How to win at losing: What to do when your diet ends.

In the past few weeks several community and fitness center-based weight loss programs have ended. Since many diets and exercise programs last 12–15 weeks, this time of year marks the end of many programs. During this time many people have met personal weight loss goals through individual diets and “biggest loser” type programs. (I have written about competition-type weight loss programs in the past here and elsewhere.)

One of these is the Team Lean program at the Y. This year over 1,600 people from the Aiken and Augusta area participated in this 12-week program that included weekly education sessions and weigh-ins, a strong group dynamic, and monitoring to prevent rapid, unhealthy weight loss. The average participant lost almost 10% of their body weight, which is sufficient to promote improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.

This level of weight loss is common among people who participate in individual or group programs. But the real challenge is to maintain that weight loss after the program ends. Many people have successfully met their weight loss goal only to gain the weight back later. In fact, some people do it every year, losing and regaining the same 10 (or 20 or 30) pounds over and over.

Losing weight is challenging, to be sure. But maintaining weight loss can be even more challenging. Many people think that they are finished once their diet or weight loss program ends. The truth is that the end of the diet marks the beginning of the next phase: keeping the weight off. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

There is a practical reason why this happens. In order to lose weight and keep it off people need to learn a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how they eat as well as daily exercise. These lifestyle changes are difficult to make and can take months or years to fully adopt. In many cases, the weight loss program ends before people make lasting behavior changes and revert to their old habits.

While there are literally hundreds of diets and weight loss programs to choose from, “weight maintenance” programs are far less common. The good news is that following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you maintain your weight loss.

The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is a collection of information submitted by individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. These “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years, with some losing as much as 300 pounds! Best of all, they share the secrets of their success.

It turns out that they lost weight through a variety of diets and programs. Nearly half lost weight on their own and the other the other half followed of some type of program. Regardless, almost all of them increased their physical activity and modified their diet, suggesting that diet and exercise together are important for successful weight loss.

There is also variety in how NWCR members keep the weight off. Most report continuing to maintain a low-calorie, low-fat diet and doing high levels of activity. Almost 80% eat breakfast every day, 75% weigh themselves at least once a week, over 60% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week, and 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

Many people worry whether they are following the “best” diet or weight loss program. The specific diet may not be as important as what you do when it ends. Notice that the majority of successful losers still control what they eat and nearly all exercise each day. This suggests that going back to the way you ate before you lost weight is unrealistic. And if you aren’t exercising, at least walking, every day already, now is a good time to start.

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