Overcoming Weight Loss Plateaus

A walker taking a break

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Walking can be an effective way to lose weight. However, it's fairly common for exercisers to stop losing weight after dropping a few pounds or even after steadily losing weight for several weeks or months. This is known as a weight-loss plateau.

This can be a frustrating, disheartening experience for many exercisers. But don't give up. There are ways to break through a weight-loss plateau. Plus, even if the scale isn't going down, sticking with a walking program is sure to improve your health and fitness.

Ways to End Weight-Loss Plateaus

You can eventually get off the plateau if you stay consistent with a reduced-calorie diet as well as increased exercise. Unfortunately, in response to weight loss, the body often makes physiological changes to maintain weight, including increasing appetite, which clearly makes sticking to a lower-calorie diet more challenging. Additionally, a newly lower body weight may mean your body needs fewer calories to sustain itself, so eating the same amount will no longer produce weight loss.

However, there are things you can do to start losing weight again—and prevent regaining what you've lost. In addition to sticking with your new diet and exercise plan, if you haven't seen a change in your weight for three to four weeks, consider making the following modifications.

Walk More and Faster

Your walking program should build up progressively. However, in most cases, plan to increase your total mileage by no more than 10% to 20% a week in order to avoid injury. As you lose weight, you burn fewer calories per mile, so in order to have the same calories burned, you will need to steadily increase the distance that you walk. Aim to increase your speed as well. You can also boost the intensity of your walks by adding high-intensity intervals with hills, stairs, or light jogging, or by simply ramping up your pace for a couple minutes a few times during your walk.

Reduce Calories

Reduce your calories by another 100 to 200 per day, but do not go below 1200 calories per day unless you are on a medically supervised program. Effective tactics include cutting portions, eliminating fattier food, substituting fruits and vegetables for other snacks, and switching to noncaloric beverages. If you begin to lose more than 1.5 pounds a week, add back those 100 to 200 calories.

Institute an Eating Window

An eating window is a set time period each day for eating meals. Also called intermittent fasting, this option has you eat during an eight- to 10-hour window and fast the rest of the time. Studies show that this strategy is effective for weight loss and maintenance, even with less attention to calorie counting, as it provides a simple limit to daily eating.

Spend Less Time Sitting

Sometimes when people start exercising, they compensate for the increased activity, by doing less activity throughout the day. So try to add more movement to your day and reduce long stretches of sitting. Find ways to build more activity into your lifestyle. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. Park in the far corner of the parking lot rather than near the door. Put on music and dance through chores or just for fun. Check your daily step count on your mobile phone or with a fitness tracker. Aim to get up and move around for at least a few minutes or 250 steps each hour.

Tone Your Muscles

Walking tones your legs, but it's helpful to incorporate upper-body and abdominal exercises to keep the rest of you in shape. Consider incorporating yoga, swimming, biking, and/or weight lifting into your weekly activity. Try an exercise band or some light dumbbells for an arm routine and select a good abdominal routine including planks and other core exercises.

If you are building more muscle, you may not see a change on the scale. But you are likely getting more toned and making significant fitness and health improvements. You may also notice that your body changes. Muscle is more compact so it takes up less space. So if you lose fat and replace it with muscle, you'll lose inches.

Avoid Common Mistakes

Consider what habits and attitudes you want to overcome. Make sure you're not committing common mistakes, such as slowly increasing your portion sizes or adding in more snacks than you intend to eat. Additionally, sometimes people assume that burning calories through exercise means you can eat more, but that's a sure way to stall your weight-loss progress.

If you haven't been tracking your food and activity, do so for a week to spot changes you can make.

From Fat to Muscle

If you took up strength training as part of your weight loss plan, you are building lean muscle. You should also be losing fat as your body uses it for fuel if you have been eating reduced calories. You will also burn fat during long exercise sessions such as during a brisk walk. As noted above, if you're strength training, you may not see as much change in weight. But muscle gain will increase your metabolism, help you lose inches, and help you keep the weight off in the long term.

Muscle burns calories all of the time, day and night, even while you sleep. Fatty tissue, on the other hand, uses very few calories. By walking and doing other exercises, you are increasing your basal metabolic rate—the number of calories your body burns each day, even on days you do not exercise. This will help you lose more fatty tissue.

Stop Weighing, Start Measuring

Seeing the scale stuck on the same number can be discouraging. You may be tempted to abandon your healthy habits. Instead, use these ways of measuring your progress:

Measure Your Waist and Hips

Get out the measuring tape or a belt. Measure your progress by seeing how much more you can tighten the belt or how the inches are coming off on your waist and the widest portion of your hips.

Track Clothing Size

Make your goal size rather than pounds. Dropping a pants size means you have converted fat into muscle and gotten leaner. And while that happens, you may not see the results on the scale you thought you would—but it means that your efforts are succeeding.

Use a Body Composition Scale

Scales are available that determine your body fat, water, and lean tissue using bioelectric impedance. Often they will also sync with an app so you can see all of your numbers. You will be able to see the changes you are making in building muscle and losing fat, even if your total weight does not reflect much improvement.

Don't Over Measure

Daily weight fluctuations can be discouraging. Don't let that kill your resolve. Measure yourself no more than once a week—if you choose to keep weighing yourself at all. But feel free to abandon the scale altogether.

A Word From Verywell

Don't let a stuck scale reverse the positive changes you have made by exercising more and eating a healthier diet. You are gaining the benefits of reducing your health risks even if you don't seem to be getting closer to your weight loss goal. Stick with your healthy habits and you are likely to see the results you want, even if it takes longer than you expect. Even more important, be kind and patient with yourself—and love yourself no matter what number you see on the scale.

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