What Does It Take to Lose Weight and Keep It Off?
If you look at the process of weight loss, it seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Eat less, exercise more and watch the pounds melt away. It’s such a simple concept. In fact, if you believe the hype put out there by some diet books, magazines, and infomercials, it may seem like fast weight loss is just one diet or gadget away…if you could only find the right one.
In that respect, some of those infomercials and books are right—fast weight loss can be just around the corner.
But losing weight fast doesn’t always mean it will be permanent. For long-term weight loss, the usual diets or programs seem to fall short. So, are you ready to find out the secrets to successful weight loss?
Behind the National Weight Control Registry
There are more than 4,000 successful weight losers out there, all part of the National Weight Control Registry, a group which continually gathers information about their members to find out how people really lose weight and keep it off. The members of the NWCR are men and women who have maintained at least a 30-pound weight loss for at least one year. In general, these members:
Lost an average of 70 pounds and kept it off for almost 6 years
Tried to lose weight previously and were unsuccessful
Used both diet and physical activity to lose weight
Used a variety of different dietary and activity approaches
What you can already glean from these few facts is that, first, there is no perfect diet or exercise program.
Exercise Doesn’t Have to Be Intimidating
No matter your fitness level, we’re here to help you feel stronger and more confident, while keeping working out fresh and fun.
Each member found his or her own method of dieting and exercising, so that’s the first not-so-secret step to losing weight: A willingness to experiment and keep trying until you find a way of eating and moving around that fits with your life.
But, even though there is no one diet or exercise program that fits everyone, there are some common habits and behaviors that all of these successful losers share.
What does your diet say about you?
It’s surely no surprise to learn that exercise is a crucial component for our NWCR members. Men reported burning an average of 3,293 calories a week while women burned about 2,545 calories per week.
This comes out to about an hour of moderate-intensity activity each day, which would fall at a Level 5 on this Perceived Exertion Scale. The most popular form of exercise is walking but many also lift weights, ride bikes and/or do some form of aerobics as well. This level of exercise is actually more than what is typically recommended for weight loss.
What we can learn from this is that, first, it takes more exercise to maintain weight loss than we might think. But, that doesn’t mean you have to overhaul your life overnight in order to make exercise a reality.
1. Creating Your Exercise Habit
Before you panic about that much exercise, give yourself permission to take that time and experiment with different activities, schedules and frequencies will allow you to find what will work for you in the long-term, not just a few days or weeks.
A basic exercise routine should include cardio, strength training, and flexibility exercises to help you burn calories, build muscle and keep your connective tissue flexible.
Setting Up Your Own Program
Getting Started with Cardio: This step-by-step approach teaches you how to ease into a basic cardio program.
Getting Started with Strength Training: If you’re lost when it comes to lifting weights, this article takes you through each phase of a strength program.
Flexibility Training: This article gives you the basics about how and when to stretch as well as tips for getting the most out of your flexibility routine.
If you need more help, you can always work with a personal trainer (you can also find them online).
Tips and Tricks
If you get confused about where to start, just remember: Doing something is always better than nothing so, when all else fails, go for a walk.
And, remember, you can set up your program any way you like. A few things you can do include:
Splitting your routine. Split your workouts throughout the day and you’ll still get the weight loss and health benefits.
Varying your intensity. If you work harder, you can often shorten your workouts, so having workouts of varying intensities can give you more leeway in your exercise schedule. Incorporating other activities. Structured exercise is important, but general activity can also make a big difference in burning calories. Also called NEAT (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis), it just means moving around as much as possible. It all counts! Be patient. Permanent weight loss is a slow process and so is changing bad habits. Give yourself time to figure out how to make these changes and then give your body the time it needs to lose the weight.
2. Creating Your Healthy Eating Habit
It should also come as no surprise that the next part of successful weight loss involves diet. The majority of NWCR members reported eating a low-calorie, low-fat diet, with women eating an average of 1,306 calories a day (24.3% from fat) and the men eating about 1,685 calories a day (23.5%from fat). What’s interesting is that about half of the members used a commercial diet program while the other half did it on their own. Regardless of which path they followed, the members ended up following the same type of diet. In addition, about 80% of members reported eating breakfast each day, which science has already shown leads to a lower BMI than people who skip breakfast.
Just some of the tricks they used to cut calories included restricting food, watching their portion sizes and counting calories.
Tips and Tricks
For many of us, diets don’t work very well and some people find that making small changes to how they eat each day leads to more success, even if the weight loss is slower.
Pantry Makeover: Start inside your pantry and fridge. Keeping tempting foods around makes it so hard to stay healthy. Learn what to keep and what to throw away. Avoid Diets and Make Real Change: Instead of changing how you eat overnight, use healthy eating tips to make small changes without dieting. If you’re interested in a more structured approach or a diet, these resources will help you learn more about portion sizes, how to count calories and how to choose the best diet for you:
How to Calculate your Caloric Needs and Use it to Lose Weight: While the average calorie intakes for the NWCR members ranged from 1,300 – 1,600 calories a day, we all have different calorie requirements. One way to figure out how many calories you need is to calculate your BMR and activity level and reduce your calories from there.
