Countdown to Maintenance

How to get ready for a lifetime of slimness

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

After months of healthy eating and regular exercise, you're this close to getting into that pair of slim-fitting jeans. You're excited, proud, elated -- and, truth be told, a little nervous. After all your hard work, how can you make sure those pounds don't sneak back onto places they don't belong?

"Actually losing weight is the easy part, it's keeping it off that's hard," says James O. Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado.

Not what you want to hear, given that diets aren't exactly a piece of cake.

But dealing with difficulty is easier if you're ready for it. To help you prepare, nutrition and weight-control experts who spoke to WebMD -- along with a dieter who is keeping the pounds off -- offer some advice on transitioning to the maintenance phase of your weight-loss program.

Motivation and Support

First, the experts say, make sure you have a strong support system in place. That can mean family, friends, a doctor or nutritionist, online or real-life buddies who've been in your shoes, or anyone who is supportive and encouraging.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that once you've hit your goal, you'll no longer need help.

"Transitioning from the weight loss mode to the maintenance mode is the part of the dieting process that people usually don't get help with," says Hill.

And with little support available, some people simply try to stick to their weight-loss diet forever -- a recipe for failure. "Some people can do it for a long period, but you're doomed to fail if you try to stay on a 'diet' forever," Hill explains.

Also, you may need to re-examine what motivates you. Keep in mind that you will no longer have the payoff of seeing the scale move steadily downward. Instead, your motivation will be the rewards of a healthy lifestyle -- looking and feeling good, and knowing that you're doing good things for your health.

"The glory days might be over in that you're not seeing any significant changes in your body anymore," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Now it's down to the nuts and bolts, and making the lifestyle changes that will stick for life."

Exercise Is Essential

Speaking of lifestyle changes, this is no time to slack off from your exercise routine. Believe it or not, physical activity becomes even more important in the maintenance phase.

"Physical activity helps during weight loss, but by and large most of the loss is through calorie restriction," Hill says. After the diet is over, however, that changes.

"You have a smaller body and your metabolism goes down," says Hill. "Now you require less energy than before you started dieting, so unless you increase your physical activity, you have to food-restrict forever, which doesn't work. The people who succeed after the diet are the ones who make up for the drop in the metabolism by being more physically active."

So plan to gradually start making your workouts a little longer, a little more intense. And now that you've gotten a bit fitter, how about adding some new activities to your repertoire? You don't have to start running or take aerobics if that doesn't appeal -- try golf, tennis, hiking, yoga.

Get Set for Setbacks

Despite your best intentions, setbacks are going to happen. So it's important to have a plan to deal with them.

"If you're meeting your exercise goals and monitoring your weight, just adjust your food intake to counter any increase," says Hill. "You have to have a strategy if your weight goes up, and for most people cutting back a bit on portion size will do it."

And, he says, don't panic! Instead, take your slipup as an early-warning system and get it under control before it affects your success.

"The first thing is to have a serious talk to yourself," says Hill. '''Well, I've gained back five pounds, but I haven't gained back the whole 40 -- it's still worth salvaging.' Even if you gain back a little, you're still at a much better place than before. Your first step is to not gain back any more. Then later on, you can worry about recouping that five."

"Go back to what worked with the original diet -- go back to what gave you the initial success," says Moores. "Then, take some time, by yourself or with a counselor, to find out how it happened, so you learn from the experience and pay attention to it so you can defuse it the next time."

And to make sure those small setbacks don't turn into large ones, weigh yourself regularly (weekly is often enough). Losing a couple of pounds is far less daunting than losing 10 or more.