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Getting Over the Weight Plateau

A stalled weight loss plan may lead to better things.

You want results! You've been working out and eating healthfully, and you want to be rewarded when you step on the scale. But when the scale stops cooperating, it can be extremely frustrating, especially if you're doing all the right things, such as eating a diverse diet, watching your portion sizes, and exercising regularly.

If your weight loss has stalled, don't give into the temptation to quit -- or worse, to try more extreme measures that aren't good for your health, such as skipping meals or working out excessively. A weight plateau is no reason to give up on a healthy plan. In fact, a weight plateau could be a sign that you're ready for something more challenging or engaging. So stop, take a moment to regroup, shift the focus away from your weight for a while, and consider other ways you can measure your progress.

It's time to seek greater health rewards than the bathroom scale alone could ever give you.

The Trouble with Weight Measurement

It's easy to step onto the bathroom scale every day. However, the number it displays doesn't provide the type of information you really need to assess your fitness progress. Changes in your body composition, such as the ratio of your lean body weight -- including muscle, bone, organs, and fluids -- compared with your body fat weight, are not reflected on the bathroom scale.

Yet, some very positive shifts in your body composition may be occurring, thanks to your weight loss efforts, especially if you've been sticking to a well-rounded program of physical activity that includes strength training. Studies, like one published in Nutrition show that regular physical activity is likely to result in a loss of body fat weight and an increase in muscle weight. On the scale this may translate into higher numbers because muscle weighs more than fat. But physically you probably look better for a couple of reasons. One reason is that muscle is dense and takes up less room than fat, so you may be measurably smaller. Another reason is that your girth is likely being redistributed in a way that is more flattering -- away from your middle.

This shift in body composition is also making your body healthier overall, in ways that the scale does not measure. For example, the extra muscle is helping you burn more calories and is giving your body added strength to support your bones and joints.

Given all these points, the best way to see how your body is changing is not to weigh yourself, but to determine whether reductions in your body fat have occurred and what kind of redistribution of your body fat has taken place.

Take Other Measures

Assessing body composition isn't as easy as stepping on the scale. There are a variety of ways to do it, and some can get rather complicated. However, you can keep it simple by focusing on one or more of these three important measurements:

  1. Your body fat percentage
  2. Your waist-to-hip ratio
  3. Your body mass index (BMI)

Body Fat Percentage

What is it?
Body fat measurements calculate the amount of fat tissue in your body as a percentage of your total body weight.

How is it measured?
Each of the following methods will give you an estimate of your body fat percentage. The margins of error range from 2% to 6%. However, even if your chosen method is not the most accurate, you can still benefit from taking consistant measurements, because you will be able to compare the results over time to see if your numbers are decreasing.

Keep in mind that not all of these methods are widely available. Some, like the skin fold test, are used in many health clubs, whereas others are only available at sports medicine laboratories or universities. Ask your healthcare provider or local health club manager for referrals.

  • Hydrostatic -- or underwater -- weighing measures your weight in water as a way to determine your body's density. Your weight and the level of the water are recorded before and during submersion. It is considered one of the most accurate of all the body composition measures, but it is more expensive, more complicated, and more time consuming than other methods. Also, it is difficult to find testing facilities.
  • Air-displacement plethysmography, or the Bod Pod, uses air displacement to measure body fat and lean muscle mass. This method calculates body volume by monitoring pressure changes in a closed chamber (plethysmograph). This data, together with body weight, is then used to estimate body fat percentage. Studies have found this to be a reliable technique that can quickly and safely evaluate body composition in a wide range of subject types. It is a relatively new technique that is becoming more widely available.
  • Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) also has been shown to have a high degree of accuracy. Although it was originally developed to measure the density or thickness of your bones, it also measures body fat percentage, as well as where most of your fat is located. A machine passes over your body and takes measurements of your bone mass and soft tissue mass by sending a thin, invisible beam of low-dose x-rays through your bones.
  • Bioelectric impedance measures the body's resistance to electrical flow. The more body fat there is, the slower the electrical current will be. This method is based on the principle that lean tissue conducts an electrical impulse better than fatty tissue because fat contains almost no water. Water is a good conductor of electricity, whereas muscle is about 70% water. Bathroom scales that use this technology to measure body fat composition are commercially available. However, early reports suggest that these consumer products are fairly unreliable.
  • Anthropometry, or the skin fold test, measures fat by gently pinching several sites on the body (3-7 test sites are common) with calipers. The measurements are put into a formula that adjusts for factors such as gender, weight, and age. Although this is not the most accurate, it is the most readily available method for measuring body fat and is used most often at gyms and health clubs.

Why is measuring body fat important?
Measuring your body fat can help you better manage your routine and reveal whether any adjustments to your exercise and diet program are needed. For example, if you have been dieting, with little or no exercise, you may find that you've lost as much lean muscle tissue as fat. Increasing your physical activity and testing again after 4 to 6 weeks can help determine whether you've shifted back to a healthy rate of body fat loss and muscle gain.

Note: To get the most consistent measurements possible, always have the test done by the same person at the same time of day using the same method of measurement.

Guidelines:
The range for ideal body fat percentages is fairly wide because age and gender affect the number and, most importantly, because everyone's body is unique. Used in combination with body mass index (BMI) guidelines, body fat percentage can help assess disease risk. The following table presents healthy ranges of body fat percentage for adult men and women. Staying somewhere in the middle of these ranges should be your target.

Healthy Body Fat Percentages*
Age Women Men
20-39 21% to 32% 8% to 19%
40-59 23% to 33% 11% to 21%
60-79 24% to 35% 13% to 24%
*In addition, BMI should be between 18.5 and 24.9

Waist-Hip Ratio (WHR)

What is it?
Waist-hip ratio (WHR) is a tool to assess distribution of body fat. It looks at the relationship between the circumference measurements of your waist and hips and can be used as a measurement of your health.

