When A Plateau Is More Than Just A Topographical Feature

"Hey, how the heck do I get out of this thing?!"

(Photo: Mecookie)

You've been working out and eating right for some time now and are gratified that the scale has been showing the desired weight loss. This time will be different from all the other weight loss escapades, you tell yourself - you're well on your way to reaching your ideal weight and nothing's going to get in your way. Onward and downward!!

And then comes a period of time when the scale just won't budge no matter how disciplined you are about following the regimen that's gotten you this far. It's that unmistakable feeling of having one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brake. You're going nowhere fast. What gives? So you stay strong and really put your nose to the grindstone - and still nothing. Two weeks turn into a month and you're really getting frustrated. All this work and nothing to show for it? Even a rat gets a pellet at the end of his maze.

You, my friend, have reached what is commonly referred to as a plateau. And before you let those feelings of frustration and failure send you to your favorite carton of ice cream with a shovel and a "what the hell was I thinking?" defeatist attitude, read ahead for some ideas on how to break through that barrier and finally achieve your goal.

We all fall into routines that eventually turn into unproductive ruts: our jobs, our social lives, our wardrobes, our way of thinking. And we've found that the best way to bust out of those doldrums is to change things up. Same with your fitness regimen. Change, it appears, really is good.

Hitting a plateau is completely normal in any weight loss effort. It is just code for "Time to change things up" - just like when someone says, "It's not about the money" is really code for "It's way too expensive for me." Or my perennial favorite from living in the Boston area - "I went to school in Cambridge" is really code for "Ask me about my incredibly impressive Harvard education which I'm pretending to be really modest about."

I've sifted through many articles about breaking through a weight loss plateau and have selected the most common threads in many of them. There are four suggestions that received more mention than any others.

Change your workout. Your body has probably become too accustomed to your present exercise regimen and is used to the same caloric burn after doing it for so long. "Ho-hum," your body says, "nothing new here. I'll just phone it in today." Imagine your body working at the same level of your typical Motor Vehicle Department clerk. It has become complacent. You should change your workout routine every 4 to 6 weeks to keep your body guessing. If you started out exercising with walking, then try switching to swimming or pilates to challenge your body and make it call on different muscle groups. Also, make sure that the intensity of your workout is challenging enough. You should be working hard enough to feel it - kind of like your payroll taxes.

Strength training is something else that should be worked into the mix. It strengthens your bone tissue, increases lean mass and boosts your metabolic rate.

Change your diet. Your body also gets too used to the same thing if that's what you've been feeding it every day. To keep your metabolism revved, make some changes in what and when you're eating. If you've been doing low carb, try switching it up to more protein or low fat. If you're eating 3 to 5 meals, increase that to 6 or 7 meals (I'm talking small meals here, of course. Drive-thrus and holiday chow downs excluded.). Increased eating frequency stabilizes blood sugar, controls appetite and maintains your energy level.

Another suggestion in this category was to zig-zag your calorie intake. By keeping your weekly intake of calories the same, try mixing up the amount you consume each day. If you've been eating 1800 calories a day (3600 for two days), try eating 1500 one day and 2100 the next (totals the same 3600 for two days) - anything to keep your body guessing.

There was also an article that encouraged eating more to break through a plateau. Gak! What?! I'm trying to lose weight, not gain it! Relax. This just means that you should make sure you're getting enough fuel so that your body doesn't go into survival mode and start storing fat - even if you're still working out. If you're taking in less than 1200 calories, you may not be eating enough and your metabolism will slow.

Keep a food journal. By keeping track of everything you eat, you can pick up patterns that you might not have been aware of. Most people underestimate their food intake by 20%. That's pretty significant. Journaling is also a good method of accountability. If you're about to eat something, you're going to think twice if you have to record it. Too much work. This is where being a slacker actually turns out to be a good thing!

Stay motivated and positive. It's easy to lose momentum when the scale has stopped showing you any results. You've got to stick with it to push through these plateaus. And really, consider the alternative of not sticking with it. Remind yourself of the progress you've already made. Start your own blog. Get a workout buddy. Just keep your head in the game and your body will follow.

Have any of you hit a plateau at some point in reaching your fitness goals? And what did you do to break through it?

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