The Maintain-Your-Weight Workout

Exercise to keep the pounds off

By John Casey
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

You've reached your goal weight. Your "skinny" clothes fit, and you're happy with the number you see on the scale every morning. So now it's safe to hang up your running shoes and cancel your gym membership -- right?

Well, not if you want to keep those pounds off. In fact, some experts say exercise may be even more important for maintaining a weight loss than it is for dropping the pounds in the first place. So if you managed to lose weight without exercising, it's time to start.

As seasoned dieters know, the transition from weight loss to weight maintenance is a tricky one. So now is not the time to relax your vigilance.

"Weight maintenance over time means you're making lasting lifestyle changes," says Catherine Fitzgerald, RD, a dietitian for the University of Michigan Health System's weight-loss program. "Making real changes in lifestyle is really hard."

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

You already know that you need to keep up with your new, healthier eating habits after you've hit your goal -- perhaps with a little planned indulgence now and then. But do you have to do as much exercise to keep the weight off as you did to lose it?

"There's not a lot of data on exactly how much people need to exercise to keep weight off, but in general you need to use 2,500 to 2,800 calories per week," says certified strength and conditioning specialist Richard Weil, MEd, CDE, a WebMD Weight Loss Clinic consultant.

For most of us, that translates into "about one hour per day of moderate intensity physical activity," according to James Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

"Exercise becomes more important for keeping the weight off than for losing weight," Hill says. "You can create a large energy deficit by reducing food intake, but it is difficult to create a large energy deficit by exercise."

For example, he says, you can easily eat 1,000 fewer calories tomorrow than today, but it's very hard to burn 1,000 extra calories through exercise. Hill is one of the founders of the National Weight Control Registry, a long-term study of thousands of people who have lost a lot of weight and kept it off. He says that data from the registry show that plain old walking is the most common form of physical activity for successful maintainers.

Add Strength Training to the Mix

Walking is great as an aerobic exercise, but to improve your chances of keeping weight off, you'd be well advised to do resistance training as well, says Weil. Immediately after weight loss, weight training becomes especially important.

"Aerobic exercise burns more calories initially, but you lose a lot of muscle mass when you're dieting," says Weil. "You need to do weight training to replace that loss because muscle burns more calories" at rest than other tissues.

Most strength training programs call for weight lifting two or three days each week, with one full day of rest between workouts to allow your muscles to recover, according to the physical activity and weight control recommendations of the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases.

If you are new to strength training, or physical activity in general, the NIDDK suggests hiring a certified personal trainer who can plan an individualized program to help you work out safely and effectively. Look for a trainer with a degree in exercise physiology or who is certified through a national certification program such as the American College of Sports Medicine or National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Tips For Staying Motivated

Here are some suggestions for staying motivated and keeping the weight off once you're reached your goal:

  • Track your progress. The NIDDK suggests keeping an activity log noting when you worked out, what activity you did, how long you did the activity, and how you felt during your workout.
  • Think variety. Doing a range of different physical activities, and changing the pace or intensity of your workouts, will help prevent boredom and keep your mind and body challenged. Once your current workout starts to feel easy, very gradually increase the time or intensity, perhaps adding five minutes to your daily walk or five pounds to your weight stack. (It's always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting a new type of exercise routine.)
  • Get support. Encourage family and friends to support you and join you in your activity. Form walking groups with co-workers, play with your children outside, or take a dance class with friends.
  • Watch less television. Numerous studies show that the more television a person watches, the more likely he or she is to be obese and to have diabetes.
  • If you just can't fit in an hour a day, do some sort of physical activity on most days (even housework or raking the yard). Studies have shown that even light to moderate exercise can improve your health and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Originally published Oct. 10, 2003.
Medically updated Oct. 7, 2005.

SOURCES: The Journal of the American Medical Association, April 2003.James O. Hill, PhD, director, Center for Human Nutrition, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver. Richard Weil, MEd, CDE, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic consultant; staff, New York Obesity Research Center, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, New York. Catherine Fitzgerald, RD, dietitian, University of Michigan Health System. National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Disease web site.

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