Merriam-Webster defines plateau as a period when something does not increase or advance any further. Anyone who has ever embarked on a weight loss or fitness plan has experienced plateaus and all the frustrations they bring.
One of the most frustrating truths about weight loss or fitness plateaus is they are more likely to happen and can be most stubborn when one has made noticeable progress toward her goals. By definition, progress needs to have been made to experience a noticeable leveling off of that progression.
In weight loss, there is the predictable pattern: pro-longed calorie restriction leads to an immediate and steady drop in pounds on the scale. After a period of time, the weight loss slows and, eventually, it can take weeks at a time to lose another pound. The more calorie restrictive the diet is, particularly if it also includes food elimination, the more stubborn the plateau is likely to be.
There is a physiological explanation for this phenomenon, known scientifically as adaptive thermogenesis. The more common phrase for it is starvation mode. Read “Is Starvation Mode Real or Imagined? A Critical Look” to get details on the science behind the diet plateau and excellent tips on how to push through it.
Fitness plateaus tend to be experienced by one of two groups of people. The first is the endurance trainer, such as a marathoner or tri-athlete. For them, there is a fine line between training enough to achieve speed and distance progressions and overtraining to the point of plateau or, if not addressed, regression. The other group, the one I’m addressing today, are those using exercise as a tool along with diet to achieve weight loss goals.
For this group, the plateau is especially discouraging. Usually they have done exactly what all the experts have told them to do in order to achieve their weight loss goals. They’re eating healthy foods, limiting portions and have gone full-tilt into a workout routine. They are working out more and more each week as the momentum of the visible weight loss and feelings of well-being and energy have sky-rocketed to the point where they not only feel they need to keep increasing their exercise output, but actually want to do more. Then, it hits them. Not only are they at a stand-still in the weight-loss department, but they frankly don’t feel well. They are achy, experiencing insomnia, fatigue, perhaps are moody and in a funk. Welcome to the exercise plateau and early symptoms of overtraining.
The combination of calorie restriction and ever-increasing exercise output eventually not only puts the body into starvation mode, trying to hang onto calories consumed, but also prompts the body to find ways to reduce calorie output. Metabolism slows down, creating low energy and a drag when trying to exert oneself. It’s taking the body longer to recover since the last workout, meaning the body hasn’t fully recovered when the next workout begins. The body may also begin to burn muscle as an alternative to burning fat. The solution may seem counterintuitive to your weight loss goals – you need to cut back.
Most people who adopt exercise for weight loss do so by doing a lot of cardio – walking, running, cycling, swimming. These are great forms of exercise, but there sometimes can be too much of a good thing. First, if cardio is the only form of exercise being done, one won’t be able to get past the plateau. Now is the time to trade in a few cardio workouts for some strength training. A balanced exercise week has 1-3 strength training days and 3-5 cardio days. Next, there should be at least one day off per week. A day off means a day off – no cardio, no strength training, no yoga, nothing. In addition, not all workout days should be winner-take-all workouts. Some of those days should be vigorous and others should be moderate in intensity.
It may be a little scary cutting back on exercise after you’ve made so much progress in your weight-loss journey. But, the alternatives of being stuck in a rut and possible illness or injury should be incentive enough for you to trust yourself to keep the exercise going, but in a smarter, healthier and more productive way.