At a Standstill: Overcoming Weight Loss Plateaus

Weary Walker
Weary Walker. Zing Images/Photodisc/Getty Images

You took up walking for weight loss, but your scale seems stuck after you lose the first few pounds. Or, you may have been steadily losing weight for several weeks but now you haven't seen a change in three weeks. What is going on?

This is known as the weight loss plateau. A chart of your weight looks like it has flat-lined, but you haven't reached your goal.

Getting Off the Weight Loss Plateau

You will eventually get off the plateau if you have been consistent with your reduced calorie intake diet as well as your increased exercise. If you have seen no change for three to four weeks, then you should look at further modifying your diet and exercise.

  • Walk more. Your walking program should build up progressively, increasing your total mileage by no more than 10 percent a week in order to avoid injury. Look at your walking progress and increase your mileage according to that schedule. 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. You can also boost the intensity of your walks by adding high-intensity intervals with hills, stairs, or jogging.
  • Reduce calories. Reduce your calories by another 200 per day, but do not go below 1200 calories per day unless you are on a medically supervised program. Tactics would be cutting portions and 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 200 calories.
  • Add more activity and reduce long stretches of sitting. Find ways to build more activity into each day. 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 one minute or 250 steps each hour.
  • Tone your muscles. Walking tones your legs, but you will still need upper body and abdominal exercises to keep the rest of you in shape. Buy an exercise band or some light dumbbells for an arm routine and select a good abdominal routine. This will keep the jiggles in check as you lose more weight.
  • Avoid common mistakes: What habits and attitudes do you need to overcome? Make sure you're not committing common mistakes. 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 exercise as part of your weight loss plan, you are building lean muscle. You should also be losing fat as your body needs it for fuel if you have been eating reduced calories. You will also burn fat during long exercise sessions such as brisk walks for 45 minutes or more. While this is happening, you may not see any change in weight, but many terrific things are happening in your body that will increase your metabolism and help you keep the weight off permanently.

Walking builds long, lean muscle rather than bulky muscle. This muscle burns calories all of the time, day and night, even while you sleep. Fatty tissue burns very few calories. By walking and other exercises, you are increasing your base metabolism—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 Use these ways of measuring your progress instead:

  • 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.
  • Measure yourself no more than once a week. Daily fluctuations can be discouraging, especially on a scale. Don't let that kill your resolve. Weigh yourself no more than once a week if you want to keep weighing yourself.
  • Make your goal not pounds, but sizes. Dropping a pants size means you are looking better and better, getting leaner. And while that happens, you may not see the results on the scale you thought you would—but it means that you have now supercharged your metabolism by burning fat and adding lean muscle.
  • 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.

A Word From Verywell

Don't let a stuck scale reverse the positive changes you have made in 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.

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  1. Thomas DM, Martin CK, Redman LM, et al. Effect of dietary adherence on the body weight plateau: a mathematical model incorporating intermittent compliance with energy intake prescription. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(3):787–795. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.079822