Reasons You Regain the Weight

Woman weighing herself
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It often feels like there are two distinct phases of weight loss: One where you're losing the weight, and then another where you gain it back. If you ever feel that way, you're in good company. Some estimates suggest that anywhere from 80% to 95% of people who lose weight regain it.

When it comes to maintaining weight loss, you can't control some complicating factors, such as your age, sex, and genetics. But you can control important health behaviors such as your food choices, how much you exercise, and how often you stand or move throughout the day.

What Causes Weight Regain

To help stop the cycle, put at least the same amount of work into maintaining your weight loss as you did to lose it in the first place. And know what can contribute to pounds creeping back.

Unrealistic Diet and Exercise Programs

Some diets, especially those that restrict entire food groups, are simply not sustainable for the long term (plus, they're often unhealthy). As soon as you restrict something, you may find that your body starts to crave it. That can quickly end a diet. 

An unrealistic exercise plan, say going from very little exercise to seven days a week at the gym, can have a similar effect. While you might lose weight initially, these extreme diet and exercise programs require such drastic changes that you can only follow them for a short period of time. Plus, you're not learning how to create new, healthy habits that you can employ moving forward.

The Energy Gap

As soon as you start losing weight, your body suddenly wants it all back. It can't tell the difference between intentional weight loss and being struck by famine. It immediately goes into protective mode, lowering your metabolism and stimulating your appetite to preserve fat stores.

On top of that, when you lose weight, your body needs fewer calories to maintain itself. However, your body prompts you to keep eating those calories to fill this "energy gap."

One study found that for every two pounds you lose, your body will try to get you to eat 100 more calories than usual.

A Sedentary Lifestyle

Another known culprit of weight regain is your relationship with your car, TV, computer, and other assorted electronics that encourage you to sit for hours at a time. Sitting can actually shut down your metabolism, but it's what we spend most of our time doing, whether for work or leisure.

Those who have lost weight successfully often restrict how much TV they watch and look for ways to be active throughout the day, in addition to their regular workouts. They might use a standing or treadmill desk or take frequent breaks to stand or move during the workday.

Not Enough Exercise

Aside from avoiding too much sedentary time, intentional exercise is crucial for successful weight loss and maintenance. The American College of Sports Medicine reports that consistent physical activity is essential after weight loss—and the more the better.

Everyone needs a different amount of exercise, depending on a variety of factors including gender, age, fitness level, weight, body composition, and genetics. Experts suggest starting with the following guidelines:

  • For weight loss: 225 to 420 minutes per week of moderately vigorous exercise (that's about 60 to 90 minutes of exercise most days of the week)
  • To prevent weight gain: 150 to 250 minutes per week of moderately vigorous exercise (about 20 to 35 minutes of exercise most days of the week)

Remember, especially if you are just starting out, that any form of physical movement is better than nothing. Try not to feel like you are unsuccessful if you don't measure up to recommended standards of physical activity, especially if you're just starting out.

Even walking around the block a few times, a few jumping jacks in place, or a stretch before bedtime can help you feel like you're on the right path, and you will probably feel the physical benefits of those activities sooner than you think.

Prevent Weight Regain

There are no simple solutions, but it's usually easier to prevent the weight from coming back than it is to lose it (in the first place or a second time). So working hard on maintaining your loss will pay off.

Start by Losing Weight Slowly

When you lose weight quickly—especially if you change your diet but do not exercise—you not only lose fat, but muscle as well. That slows your metabolism, which contributes to weight gain.

If you want long-term weight loss, you need a long-term lifestyle change, which will include a variety of new skills and habits. That includes how to exercise: What you enjoy, how much you can handle, how to fit it into your schedule, how to stay motivated on a daily basis, and how to make your exercise habit stick.

You'll need to learn how to eat differently: How to monitor your portions and avoid emotional eating, for example. And you may have to deal with other issues that contribute to weight gain, such as stress and lack of sleep.

Recalculate Calories

The more weight you lose, the fewer calories your body needs to maintain itself. Tracking that can help you keep the calorie deficit you need to maintain weight loss.

When you calculate how many calories you burn during exercise, make sure to subtract the number of calories you would have burned if you weren't exercising. For example, if you burned 300 calories during a 30-minute run, subtract the number of calories you would have burned sitting (e.g., 20 to 40 calories). This gives you a more accurate understanding of your calories in/calories out equation.

Exercise

Your number-one defense against your body's natural tendency to hold on to weight is exercise. It doesn't just burn calories; it also weakens your body's desire to regain the weight.

Researchers don't understand all the mechanisms behind this, but believe working out may encourage the body to become more sensitive to leptin (a hormone that regulates appetite) so you don't feel as hungry. One study showed that exercise decreased the rate of weight regain in rats, while another found that among more than 100 moderately obese men and women who exercised, 44% reported eating less after exercising.

If you're new to exercise, start with what you can handle and what your schedule allows, and work your way up from there. Your exercise program should include cardio (about three to five workouts a week) and strength training (about two to three nonconsecutive days a week).

Manage Stress

Research has shown that stress is associated with overweight and obesity. You might eat more, sleep less, experience fatigue more often, and exercise less when you are under stress. Studies have also shown that a stress-reduction program can make a weight loss program more effective. Consider using stress reduction methods like deep breathing, meditation or mind-body methods like yoga or tai-chi.

Keep Moving Throughout Your Day

Build physical activity (aside from intentional exercise) into your day so it's second nature. The idea is to minimize sedentary time. For example, if you sit at a desk all day, try an office or staircase workout. You can even get some meaningful movement with a lunchtime workout. You may also want to use a pedometer. Aim for 5,000 to 10,000 steps a day in addition to your workouts.

Stay Strong

People who maintain weight loss for more than two years tend to keep it off. It seems that the longer you maintain weight loss, the better you get at mastering the delicate balance of calories in and calories out and figuring out how much exercise you need to maintain that balance.

Two years may seem like a long time, but many of us have a lifetime of less-than-helpful habits to overcome. It's going to take a while to unravel all that history. Remembering how long it took to gain the weight may help you keep things in perspective.

This doesn't mean you have to be perfect for the next two years. You'll face illness, holiday busyness, injuries, and vacations, or just lose your motivation. Falling off the exercise wagon will happen, but what's important is how you react to it. Don't panic! Remember you are human and you are not supposed to be perfect.

The road to change isn't always a straight one. Admit any missteps you make, learn from them, and ease back into your program while also taking it easy on yourself.

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