Let’s say you started out on your health journey a few months ago. You set the goal to lose a certain number of pounds and you’ve been exercising more, eating better, and making healthier choices for yourself. At first you were seeing great progress. You dropped in weight, lost some inches, and gained some strength. But lately, despite continuing with the same habits, you seem to have stalled out. The scale seems to be stuck, you’re not noticing changes as quickly as you did before, and your progress has slowed down. You’re putting in the work, but you’ve hit a plateau. So what do you do?
Rather than spiraling you into either a pit of disappointment that leaves you feeling like a failure, or a frenzied attempt to work yourself harder and exhaust yourself further, I first want to assure you that this is normal. Everyone experiences some kind of plateau at some point in their weight-loss or health journey. So let’s chat about some things you can do to try to push past it when you hit yours.
1. Adjust Your Expectations
When first starting on your health journey, it’s very common to see big changes in your body right out the gate - especially if you have a lot of weight to lose, or if you’ve made big adjustments to your lifestyle and habits. But rapid weight loss can only go so far, especially if you are trying to do it in a healthy way. At some point, your initial efforts will work themselves to a point where they slow down, or simply maintain, your results. You often won’t see the big losses in weight, or gains in strength, that you experienced early on. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing something wrong, it just means that if you want to keep seeing results, you’ll have to make some adjustments to keep supporting progress. Our health can be very elusive - there’s no one-size-fits-all method that ensures the same results for everybody. It’s a constant state of learning and relearning what our bodies need as they adapt throughout life. So take the pressure off of your body to always produce a certain output.
2. Redefine Your Measures Of Progress
It can affect us all a little differently, but oftentimes many of us let the scale have a louder say in our lives than it should. Just because a number isn’t changing does not mean your progress has stopped. Find victories in places other than the scale. Are your clothes fitting better? Are you sleeping better? Are your energy levels up? Are you able to more easily do an activity that used to be a challenge for you? Are you getting stronger? There are numerous ways to track progress that don’t involve a number, so why not break up with the hunk of plastic once and for all and celebrate all the other victories you might have overlooked.
3. Reassess Your Nutrition
Oftentimes when the calories we burn are equal to the calories we eat, the end result is a plateau. So, you can address one end of the equation or the other (or both). If you address the calories you are intaking, consider honestly what your nutrition habits are. I say ‘honestly,’ because it can be easy to deceive ourselves into thinking we’re nailing it when really we are still allowing ourselves to have one too many indulgences. I know I can be guilty of that. I’ll consider the fruit and veggie smoothie I had for breakfast, the lean protein snacks, the balanced lunch and dinner, but I’ll conveniently forget about the bowl of ice cream I attacked before bed. So be honest with yourself to see if there are any empty calories you are putting in your body that may be contributing to your plateau.
For some people, it can also be beneficial to track your food for a short period to get a better understanding of what you are eating. Whether you log your food on a piece of paper to hold you accountable or you use an app to track your calories, you may be able to notice if there is anything you can change or eliminate.
I know nutrition can be a guessing game for many, so if there is any question in your mind about what is the right move for you to make, I would love to chat with you. We can review your nutrition and I can provide feedback and guidance, and help you form a plan moving forward. Simply send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to reach out!
4. Challenge Yourself More In Workouts
The other end of that equation mentioned before is to consider the calories you burn. This is where exercise and movement come in. Perhaps the level of exercise you’ve been putting forth is no longer getting the job done. You can address this two ways:
One is to consider if it’s time to add in another workout. At Worth the Work Fitness, we aim for four 30-minute HIIT workouts every week. Are you getting all four in? If not, make it your goal to add in another day of exercise. If you are, you can consider either adding in a bonus workout, or start supplementing your workouts with some long walks or lighter activity between your workouts throughout the week.
The other option is to consider your level of intensity of workouts. Maybe you can start pushing yourself to exert more effort into some movements you’ve been getting used to. Maybe it’s time to challenge yourself to level up from a modification that has been helpful for you. Strength often comes from challenging ourselves, so be sure that you are giving it your all and trying hard things when it feels right.