Watch Your Portion Sizes: Do you know what one portion of protein should be? What about one portion of cheese? If you’re not sure, this article will help you visualize what normal portions should look like.
Count Your Calories: Keeping track of calories is another way successful losers make sure they’re eating less than they’re burning. This site allows you to search for the nutritional and calorie content of a huge variety of foods. There are also free sites where you can keep track of your eating and exercise, such as Fitwatch.com.
3. Creating Your Self-Monitoring Habit
Another behavior of NWCR weight losers is weighing themselves on a regular basis. About 44% of members reported weighing themselves every day while 31% weigh themselves at least once a week. The idea here is not the scale itself, but the vigilance successful losers maintain even after they’ve lost the weight.
This is a key point that differs from many diet programs currently out there. Many diets require you to follow different phases with different levels of calories. Often there’s an induction phase, or a time when you restrict foods (or even entire food groups) and drastically lower calories. After that, dieters then begin to add foods and calories back into the diet, finally getting to a “maintenance phase” where they eat more calories than they did at the beginning of the diet.
But, what the NWCR tells us is that these weight losers continue to follow the same diet both during the weight loss process as well as after they’ve lost the weight. The bottom line is that there really is no difference in behaviors from beginning a weight loss and maintaining weight loss except perhaps readjusting exercise and calories as you lose weight to keep the weight in check. This is probably the most important lesson we can learn from the NWCR: There is no end to healthy habits when it comes to maintaining weight loss. That’s why it’s so important to change habits slowly and choose activities you can see yourself doing for the long-term.
Tips and Tricks
The key to self-monitoring is learning how to track your progress.
Keep a food journal: Knowing you have to write down what you’re eating makes you think twice about your choices.
Keep an exercise journal: Looking back to see how many workouts you’ve done can be a great motivator and it can also help you decide when it’s time to change your program. Take your measurements: The scale won’t always reflect the changes in your body and tell you whether you’re gaining muscle and losing fat. Measurements can tell you if you’re losing inches, which is a sure sign you’re on the right track.
Test your body fat: Body fat percentage is often a more useful number than what you see on a scale because a scale can’t tell you if you’re losing water, fat or, worse, muscle. If you’re a gym member, you can often get this tested for free by fitness professionals but, if you don’t have access to a body fat test, taking your measurements works too.
4. Being More Consistent
It’s common for many of us to eat healthy during the week only to blow it on the weekends. But, NWCR members were able to maintain their weight loss by eating healthy all the time. Fifty-nine percent of members reported eating the same on weekends and holidays while 39% reported followed stricter diets during the week as compared to the weekend. In other words, the more consistent the diet, the more likely members were to maintain their weight loss year after year.
Tips and Tricks
Being consistent doesn’t mean you have to robotically follow the same diet day after day. Below are a few ideas for ways you can stay healthy and still have some fun:
Plan a cheat meal rather than a cheat day. Giving yourself an entire day to eat what you want can lead to overindulgence that might show on your waistline. Instead, plan on having something you enjoy once a week — have a pizza night or go out for burgers. Enjoy yourself and stay on track for the rest of the day. Work treats into your diet. Some people find that having a small indulgence each day, like a piece of chocolate or a handful of chips, keeps them satisfied and allows them to choose healthy options the rest of the time.
Have a plan of attack. The single most important thing you do when eating healthy is being prepared. That means having healthy foods around so you’re not tempted to run out for fast food, planning for how you’ll deal with the buffet table at a party and realizing that, sometimes, you’re going to overindulge. Keep things balanced. Watching your calories and eating healthy is important, but so is enjoying life and not obsessing about everything we eat. We all have to find the right balance. Sometimes, being too restrictive can lead to binging on the very things we’re trying to avoid.
Don’t give up. There will come a day when you eat too much cake or have the one extra piece of pizza you shouldn’t have. We all overindulge at times but many of us use that as an excuse to quit and go back to old, unhealthy behaviors. One mistake isn’t the end of the world and, even if you’ve really fallen off the wagon, you can always get right back on track by simply making the decision to not give up.
The Bottom Line
What’s clear from the NWCR is that weight loss is a slow, steady process that requires a certain amount of vigilance, commitment, and discipline every day. It also requires that we take chances, getting away from those comforting, but often bad habits, and replacing them with better ones. Perhaps the most important lesson these successful losers can teach us is to keep on trying.
Kravitz, Len. Winning at Losing: Secrets of Long-Term Weight Loss. Jul. 22, 2007.
Shick SM, Wing RR, Klem ML, McGuire MT, Hill JO, Seagle H. “Persons successful at long-term weight loss and maintenance continue to consume a low-energy, low-fat diet.” J Am Diet Assoc. 1998 Nov;98(11):1273.
Sungsoo Cho, Dietrich Marion, Brown Coralie J.P., Clark Celeste A., Block Gladys. “The Effect of Breakfast Type on Total Daily Energy Intake and Body Mass Index: Results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III).” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 22, No. 4, 296-302 (2003).
Wing, Rena R. and Phelan Suzanne. “Long-term weight loss maintenance.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 82, No. 1, 222S-225S, July 2005.