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Weight-loss maintainers share strategies for success

Over 6,000 study participants, who lost more than 50 pounds and kept the weight off more than three years, offer tips to succeed.

The first large-scale study in which weight loss maintainers could self-identify what helped them succeed reveals some secrets of how people lose weight and keep it off: persevering despite setbacks; regularly looking back at what their life was like before the weight loss; and remaining focused on their health.

About one in five Americans who have lost weight have kept those pounds off long-term. A new study powered by machine learning reveals some secrets to how people lose weight and keep it off: persevering despite setbacks; regularly looking back at what their life was like before the weight loss; and remaining focused on their health.

The findings, published Feb. 9 in Obesity: The Journal of The Obesity Society, is the first large-scale study that allowed weight loss maintainers to identify in their own words what helped them succeed. The more than 6,000 participants had lost more than 50 pounds on average and kept it off for more than three years. They answered open-ended questions about their motivations (in the past and present) and strategies for maintaining weight loss and the resulting lifestyle changes. Researchers then used machine learning to group responses by topic.

"One of the most impressive findings was how weight-loss maintainers described perseverance in the face of setbacks," said Suzanne Phelan, a professor in Cal Poly's Kinesiology and Public Health Department, who led the study. "Weight-loss maintainers saw setbacks as part of their successful journey. Setbacks were not described as failures. They were seen as a temporary interruption in their path. Many weight-loss maintainers described getting back on track at the next meal or the next day and measuring overall success based on long-term goals."

Results from the open-ended study revealed additional insights into the motivations behind losing weight and keeping it off. Respondents often mentioned such health issues as diabetes and heart conditions. Others cited concerns about mobility, appearance, suggestions from family or friends and the need for change because they often felt tired.

Respondents offered advice to others going through their own health and weight-loss journey. Many said that perseverance was essential in overcoming the inevitable setbacks. They encouraged others to take it day by day, to reset mentally after difficult weeks and embrace long-term goals. Weight-loss maintainers also described consistently tracking food intake as an essential skill within a healthy lifestyle.

The study also demonstrated that weight-loss maintainers:

  • Remain motivated to maintain the weight loss mostly by health and appearance, as well as reflecting on past experiences

  • Believe that the most important changes include reduced pain, medical status, confidence, feeling more at ease and comfortable mentally and physically, fitness and body image

  • Describe the consequences of successful weight loss as challenges related to: the cost of buying new clothes, unexpected criticism from others, sagging skin and the effort needed to keep up a healthy lifestyle

The findings may lead to changing what topics are emphasized when people are counseled on how to maintain weight loss.

7 tips for maintaining weight loss

  1. Eat smaller meals. Eating 5 small meals a day rather than 3 large ones can keep your metabolism working longer, helping you control your weight. Include metabolism-boosting spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and turmeric.

  2. Stop eating when you’re full. You don’t need to finish everything on your plate just because it’s there. Even if there are leftovers, stop eating when you feel satiated.

  3. Stick to healthy snacks. If you get hungry between meals, don’t go back to old habits of snacking on high-calorie snacks. Stick to healthier options like fruit, vegetables, fat-free yogurt, and whole wheat crackers.

  4. Stay hydrated. Drinking 8 glasses of water a day not only helps you burn calories by keeping your metabolism going, it also quenches your thirst faster and better than anything else, especially diet diet sodas and sugary drinks.

  5. Keep exercising. The best way to maintain your new weight is to establish a routine and stick with it. The more active you are, the more likely you will keep the weight off. Set aside 30 minutes for exercise every day.

  6. Get enough sleep. Poor sleep can have negative effects on your overall health, as well as throw off your levels of the hunger-regulating hormones, leptin and ghrelin. According to recent studies, adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night.

  7. Shop smart. Grocery shopping is important to making sure you’re eating right and not tempted to reach for something that will promote weight gain. Make a list of healthy foods ahead of time, and steer away from the sections that will tempt you. Choose lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and low-calorie snacks instead.

Why is it so hard to keep weight off?

Your brain and body are hard-wired to regain lost weight. Combined with the abundance of high-calorie foods available today, this makes it all too easy to put the pounds back on.

After you lose weight, your metabolism can slow down, causing you to burn fewer calories than expected, even when you are at rest. This happens because your brain senses your fat stores are low and sends signals to the body to stock up. So if you stop new healthy eating and exercising habits and go back to eating high-calorie foods and little physical activity, it is all too easy to regain the weight you lost.

And although you may be able to resist high-calorie foods for a period of time, it’s often hard to sustain this once you’ve reached your goal weight. Once you stop seeing the reward of seeing the pounds drop off, it may cause you to stop trying so hard.

So when it comes down to it, the best way to keep weight off is to create a sustainable, realistic diet and exercise program that you can stick to for the long haul.

How much exercise a day is enough to keep weight off?

Staying physically active and eating a balanced diet are important for overall health and can help you maintain weight loss. But how much time you spend working out depends on your personal fitness goals.

Researchers have found moderately overweight men who exercised hard enough to sweat for 30 minutes a day lost an average of 8 pounds over 3 months. It depends on what types of exercise you are doing, as well as factors such as your starting weight, fitness level, metabolism, etc.

Generally speaking, moderate physical activity for 30-60 minutes a day can help you maintain both your health and weight loss in a sustainable way.



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