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 all back. If you ever feel that way, you're in good company. There are no exact numbers, but some estimates suggest that anywhere from 80 percent to 95 percent 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 how sedentary you are, what you eat, and how much you exercise.

Putting at least the same amount of work into maintaining your weight loss as you did to lose it in the first place, and knowing what can contribute to pounds creeping back, can help you stop the cycle for good.

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. 

If you add in an unrealistic exercise plan, say going from very little exercise to seven days a week at the gym, it's easy to see why weight regain is so common. 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. Successful weight-losers often restrict how much TV they watch and look for ways to be active throughout the day, in addition to their regular workouts.

Not Enough Exercise

Aside from avoiding too much sedentary time, 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 based 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 (i.e, 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 (i.e., about 20 to 35 minutes of exercise most days of the week)

Preventing 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. So, working hard on maintaining your loss will pay off.

Start by Losing Weight Slowly

When you lose weight quickly, especially if you're dieting without exercise, you not only lose fat, you lose muscle as well. That slows your metabolism, which contributes to even more 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 Your Calories

The more weight you lose, the fewer calories your body needs to maintain itself. Tracking that can help you keep the energy gap 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 dieters who exercised, 44 percent 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).

Keep Moving Throughout Your Day

Build physical activity (aside from your focused 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 get sick, busy with the holidays, injured, go on vacation, or just lose your motivation. Falling off the exercise wagon will happen, but what's important is what you do about it.

The road to change isn't always a straight one. Admit any missteps you make, learn from them, and ease back into your program.

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