How is it measured?
WHR is calculated by dividing your waist circumference by your hip circumference. To measure your waist circumference, place a nonstretchable tape measure snugly around your bare waist at its narrowest circumference between the rib cage and belly button, but don't squeeze. Exhale, and then measure your waist.

To measure your hip circumference, place a nonstretchable tape measure snugly around your hips/buttocks at their widest point. Calculate your WHR by dividing your waist measurement by your hip measurement.

You also may use an online WHR calculator from the University of Maryland.

Why is WHR important?
Your WHR is important because research suggests that if you are carrying excess fat around the waist, this abdominal -- or visceral -- fat makes you more likely to develop health problems, compared to people who carry fat mainly in their hips and thighs.

Excess visceral fat is linked to abnormalities, such as insulin resistance and an increase in LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, both of which are risk factors for heart disease. Visceral fat also can be a factor in the development of metabolic syndrome, another condition that is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Therefore, avoiding an expanding waistline is one way to reduce the risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Any decrease in waist circumference is a positive step toward healthier body fat distribution, regardless of your weight loss.

Guidelines:
Ideally, women should have a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.8 or less, and men should have a ratio of 0.95 or less.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

What is it?
Body mass index (BMI) measures the relationship (or ratio) of your weight to your height. It is an estimation of body composition based on the notion that your body weight should be proportional to your height.

How is it measured?
Your weight and height are measured. Then, your weight is converted to kilograms, and your height is converted to meters and then squared. Your BMI is calculated by dividing your body weight (in kilograms) by your height (in meters squared). The resulting number represents your BMI.

Why is BMI important?
BMI is used for risk assessment for the general population. Generally speaking, as a person's BMI increases, so does his or her risk of certain diseases. However, BMI does not distinguish between body fat and lean body mass and does not take into account location of body fat. For this reason, it's not an accurate measure of health for certain populations, such as people with higher than average muscle mass or people whose body composition may be skewed for other reasons.

Note: BMI is not an appropriate measure for athletes, children, pregnant women, or the elderly.

Guidelines:
In terms of Age Reduction®, a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is ideal for adults over 20 years old. A BMI over 25 may open the door to accelerated aging and indicate a need for increased physical activity and/or dietary modification.

Focus on the Bigger Picture

Getting baseline measurements and monitoring these numbers are great for motivational tools, but try not to get too hooked on these numbers, either. They are best used as benchmarks for progress and should not be the ultimate goal of your program. The things you do to lose weight or influence other kinds of numbers related to body size also have a positive impact on several important vital statistics, from your blood pressure and resting heart rate to your cholesterol and stress levels. It's the combined benefit of all of these factors, as well as many others, that provides the biggest payoff by reducing your chances of developing life-threatening conditions and improving your overall quality of life.

Here are a few other ways that you can track your progress and document the positive changes you've made for yourself.

  • Keep a journal -- Keep a daily log or journal of your fitness activities, your measurements, your food intake, your sleep habits, and, most importantly, your day-to-day feelings. A growing body of research suggests that moderate, regular exercise can enhance mental well-being by enhancing self-esteem, improving mood, reducing anxiety and stress, and improving sleep. Detail exactly what you are doing to keep fit and how easy or difficult certain activities are, taking special note of whether you were able to do physical activities with greater energy and ease.
  • Try on clothes -- How your clothes fit can be a great indication of how you're reshaping your body. For instance, if you replace 5 pounds of fat with 5 pounds of muscle, you will look leaner and will have lost inches in key areas because muscle is more dense than fat. The end result is that your clothes should generally hang looser in all the right spots.
  • Test your overall fitness -- Sign up for a fitness test at a local health club to measure improvements in muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility. By repeating tests at regular intervals, you can compare results from previous tests to assess any changes. Locate a club near you with the online tool from the American Council on Exercise.

When Everything Stalls

Plateaus are natural; they occur because your body constantly strives to maintain equilibrium. Similar to the way you may crave a new challenge upon mastering hobbies and pastimes, once your body adapts to a workout routine, you often need to change the length, intensity, frequency, and/or type of workout to get over a plateau.

Although sticking with your current program will help you maintain your fitness level, changing the type of exercise you're doing, varying the speed or intensity of the exercises you do, or cycling through different routines can bring additional benefits, such as improved cardiovascular fitness and increased muscle tone and flexibility.

Some specific programs led by a personal trainer, such as periodization -- which involves varying your training program at specific intervals -- may be another way to spice up the routine. Read more about this method.

Identify Other Possible Causes of Weight Plateau

There are some medical conditions that can cause you to gain weight or make weight loss harder than it normally would be. If you are trying to lose weight and failing, or if you are gaining weight for no apparent reason, check with your physician to rule out medical causes such as hypothyroidism, food sensitivities, blood sugar imbalance, or Cushing's syndrome. In addition, ask whether it may be a side effect of a prescription medication such as steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), diabetic medications, or antidepressants.

Also, if you are restricting calories too much or exercising excessively, your body will hoard calories and fat to prevent starvation. A good moderate plan should include no fewer than 1,200 calories per day for women and 1,500 calories per day for men.

"Get Over" the Weight Plateau

In school, if your only objective was to get high grades, you may not have appreciated the value of building a thorough understanding and knowledge of various topics. And just as a grade does not always reflect how much you've learned, the same holds true for using weight as a measure of health. The real value of good nutrition and fitness comes from lowering health risk factors, improving your overall well-being, and slowing the aging process, not just from losing weight. By shifting your focus away from your weight plateau and toward the many other benefits of good habits, you'll have the fuel you need to keep up your healthy lifestyle for years to come.

July, 2009