Making that resolution stick.

How the “maintainers” keep their progress

‘Tis the season for ambitious goals. With 2021 (thankfully) here, many of us are setting out on new fitness journeys. But how do we turn an ambitious beginning into sustained improvement?

Losing weight is hard enough — but maintaining that loss is always harder. Fatigue sets in, life gets in the way of carefully laid plans and before too long many people find themselves back at where they started on January 1st. But not everyone.

To identify what works best over the long term, doctors turned to the people most successful at sustaining weight loss: the “maintainers.” What’s working for those who can lose 30 pounds, then keep it off for more than a year? It turns out that it’s not about restriction, but addition.

Scientists recently confirmed an idea that doctors have had for quite a while: restrictive diets may help a great deal in the short-term, but for long-term results, the maintainers rely on Physical Activity Energy Expenditure (PAEE). This refers to active exercise, not just the Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) we experience in our day-to-day lives. In other words, the attribute shared by most maintainers is that they’re making a concerted effort to exercise every day. The study, which used isotopes in specially prepared water to track the energy expenditure of its participants, made exercise the clear star when it comes to sustaining change. Seems like a no-brainer, but there are a few nuances worth discussing.

As many of us discover every holiday season, restrictive diets don’t always line up with our real lives. Changing our eating habits may need that serious behavioral switch at first, but it’s important that we can eventually transition back toward enjoying the foods we love. We can — but only if we introduce exercise to match. The maintainers weren’t consuming less calories than the other groups of the study. They were just far more active: in some cases nearly twice as much as the others.

The research showed that not only do maintainers walk farther each day than the less-successful members of the study with obesity, they walked farther than people of a normal body weight. On average, the maintainer group walked the equivalent of 12,000 steps each day, as opposed to the normal body-weight participants’ 9,000 steps. To me, this shows a major commitment to physical activity.

So how do we apply this to our own lives? Well, let’s look at that resolution. If you’re utterly miserable by March, you probably won’t still be at it in December. So rather than trying to commit to a rigorous exercise regimen, try experimenting. Give a new activity a shot. If you don’t enjoy it, try something else. Once you find something you do enjoy, it will be far easier to keep it going through 2021 and beyond — even if it’s not the most calorie-burning activity possible. It’s about finding that path to those 3,000 “extra steps” each day. Talk with your doctor about the kinds of activities you love, then work with them to develop a dietary plan that fits.