According to the Framingham Study (the largest ongoing study ever conducted on what it takes to maintain weight loss over time), here’s what the successful "maintainers" have in common when it comes to physical activity:
- They spend an hour or more per day doing some kind of moderate-intensity physical activity
- They typically burn between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per week (on average) with exercise
- They watch less than 16 hours of TV per week, and usually less than 2 hours per day
- They incorporate a significant amount of physical activity into their daily routines, often by doing many things the "old-fashioned way," without using modern labor-saving devices.
But "moderate intensity physical activity" can also include brisk walking and anything else that gets your heart rate up to an aerobic level. In fact, walking is by far the most common form of regular activity successful maintainers do on a daily basis. And you don’t have to lug your laundry down to the local stream and do it by hand to increase your "lifestyle" activity; just unplug the electric can-opener and mixer, keep the cell phone in the next room, and take the batteries out of your TV’s remote control—you get the idea.
Elements of the Ideal Fitness Plan
Exercising to maintain your weight loss isn’t much different than working out to lose weight, get fit or stay fit. The important thing is that you don’t slack off on any element of your exercise plan. People who struggle with their weight usually have metabolisms that naturally want to store extra energy as fat instead of burning it off. That’s not going to change just because you lost weight. You’ll have to work out just as hard—and as smart—to keep your metabolism in high gear and keep the weight off. Exercise and other lifestyle activities are essential to doing that. Make sure that, at minimum, your exercise program for maintenance includes these three elements:
- At least 30 minutes per day of moderate intensity cardio, most days of the week. Lower intensity cardio (55%-65% of your maximum heart rate) is adequate to preserve your fitness level. Aim for higher intensity cardio (70%-85% of your maximum heart rate) for at least three of your cardio sessions per week. This helps your body use more energy (and especially fat) even when you’re not exercising, which will aid you in maintaining your new weight.
- At least two strength training sessions per muscle (or muscle group) each week. Building and maintaining your lean (muscle) mass will keep your metabolism up so that you’re more likely to burn calories instead of storing them as fat. Many people who stop strength training after losing weight end up regaining fat even though the number on the scale doesn’t go up right away. By the time it does start going up, they’ve already lost quite a bit of the muscle. You don’t need to be a bodybuilder to keep your body composition where it needs to be for weight maintenance—but you do need be regularly challenging your muscles to do a little more than they are used to handling.
- As much extra "lifestyle activity" as you can. This is a case where every little bit helps. In any given day, we usually spend most of our time doing things (like sitting) that don’t require a lot of extra energy expenditure. Therefore, every little bit of activity you do throughout the day can make a big difference—often the difference between keeping those pounds off or letting them creep back on so slowly you hardly notice them.
Moving Into Maintenance Mode
Going "off" your diet or exercise plan, and back to the patterns that made you overweight to begin with, is a one-way ticket right back to where you started. Ideally, you won’t need to make any big changes in your exercise routine at this point. (In fact, the fewer changes you make, and the smaller they are, the more successful you’ll be at keeping the weight off.) But you will probably need to make some minor changes to stabilize your weight. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Check your weight frequently (at least weekly). The goal here is not to panic over every small increase in your weight—it’s normal for it to fluctuate from day to day during maintenance just as it did during weight loss. But while you’re in the process of trying to identify where your energy (calorie) needs, you’ll need to spot any upward trends in your weight before you get to the point that you need to go back to weight loss mode. Most successful maintainers weigh in at least weekly, and start tinkering with their nutrition and workouts if they see a significant gain (or loss) for two weeks in a row.
- Track your daily calorie intake—at least for a little while. It probably won’t be necessary to do this for very long, but it’s a very good idea to double check yourself for a while just to make sure you’re counting everything, estimating portions accurately, and covering all your nutrition needs—especially if you’re making substantial changes in how much you eat and/or exercise.
- Make changes one at a time, and in small increments. If your weight loss doesn’t stop or you start gaining weight, you’ll need to figure out the best way to change things. You won’t be able to tell what effect any particular change is having if you make a bunch of them at once, so try one thing at a time and give yourself a chance to see what works.
- Maintain your social support network. People who abandon the support systems and activities they used to lose weight are much more likely to regain the weight than people who stay in contact. Helping others do what you’ve done is one of the best ways to help yourself maintain your own achievements.
Now the ball’s in your court—all you have to do is keep it moving!