Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The race is not to the swift . . .

193 pounds
I'm sure some of you have noticed that I've been stuck at the same weight of 194 to 195 pounds for months now. I hit 193 one day over the summer, but the next day I was back up to 194. But over the past week, I have finally busted through this plateau, hitting as low as 192 over the weekend and bouncing back and forth between 192 and 194 since then.

Plateaus, as we all know, are frustrating as hell, possibly the most frustrating part about trying to lose weight. You're going along doing everything right—eating well but not starving yourself, exercising as much as you can, indulging only on special occasions or weekends—but for some reason, the numbers on the scale won't freaking budge. It's easy to get impatient at times like these and resort to drastic measures like cutting calories to an unhealthy level, but I don't think that kind of behavior solves anything in the long run.

What I do think works is to stay the course, on the one hand, and mix it up, on the other hand. By "staying the course," I mean keep eating well and exercising, and by "mixing it up," I mean changing how, when, where, and how long you exercise. All of the research about weight loss shows that once our bodies get used to a routine—like hitting the gym for 45 minutes every night after work—they adjust to that routine and start storing fat and burning calories at a slower rate, a rate that will maintain our weight rather than reduce it.

One of the ways to get around this problem is to confuse our bodies. There are two simply ways to do this . . .

1) Change your exercise routine by engaging in different kinds of physical activity. If you're normally the person who hits the elliptical at the gym, try the rowing machine and a round of weights. If you always go for a jog every morning, try swimming once or twice a week. Simply changing what kind of exercise you do can confuse your body enough to increase your metabolism and start burning more calories.

You can accomplish the same goal by changing the length and time of your workouts—try working out three times a day for ten minutes rather than working out for thirty minutes all at once—or even the place where you exercise, like running or walking outside instead of on a treadmill.

As I've mentioned in my "Returning to Childhood" post, it always amazes me how boring our exercise routines become as we get older. When we were kids we engaged in a myriad of different physical activities, but as we get older—ironically when we most need to mix it up—we fall back on the same tired, old workout. I'm as guilty of this as the next person, but I try my best to get away from always doing the same thing.

2) The second way to confuse your body is to incorporate interval training into your workout. You can add intervals to your workout by periodically increasing your rate of exertion. So let's say you're out talking a leisurely walk . . . if you wanted to add intervals to your walk, you would walk as fast as you could for 60-90 seconds and then slow back down to your normal pace, and maybe you would do this 3-10 times during the course of your workout.

Again, the reason this can help you break through a plateau is because intervals—like variety in your exercise routine—can confuse your body and, therefore, make it burn more calories.

What's ironic about all of this is that, sometimes, confusing your body can also be accomplished by exercising less, and that's what's happened to me over the past ten days.

As I mentioned in my "Good news/bad news" post last week, I've had some health problems recently and, as a result, have been forced to exercise a lot less lately. My body's response to this sudden change has been to start burning more calories, and that's why I've finally broken through my plateau. It's an interesting turn of events—and a somewhat frustrating one if, like me, you've been trying to lose weight for months with no luck—but I'm not going to complain.

I have actually had the same thing happen to me twice before.

In the fall of 2002, I increased my daily exercise routine from 30 to 60 minutes and started using intervals for the first time in my life. I did this because, though I had lost about ten pounds between 1999 and 2002, dropping from around 200 pounds to 190 pounds, I could just not get below the 190 mark. Once I increased the amount I exercised and added intervals, I broke through my plateau and lost a pound or two, but I was disappointed in how little I had accomplished.

Ironically, the real windfall occurred a few weeks later when I sprained my ankle and couldn't workout for over a month. During the time that I was laid up, I lost an amazing six pounds, brining my weight down to the low 180s for the first time in four years. Of course, what I lost was probably all muscle weight, but when I got back to my 60-minute workouts and regained my muscle, the weight never came back, and I bottomed out at 180 pounds even.

I had a similar experience in 2006 after a year of grueling workouts during which time I was averaging twelve hours of exercise a week in an attempt to get below 180 pounds. I did not lose a single pound that whole year, but at the end of those twelve months, we moved to North Carolina, and, as a result, my workout routine immediately changed. I was no longer able to go to the gym and had to rely on less structured ways to exercise—like walking outside. Within a few weeks of this change, my weight dropped below 180, and I hit my all-time adult low of 176 pounds.

All of this is to say that though it's important to change our routine, it's also important to recognize that even when the scale isn't budging, we're still doing our body a load of good. During that year of working out for two hours a day, I felt like I wasn't accomplishing anything, but the truth was that the effort I was making was going to pay off in the long run . . . if only I could be patient enough to wait for it to happen.

I know full well that my recent plateau-busting weight loss may not last more than a few days, but I also know that as long as I keep living in a healthy way that I know is good for me, I am accomplishing my goals—no matter what the scale says.

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