5. Alleviate Stress
Stress not only affects us mentally, it also impacts us physically. It can promote comfort eating or drinking. It can trigger cravings for foods that aren’t going to make you feel the best. And perhaps most significantly to your plateau, it releases cortisol in the body, which holds on to belly fat. Producing too much cortisol can make weight loss extremely difficult. To help alleviate your stress, try activities like working out, going on a walk, reading, listening to a podcast, or meditating - whatever brings you joy. For more information on how stress affects the body, and how to better manage it, check out our post on Exercise and Stress Management here.
6. Consider Your Alcohol Intake
While many of us enjoy our adult beverages, alcohol can be a big culprit in causing a weight loss plateau. Real talk: alcohol can trigger cravings and is basically empty calories that bring no nutritional value to the table. Alcohol has even been shown in many studies to suppress fat burning. So to get through a plateau, take a look at how often you are drinking and either cut it out completely for a time, or limit it to special occasions in small amounts.
7. Reshape Your Mindset
Here’s some real truth for you: you do not always have to be losing weight or gaining strength. Stop for just a moment and take the scale out of the equation. Are you happy with how you feel, how you’re eating, or how you’re sleeping? If so, let yourself be content with that! That’s ultimately what matters more anyways. If you want to keep feeling good, keep up the habits you’ve been doing that make you feel that way, and celebrate the feel good instead of the weight loss.
8. Whatever You Do, Don’t Give Up!
The biggest issue with people feeling like they’ve hit a plateau is that they don’t feel like there is room for more growth, so they stop putting in the work for their health. But, what happens when you stop? Your progress is going to start going the other way, and you may find yourself back where you were when you first began. So remind yourself of your ‘why’ and keep showing up. You may have to adjust your methods, but the work is still worth it. YOU are still worth it.
I hope these tips were helpful. We’ve all been there when it comes to discouragement with our progress. Whether we’re not losing weight like we want to, or we’re not gaining the strength we desire, we all have goals, and we all experience stagnance at some point or another on the journeys towards them.
But when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
So let’s get going!
If I’m being completely honest, my main motivation to exercise used to be so I could eat whatever I wanted without feeling guilty. I believed the “logic” that if I put in more effort at the gym, then I wouldn’t have to change my eating habits, and could enjoy a nice big bowl of ice cream whenever I wanted without any shame. Anyone else follow that same line of thinking?
While there are a variety of unhealthy perspectives laced in that logic that we can perhaps unpack another day, today I want to specifically discuss why focusing only on exercise, and trying to forgo nutrition, isn’t going to help you achieve your physical goals.
First and foremost, I think it’s significant to point out what feels like the obvious, but is often overlooked: there are multiple aspects of living a healthy life. Exercise is an important part of it. But it is not the only part. Exercise, nutrition, hydration, sleep, self care/stress management, social support, stretching, and rest all together make up our overall health. So when we overvalue just one or two aspects, we could still be living unhealthily if the rest are left by the wayside. For example, you could work out consistently every single day of the week, but still be unhealthy if all you eat is innutritious junk. Or you could be eating whole, real foods every meal of the day, but if you are overwhelmed with stress and only getting 4 hours of sleep a night, would you really consider yourself at your peak level of health?
Each of these aspects takes ongoing effort and attention, which can feel daunting to a lot of us. So we can try to focus on just one aspect at a time, and ignore the rest, because that’s all we can manage. But then we risk the others suffering. However, jumping headfirst into changing every single one of these areas all at once is not typically the most sustainable approach either. We’re all about small steps in order to make sustainable changes to work towards the healthiest versions of ourselves. So we are going to spend the next few weeks talking about each of these aspects of health to help encourage us all to do so.
Now, exercise on its own has incredible benefits. It’s imperative for keeping your body functioning well, giving you stamina, strength, flexibility, and more. But in order to effectively exercise, our body also needs to be fueled well - and that’s where nutrition comes in. In fact, nutrition is often considered to be far more significant for our health (and for weight loss) than exercise even is.
