There’s nothing quite like the rush of seeing the number on the scale drop. When you’ve been pouring effort into living a healthy life, results are just the push you need to stick to your habits. But that weight-loss high is a major factor in that surprisingly bummed feeling you might get after you reach your goal weight. Shift into maintaining rather than actively shedding pounds doesn’t feel quite as validating, which can lead to weight creeping back on before you realize it. We asked Michelle Segar, Ph.D., behavior-change expert at the University of Michigan and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness what’s behind this frustrating phenomenon and how you can stop it in its tracks.
Imagine toiling away at your job every day knowing there was no raise or promotion in sight. It would be pretty hard to bring your A game all the time, right? Same goes for weight loss. “All behavior begins with wanting to change something," says Segar. "To keep doing that behavior, people need feedback that their efforts are effective and that they are being successful. So when you’re trying to lose weight and you see a drop, it's the feedback that you need to feel successful at that moment.”
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The feel-good rush that comes with reveling in the bagginess of your jeans is basically reinforcing that all your effort is worth it. “When you’ve been working hard on your body and you weigh yourself, hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine make you nervous and excited to see your results," says Matthew Goldfine, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York and New Jersey. "When you realize you’ve lost weight, dopamine and serotonin create a feeling of pleasure.” So when you don’t see that drop anymore, you lose out on that feel-good chemical reaction. Let’s be real: Even though your body benefits from healthy food and exercise, a healthy lifestyle can still be hard to stick to without evidence that it’s working. Suddenly, losing that proof can almost feel like going through withdrawal.
Even when you’ve hit your goal weight, a stall in weight loss can feel like any old dreaded plateau. It’s a fact of life for anyone on a weight loss journey: There comes a time when the needle on the scale refuses to budge, no matter how much effort you’re putting in. “When you hit plateaus, you don't feel like you are making strides toward the goal you set," says Segar. "Given that you need feedback to stay motivated to keep going, this can be demotivating." Cue things like emotional eating, slacking on workouts because you don’t see the point, and other weight-loss saboteurs.
That’s why you’ve got to rejigger your thought process around plateaus, especially when it’s basically a life-long plateau because you’ve reached your goal weight. “If instead, people were taught that plateaus are a real part of the process, to expect them, and not judge them as evidence against their progress, they would not become as disappointed,” says Segar.
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One way to stay engaged even when you’re at your goal weight is by switching things up with weekly challenges, says Segar. Your body and mind might get bored with always doing the same thing, so swap indoor cycling for barre, highlight a different vegetable to cook with each week, and generally keep your attention on ways you can progress without experiencing weight loss. Above all, allow yourself room for slip-ups. “Understand that this is a learning process, one big experiment," says Segar. "Be kind to yourself as you learn how to stick with this behavior, and overcome the challenges that arise."
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Luckily, you can reframe how you mentally approach weight loss to help banish these disappointed feelings. So much of weight loss is focused on the future, i.e. what you’ll look and feel like when you reach your goal weight. It’s time to change that. “To maintain motivation for any behavioral change, the key factor is to identify a concrete reason for doing it that is grounded in today, in feeling better and being more successful at what you do every day,” says Segar. So swap your focus on the future for thinking about how eating well and working out will keep you feeling amazing in the present.
To do that, Segar recommends sussing out what she calls a "goal clout” for each healthy habit: Identify a reason for sticking to the behavior, and make sure it’s relevant to your daily life. Emphasize the positive, like the endorphin rush you get after a workout, rather than negative, like beating yourself up for wanting a bite of cake. Between concentrating on the present and mixing things up with miniature goals that have nothing to do with weight, you’ll keep both your body and brain in tip-top shape.
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