Weight Loss, Part 3: You Can’t Always Be Closing
My friend Kevin emailed on November 4 to tell me he’d lost 25 pounds. I can’t recommend his training protocol — if I’m reading his email correctly, 90% of the calorie deficit came from his Wii Fit Plus workouts, and 10% came from not drinking chocolate syrup straight out of the can — but of course I congratulated him on his results.
On November 29, he wrote back to say his program had hit a snag:
I’ve been gaining and losing the same three pounds for six weeks. I need something new. A new gym just opened up less than a mile away. Or maybe an exercise bike? Any recommendations?
In reply, I suggested that he forget the exercise bike (limited muscle involvement, limited range of motion, limited results) and join the gym. “If you’re creative,” I wrote, “by which I mean, if you buy my new book and try out all the new exercises, you can keep it fresh and challenging.”
Then I added this (and yes, I really do go full nerd in casual emails to my friends):
As for gaining and losing the same three pounds: My advice is to tell yourself you’re not going to lose any more weight until next summer. For the next six months, you’re just going to maintain your weight at XXX. Weigh yourself every morning. If you weigh XXX+2, skip a dessert, or squeeze in an extra workout. After the holidays, if you decide to join a gym, tell yourself that you’re going to let your weight go up to XXX+5, but only if your waist stays the same size. If your waist grows more than one inch, you’ll work until it goes back down again.
The idea is that weight maintenance and weight loss are two separate strategies. Most long-term weight-loss research shows good results through six months, but people fall off the diets and regain the weight in the next six months. After reading these things for years, it seems to me that most people would be much better off if they focused on weight loss for six months and then weight control for the next six months. That way, you keep the results of your hard work and discipline, but you give your mind and body a break.
True confession: I totally overstated my own insight. I got the idea of separating weight loss from weight maintenance from a long, fascinating conversation with my friend Mike Roussell, who later sent me a study to support the concept.
It really is no more complicated than what I wrote to Kevin. He’s not tall or large-framed, so his original 25 pounds of weight loss is a tremendous achievement. But the skills and discipline that helped him drop the weight aren’t the same ones that will help me keep the weight off. If long-term weight-loss research has taught us anything, it’s that the Alec Baldwin exhortation — “always be closing” — is a really bad idea when applied to weight loss.
Six months appears to be the upper limit for sustained weight loss for most people. After that, it makes more sense to change behaviors and focus on maintaining that new, lower weight. Give yourself some wiggle room to allow for muscle growth, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that every pound you gain resides exclusively on your biceps and pecs. If it’s around your waist, get rid of it.
Two weeks after I shamelessly took credit for Mike’s insight, Kevin emailed me this:
You are such a genius. I took your advice and am so much happier. (Interestingly, I also lost two more pounds.) I had made myself crazy, but what you said about the six months thing makes so much sense. You see it all the time — my sister, who has always been overweight (genetics, anyone?), totally lost a bunch of weight last summer and then she slowly brought it all back.
I mean, really, literally, looking back on goals, my 2005 goal was just to be back to 205. Now I’m under 190, and I shouldn’t be greedy. I didn’t gain 40 pounds in six months, so I’m not going to lose it that fast.
So now we know it worked for one guy, for at least the first few weeks. Long-term? We can only hope …