Many people struggle to maintain weight loss long-term. While fad-diets and four-week bikini-body boot camps might help you drop pounds, keeping weight off is challenging. Research shows that 95% of dieters regain lost weight within one to five years, with up to two-thirds of dieters gaining more weight than they lost dieting (Mann, et al., 2007).
Fortunately, researchers have uncovered some of the traits and strategies that can help increase your chances of successfully maintaining a healthy weight. The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) has tracked more than 10,000 people over the last 23 years who’ve been successful in maintaining long-term weight loss. These “successful losers” share some common characteristics that have helped them keep weight off over time. These and other long-term strategies discussed below can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Ditch Diets for Lifestyle Change
Diets don’t work and can even be harmful in long-term weight loss maintenance (Mann, et al., 2007). For sustainable weight loss, focus on healthier alternatives and lifestyle changes. Diets often represent a black-and-white, all-or-nothing approach. Lifestyle changes are more broad, generalizable and adaptable to your situations and needs. Some examples of long-term lifestyle changes you might adopt include eating vegetables with every meal and snack, or pairing carbohydrates with protein or fat to manage blood sugar levels. You can also integrate mindful eating as a sustainable strategy to keep weight regain at bay. While these may not seem extreme enough to promote dramatic weight loss, the power lies in their sustainability over time.
Move it or Gain it
The NWCR reports that 90% of successful losers exercise an average of one hour a day. Similarly, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests a minimum of 250 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (50 minutes, five days a week) to maintain weight loss. These guidelines may seem daunting, but activity doesn’t need to be strenuous or extreme to yield weight-related benefits. The most commonly reported form of exercise in the NWCR is walking. Walking and other moderate-intensity activities can help you maintain a healthy weight and produce many other health-improving outcomes.
Build Up Your Strength
Strength training helps build and preserve muscle mass, which is typically lost with age and calorically restricted diets. Muscle is expensive tissue—it costs the body a lot of calories to maintain. Thus, the more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn through the day, even while at rest.
Focus on working all major muscle groups two or more days a week. If you're unsure where to begin, seek out a qualified personal trainer to help you build a strength-training regimen that can be performed in the gym, outdoors or at home.
You can’t change a behavior unless you know what, when and why it’s happening. Monitoring your eating and exercise behaviors helps raise your awareness around the antecedents (what causes a behavior) and consequences (thoughts, feelings, rewards or drawbacks) of engaging in a particular behavior. Food or activity logs can be useful tools for self-monitoring. A sample food log might include the following:
- What you ate
- How much you ate
- Where you were
- What you were thinking or feeling before you ate
- How much time it took you to eat
- What you were doing while you ate (e.g., watching television, answering emails)
- What you were thinking or feeling after you ate (physically and emotionally)
- Level of fullness or satiation after eating
Self-monitoring can be used regularly to keep track of eating and exercise, or it can be a strategy employed when maintaining your healthy behaviors becomes challenging.
Social support is critical for long-term behavior change. With supportive friends and family, healthy eating and exercise become fun group activities that foster adherence and enjoyment. If your inner circle finds carrots distasteful and exercise a bore, maintaining your healthy habits will be more challenging. Find a group of health-minded individuals (in person or online) with whom you can identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and offer and receive support. Long-term guidance from a health and fitness professional also improves weight-related outcomes. Maintaining contact with a qualified health coach can help you plan and prepare for success and overcome obstacles that may arise.
Don’t let Lapses become Relapses
Setbacks are normal. Planning for them can help you overcome setbacks when they occur. Consider possible barriers that may hinder your ability to be active or eat well (e.g., busy schedule, stress, financial issues) and brainstorm solutions to these barriers in advance. Rather than berating yourself for “falling off the wagon,” view setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. “Ugh, I ate so much ice cream last night. I knew I couldn’t do this!” instead becomes, “I wonder why I ate so much ice cream last night? Was I bored? Lonely? Stressed? Did I get enough to eat during the day?” With this, nothing is a failure and every “setback” is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your needs.
Remember your Why
Weight loss is never truly about weight—it’s about reducing some physical or emotional discomfort you feel. Once you’ve lost weight and feel better, it’s easy to fall back into old habits. Whether it’s being able to play with your grandkids, reduce your risk for heart disease, or feel more comfortable and confident in a swimsuit, figure out the “why” behind your weight loss and write it down. Place this note in plain view where you’ll see it frequently. This constant reminder can help you stick with healthy behaviors when the going gets tough.
A Recipe for Success
There’s no magic pill when it comes to weight-loss maintenance; rather, multiple lifestyle factors work together to preserve your weight and health. Focusing on sustainable eating changes, regular activity, social support and self-compassion in the face of setbacks is your best bet for achieving a healthy weight that lasts a lifetime.
Mann, T. et al. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. The American Psychologist, 62, 3, 220–233.