Try these scale-budging, expert-approved weight-loss strategies.
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Anyone with a long-term weight-loss goal knows how amazing it feels to see the number on the scale shrink—and how frustrating it is when that number gets stuck just 5 pounds from your target weight.
When you first set out to lose 15, 20, or even 30-plus pounds, the lifestyle changes you need to make are usually obvious (e.g., swapping out your go-to sugar-laden caffeine fix with a lower-calorie version, or upping your daily step total from 1,500 to the recommended 10,000), and the pounds may seem to fall off.
Unfortunately, the closer you get to your target weight, the more you need to pay attention to small, detailed changes, and the harder it is to keep those weight-loss results coming, says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., cofounder of SoHo Strength Lab and advisor to ProMix Nutrition. "Your body has a set [weight] range that it wants to function in, and as you get leaner, your body gets less inclined to lose the extra weight," he adds.
Not to mention, once you lose weight, your basal metabolic rate, or the number of calories your body burns at rest, will decrease. In other words, a lighter "you" will need fewer calories per day to perform basic functions—like breathing—than you did when you were heavier, says Michael Rebold, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., department chair of the integrative exercise program and assistant professor of integrative exercise science at Hiram College in Ohio.
As you get fitter, old activities that once burned crazy amounts of calories suddenly don't offer the same bang for your buck. For example, if walking a mile is no longer as challenging as it was when you were 30 pounds heavier, you need to work harder or longer just to reap the same calorie burn, Matheny says. (Here's the best workout to overcome a weight-loss plateau, according to science.)
All of this might sound depressing, but keep in mind: You've already done the bulk of the work making your weight-loss goal a reality. To close that 5-pound gap, all you really need is one of these small, expert-approved strategies.
Cardio is great; it may have even helped you get this far in your weight-loss journey. (Congrats!) But if you keep bypassing the weight rack in favor of the treadmill or elliptical, you'll miss out on the unique weight-loss benefits you can only get from lifting iron.
"Strength training builds lean muscle, which will bring your metabolism up," Matheny says.
Unlike fat, muscle is metabolically active tissue. This means that, pound-per-pound, muscle burns more calories at rest than fat does (approximately seven to 10 calories per pound of muscle tissue per day, compared to two to three calories per pound of fat per day, Rebold says). Pack more muscle onto your frame, and you'll churn through more calories at rest.
Just keep in mind: Adding muscle won't turn you into a calorie-burning machine, so don't think your growing biceps will be enough to fend off weight gain from a bad diet. However, when you're trying to nudge the scale just a tiny bit more, having a little extra muscle can make all the difference. And if the number on the scale still doesn't go down, don't despair. Replacing fat with muscle may cause your weight to stay the same—which in this case, is a good thing!
Do this: Matheny recommends strength training at least three times per week for anywhere between 20 and 60 minutes. Focus on compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups, and lunges, as these moves recruit multiple muscle groups for maximum calorie burn. Focus on muscle growth (also known as muscle hypertrophy) by sticking to sets of six to 12 reps with a moderate weight, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.
Keep a Food Journal
If you're stuck just 5 pounds from your goal weight, try logging your food for a few days; what you discover just might surprise you.
"A lot of people don't realize the occasional nibble here, nibble there can really add up," says Keri Gans, R.D.N., owner of Keri Gans Nutrition, Shape advisory board member, and author of The Small Change Diet.
For example, you may think you're only eating a few almonds here and there throughout the day. But once you start writing down your food intake, you may realize you're actually grabbing a heaping handful every single time you pass the dish. So instead of eating a sensible one-ounce serving (approximately 160 calories), you're packing away an extra two or three hundred hidden calories per day. (This little trick will show you why you're not losing weight.)
There are plenty of food tracking apps out there (including MyFitnessPal and CalorieKing), but Gans actually recommends clients go old-school and log their food with pen and paper. She offers a couple of reasons to go low-tech:
First, food tracking apps also count calories. This level of detail may be helpful for some people, but Gans prefers that her clients become aware of healthy portion sizes, as opposed to exact calorie amounts.
And second, jotting down your meals by hand gives you the opportunity to take note of other factors, including mood, environment, and feelings. For example, if you notice that you always opt for quick, greasy take-out lunch on days when you have high-stress work meetings, you can use this info to become proactive about packing a healthier option on those days. "Food journaling can be like playing detective," Gans says.
