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What Works for Weight Loss May Not for Maintenance of Weight Lost
Written by July 15, 2011

Gina Cortese-Shipley, MS

Associate Director of Education
The Cooper Institute

What works for weight loss may not for maintenance of weight lost

Unbeknownst to many, there are several phases of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight: active weight loss, transition to maintenance of new (lesser) weight, and maintaining the weight loss. The active weight loss phase is often where people put in the most effort, take ”dieting” and exercise to the extremes, and feel pretty good when they lose significant amounts of weight. But experts agree that maintaining the weight lost is really what’s important, and often the most difficult. One’s mindset needs to be switched from getting the weight off to permanent healthy lifestyle behaviors.

A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine1 took an interesting look at the key behaviors used by successful “losers” to lose weight (lose 10% of their body weight or more in the past year) and then keep the lost weight off (lose 10% or more of body weight and have kept it off for 1 year or more). The researchers surveyed 1,165 adults about 36 specific practices to determine which of the behaviors were associated with weight loss and/or weight loss maintenance.

The following behaviors were associated with successful weight loss, but not successful weight loss maintenance:

  • Participate in a weight-loss program
  • Look for information about weight loss, nutrition, or exercise
  • Eat healthy snacks
  • Limit the amount of sugar you eat or drink
  • Plan what you’ll eat ahead of time
  • Avoid skipping a meal, including breakfast
  • Do different kinds of exercises
  • Do exercises that you enjoy
  • Think about how much better you will feel when you are thinner
  • Write down how much you exercise each day

And these behaviors were associated with successful weight loss maintenance, but not successful initial weight loss:

  • Eat plenty of low-fat sources of protein
  • Follow a consistent exercise routine
  • Reward yourself for sticking to your diet or exercise plan
  • Remind yourself why you need to control your weight

The researchers gave some interesting explanations for the differences. For example, “doing different kinds of exercises” may be important only in initial weight loss as people need to experiment with different exercises to find ones that he/she likes and has confidence doing. Once a preferred exercise is identified, future success may be dependent on “following a consistent exercise routine.” Likewise, during the weight loss phase, the focus may be on limiting calories, but later someone needs to adopt behaviors that satisfy the long-term goals of limiting calories as well as meeting nutritional needs. “Eating plenty of low-fat sources of protein” may be a helpful strategy. Another example is that most individuals are highly motivated at the beginning of a weight loss program, with motivation decreasing over time, which may be why “rewarding yourself for sticking to your diet or exercise plan” and “reminding yourself why you need to control your weight” were associated with weight-loss maintenance but not weight loss.

While these findings are preliminary and need to be replicated, you may want to design weight loss programs for your clients (or yourself!) that that focus on certain practices for the first 6 months and different practices the next 6 months. Share your thoughts on our Facebook page!

1Sciamanna, C.N., Kiernan, M., & Rolls, B.J. (2011). Practices associated with weight loss versus weight-loss maintenance. Am J Prev Med, 41(2).

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