This example adapted from verywellfit.com spells it out best: Let’s say Susan exercises consistently with 3-4 weight training sessions and 3-4 cardio workouts per week, totaling a max of 8 sessions per week. That gives her 8 opportunities to make a positive change in her body through exercise in a week. Now Susan also eats 3 meals per day, meaning she has 21 opportunities per week to directly and positively impact her body through nutrition. You don’t have to be a mathematician to recognize that 21 opportunities is going to hold more weight than 8. It’s not to say that those 8 don’t matter, but it is important to accept that our nutrition has far more influence on our overall well-being than some give it credit for.
A common misconception is that exercise and nutrition can be a trade off. For example, if I went for a 20 minute run today then I earned the pizza I plan to have for dinner tonight. Or, since I exercised every weekday this week, I earned a “cheat day” over the weekend on my nutrition. It all balances out, right? But the truth is, in general the calories we burn in a workout usually do not zero out the calories we consume with a not-so-good diet, especially because it’s far easier to consume a large number of calories very quickly, and much harder to “burn them off.”
Our nutrition and exercise habits have a much more intimate relationship beyond using each other as an excuse to negate the other. They go hand in hand in a few different ways.
Food as Fuel
Having a well balanced approach to nutrition is what can help you get the calories and nutrients your body needs to fuel and replenish throughout your daily activities (including exercise). The nutrients we take in help determine the kind of output we are able to give. And if we are exercising regularly, it makes it all the more important that we are fueling ourselves well so we can sustain our routine. A good way to look at it is to eat to support your training, because if you don’t, you risk lower levels of energy, performance, and motivation for your workout. And if you can’t put as much into the output of your calories, then it debunks the calories in vs. calories out cycle even further because you aren’t effectively burning as much. In order to get the most out of your workouts, you need to feed your body the kind of foods that will help you endure and get stronger.
Food as Replenishment
Just like we need food to prepare for exercising, we also need food to recover from it. We use up a lot of our bodies’ resources when we exercise, so it is important to replenish them so we can get the most benefit from the work we put in. Also, when we exercise, our brain triggers a signal in our bodies that tells them to eat more in order to recover - so really you are going to find a way to replenish yourself one way or another. But if you end up replenishing with a stop at the first drive-thru you see on your way home from the gym, you are going to consume more calories than necessary, which will lead to weight gain. You want to refuel with nutrient dense food, otherwise you could end up feeling constantly hungry, leading you to consume even more excess calories.
Food as Health
Ultimately, what we eat affects our everyday health - whether we exercise or not. It affects how we feel today, tomorrow, and the rest of our lives. Think of how you feel after you eat a more-than-indulgent meal full of processed food. It can lead to bloating, sluggishness, and overall digestive issues that in some way or another affect your day-to-day well being. Not to mention how regularly engaging with a poor diet is linked with major health risks that lead to illnesses like heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer - no matter if you are at a healthy weight or not. On the flip side, think of how you feel after eating a nutritious meal - possibly more energized, more clear-headed, more stabilized hunger levels, more stabilized mood, and more. When you choose smarter, more nutritious foods for your body (especially combined with physical activity) you can more attainably reach and maintain a healthy weight, protect yourself from those risky health problems, and increase your overall health.
It’s a shame how many people can overemphasize the importance of exercise, while underemphasizing the importance of good nutrition. Doing so can lead to an unhealthy relationship with both. But instead, we want to help people be freed up to enjoy both. This post said it well: “exercise is what sustains weight loss, but a supportive nutrition plan is what drives it.” In order to work towards our health goals, and in order to live all-around healthy lives, we must place a level of importance on all aspects of our health, and that includes both exercise AND nutrition. It may feel like a lot to take on, but at Worth the Work Fitness we can help simplify the process and support you through it. Just head on over here to find out more about both the exercise and nutrition services we offer.
Written by Kelly Pruim