Do this: Grab a pen and a notebook (or, download an app if preferred) and start logging everything you eat in a day. Keep going until the scale budges or you notice you're becoming more aware of your food habits, Gans says. You may find that you only need to record your meals for a few days to notice effects. Or it may take a few weeks to finally see an impact.
Do Less HIIT
It may sound counterintuitive, but if you're struggling to lose those last 5 pounds, the answer may be to do less, not more—especially when it comes to high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Yes, HIIT offers fat-incinerating benefits: one International Journal of Obesity study shows women who performed 20-minute HIIT sessions lost as much as 7.3 pounds by the end of 15 weeks, while women who performed 40 minutes of steady-state aerobic exercise actually gained as much as 2.7 pounds during the same time period.
But according to Matheny, it's not uncommon for exercisers chasing a weight-loss goal to get too HIIT-happy. And when done in excess, HIIT can cause some unpleasant side effects, including excessive soreness and fatigue, trouble sleeping, and lack of motivation—none of which helps you lose those last 5 pounds. In addition, HIIT elevates levels of cortisol in your body (also known as the "stress hormone"), Matheny says. Over time, elevated cortisol levels can raise your blood sugar levels and encourage your body to hold on to the fat stores you're trying to get rid of.
Do this: If you notice you're constantly sore, tired, struggling to fall asleep, and/or dreading your workouts, swap out at least one of your HIIT sessions with longer walk or jog (think: at least 45 minutes). On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 corresponds to no effort and 10 refers to an all-out sprint, aim for an exertion level of 6. "You should be able to have a conversation with somebody without gasping for breath," Matheny says. (Related: Should You Be Swapping HIIT Training for LISS Workouts?)
Don't Skip Your Post-Workout Meal
If you don't refuel, you may actually sabotage your weight-loss efforts in the long run, helping those last 5 pounds stick around awhile.
Granted, you might not feel hungry immediately following your workout. Intense exercise sessions (performed at or above 75 percent of maximum heart rate) or long workouts (performed for 90 minutes or more) may suppress appetite for up to 90 minutes after the workout is complete, according to a small pilot study recently published in the Journal of Endocrinology.
That said, eating after your workouts is really important.
"When you eat, your body repairs itself," Matheny says. More specifically, eating a protein-packed snack that includes a modest amount of carbs will provide you with the nutrients needed to repair your muscles and replenish glycogen stores, the storage form of carbohydrates. If you skimp on your recovery snack, your body isn't going to repair or add lean muscle, and your next workout won't be as effective, Matheny says.
Do this: For your post-workout snack, shoot for 20 to 25 grams of protein and less than 250 calories. And if your workout lasts less than 30 minutes, limit carbs to less than 10 grams. For workouts lasting an hour or longer, keep carbs under 25 grams. A couple of great options include one cup of Greek yogurt or a slice of toast with eggs. (Here are more vegetarian pre- and post-workout snack ideas.)
Make Sleep a Prio
Regularly skimping on shut-eye does more than turn you into a Grade-A grouch; it seriously messes with your hormones by causing levels of ghrelin (your "hunger hormone") to spike, and levels of leptin (your "satiety hormone") to dip, which can make losing those last 5 pounds next to impossible.
"People who don't get enough sleep are more likely to crave fat and sweets, have a slower metabolism and increased insulin resistance, and to eat more calories because they're spending more time awake," says Jonathan Valdez, owner of Genki Nutrition, food director of Guild Magazine, and media rep for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
For example, people who slept only four hours per night for five nights ate 300 calories more per day than participants who slept nine hours a night during the same time period, according to a small study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. What's worse, the bulk of those added calories came from sources of saturated fat.
Do this: Aim to nab seven to nine hours of sleep per night, as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. To make drifting off easier, create a relaxing bedtime ritual that excludes email and electronics. Following a nightly routine will help send the message to your brain that it's time for your body to power down. (Promote better sleep with these five strategies.)
Final Thoughts: Do You Really Need to Lose Those Last 5 Pounds?
If you've tried everything you can possibly think of and you still can't knock off those last few stubborn pounds, consider whether you're chasing after an unrealistic number. At the end of the day, the really important numbers to pay attention to are your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. So long as those are at healthy levels, there's no reason to stress over another 5 pounds, especially if you're eating healthy, Gans says. Not to mention, if you've added strength training to your exercise routine, all that newly added muscle may cause your weight to stay the same—or even go up.
And if dropping a final 5 pounds means cutting out entire food groups and obsessively tracking every calorie, it may be time to draw the line. "After all, life is too short not to enjoy a French fry," Gans adds.