in per week, but Americans spend more than 12 hours out of a 16-hour waking day sitting, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. And that’s not doing you any favors, especially if you’ve hit a plateau.

Being active isn’t something that just happens in the gym, so make sure you keep moving to keep those weight-loss goals on track. Even just standing can boost your calorie burn, Dr. LePort says.

It’s also a good idea to add little calorie-burners to your everyday routine, like taking the stairs, parking your car farther away from a store entrance, and doing jumping jacks when you need a little pick-me-up in your day.

7. Cut back on the night caps.

Your nightly glass of wine (or two) may be behind your weight-loss plateau, says Liz Weinandy, RD, MPH, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “I see this all the time.” Here’s the thing: Alcohol causes your blood sugar to drop, which then stimulates your appetite, Dr. Stanford says. At the same time, it decreases your body’s ability to burn fat, she adds.

Weinandy recommends that you limit yourself to having two to three drinks a week and see where that gets you. Also, try to drink when you’re also having food. This limits the blood sugar crashes and lowers the odds you’ll end up ravenous.

8. Beware of sneaky “healthy” foods.

There are health foods, and then there are foods that have a health halo. These foods can trip up your weight-loss efforts if you eat too much of them. Think: honey, nuts and nut butters, granola, trail mix, full-fat milk, yogurt, and cheeses, says Julie Parrott, RD,a clinical nutrition specialist in Penn Medicine’s Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program.

It’s important to know these foods aren’t necessarily bad for you, but they are high in calories, and people tend to assume they’re healthy, eat too much of them, and then can’t lose weight. Doing your best to eat these foods in moderation will definitely help rev-up your weight loss again, Parrott says.

9. Do NOT skimp on the fiber.

This is a big one, Weinandy says, pointing out that “fiber stays in the stomach longer.” As a result, that can help you feel fuller, longer, so you’re not reaching for unhealthy foods in a desperate moment of hanger.

Another fiber pro? It helps you poop and can help keep things moving in your GI tract, Stanford says—always a plus when you’re trying to lose weight. Try adding more high-fiber foods like lentils, black beans, and even (your fave) avocados, to your diet to get more of the filling nutrient.

10. Add some HIIT to your workout.

Here’s one totally crappy thing about working out: Your body actually gets used to same exercise routine. “It will adapt fairly quickly, unfortunately,” Weinandy says.

Adding interval training to the mix can help, Dr. LePort says. When you add something new and unfamiliar, like sprints in the middle of your run or jumping jacks, it causes your body to work harder and burn more calories, he explains.

Plus, you can get more out of your workout in a shorter period of time. One study published in the Journal of Obesity found that people who did HIIT lost more body fat than those who just did standard cardio. Just keep in mind that muscle weighs more than fat, so you may notice your pants fitting looser even if the scale doesn’t change.

Need inspiration? Try this HIIT workout:

11. Carry a water bottle around with you—everywhere.

Water is a game-changer when it comes to weight loss, for a few reasons: For starters, it keeps you hydrated (key for your workouts, and life in general). But it’s also easy to mistake being thirsty for being hungry, Stanford says—and that can lead to unnecessary noshing. “If you have already eaten, and one hour later you feel ‘hungry,’ try drinking fluids first,” Parrott says.

Carry around a water bottle with you at all times, so it’s there when you need it.

12. Eat vegetables at Every. Single. Meal.

That way, you’re replacing higher calorie foods you would have otherwise eaten with lower calorie, healthier fare, Weinandy says. Adding veggies at every meal also increases your fiber intake, which, again, helps fill you up and keeps you feeling fuller, longer.

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