When it comes to living your healthiest life possible, it can be incredibly discouraging to feel like you’re really giving it your best possible effort: eating clean, exercising regularly, even keeping a food log and tracking calories burned – and still not getting the results you expect.
In my years of working with nutrition clients and taking a closer look at their behaviors, goals, and barriers, however, I’ve found that there’s almost always at least one not-so-evident reason behind the seemingly stubborn plateau – and it can take some searching to figure out what it is.
The answer is often found in the afterthoughts of our daily routines. It’s the little things that we’re doing – or not doing – throughout our day that may seem completely unrelated to our waistline or strength gains, but can be the reason – or reasons –we’re not seeing the results we want.
Here are 8 common pitfalls that might be holding you back from becoming your leanest, fittest self.
You don’t get enough sleep
Several fitness-inhibiting factors come into play when we’re chronically sleep deprived.
For starters, skimping on sleep means we tend to eat more. And it’s not just late-night snacking. Sleep deprivation causes a series of hormonal reactions that make us hungrier, crave more carbs, and not feel as satisfied after eating.
And even when our resolve is strong enough to dodge the mindless eating and extra calories, being sleep deprived can still make it harder to shed extra pounds – even when we successfully cut back on calories.
The solution: Make every effort possible to get enough sleep – most sleep experts say that the majority of us need about seven hours a night. Easier said than done, we know, but try to make it a priority. For some, even setting an alarm to remind ourselves to wind down the evening and get ready for bed can be beneficial. Unplug and minimize screen time before bedtime, and keep alcohol in check, since it can interfere with quality of sleep.
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Skimping on sleep can interfere with weight loss. Registered dietitian Molly Kimball has eight real-world strategies to help you get a better night’s sleep.
When we feel stressed, our bodies release hormones that increase appetite and make it easier for our bodies to store fat, particularly abdominal fat.
The term “stress eating” is incredibly vague, but when we look at the reasons most people “stress eat”, there are generally a few similarities:
We tend to crave carb-rich foods when we’re stressed. And carbs – particularly when combined with salt and fat (think pizza, chips, chocolate, or cookie dough) – activate certain areas of the brain that provide a temporary relief of negative emotions like anxiety or sadness.
And when we give into these cravings, “stress eating” also serves as a distraction from whatever negative thought or emotion is swirling within us.
So while we can’t eliminate stress from our lives, we can control our reactions to stress. And some of the very behaviors that we know to enhance our physical wellbeing: eating frequently through the day, limiting sugars and white carbs, exercising regularly and getting adequate sleep – can also work wonders to buffer our response to stressful situations.
Proper diet and exercise habits can beat stress
Real-world strategies to help understand — and beat — stress eating.
Your medicine cabinet
Certain medications can cause weight gain, or at least make it more difficult to lose extra pounds. Some of the most commonly prescribed medications that can cause weight issues include blood pressure medications, steroids, antidepressants (particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs including Celexa, Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft), anti-seizure medications and mood stabilizers like Tegretol, Neurontin, Depakote, Lyrica and Lithium, birth control pills and menopausal hormone replacement medications, and diabetes medications including insulin and some oral diabetes drugs.
If you suspect that any of these medications are contributing to weight concerns, it’s critical to talk with your physician before making any changes. Most of these medications aren’t “optional” – your physical and mental wellbeing can depend on them. But the potential for weight gain is something to be aware of, so that factors like diet and exercise can be modified accordingly.
You underestimate weekend splurges
You may think you’re just “taking weekends off,” butthose occasional weekend splurges aren’t so “occasional” when they’re happening Friday (or Thursday evening) through Sunday. A single splurge meal can easily have a day’s worth of calories – and a full “cheat day” can cram in the calorie equivalent of three-plus days.
To help keep weekends in check, consider stepping on the scale every Friday (or Thursday, if your weekends start early) and Monday morning. If that’s still not doing the trick, make sure you’re reining things in as much as possible during the week, making the trade-off for the extra “worth-it” indulgences – like bread, cocktail or dessert – on weekends.
You overestimate calories burned through exercise
Whether it’s an online calorie calculator or the digital readout on exercise equipment at the gym, the numbers are usually just an approximation – and some are more accurate than others.
Programs and gadgets that allow you to enter your age, height, weight, gender, and percent body fat, and then calculate calories burned based on the intensity of your workout as reflected by your heart rate, will be the most accurate.
But regardless of the accuracy of your system, don’t let the numbers dictate your appetite or your food intake. Just because the machine or online calculations say that you can consume “x amount” of calories and still lose body fat, if you’re just maintaining – or even gaining – it’s probably a good idea to listen to your body (not the math), and dial it back a bit.
You’re eating too much of a good thing
Even diet-friendly foods can pack on the pounds, if we consume too much of it. Protein bars, fruit smoothies, and nut mixes are among the common calorie culprits I see with clients. From almond butter to guacamole to hummus, these calorie-dense foods could be thwarting your best efforts at shedding extra pounds. Try keeping a food log for a few weeks – and consider measuring out some of your daily favorites, to see just how much you’re really getting. A great (free) online food tracker is My Fitness Pal, also available as a free smartphone app.
You’re exercising daily but…
You’re sitting the rest of the day, at your desk, in meetings, watching TV, in the car, eating, you name it. Just hitting the gym for an hour a day may not be enough – we need to look at how we’re spending the remaining 23 hours. Research shows that we burn about 30 percent fewer calories when we’re sitting than when we’re standing, plus sitting has a negative impact on our body’s sugar and fat metabolism.
Try walking around for two to three minutes for every half hour of sitting – or at least stand up or stretch a bit. Stand when you’re on the phone. Walk to talk with a coworker instead of calling or emailing. Stretch during commercials when you’re watching TV.
It doesn’t take a lot of effort or time – just a few minutes per hour – but it does require a bit of a shift in our mindset. Small breaks can add up to big changes.
The scale dictates your fitness success
Stepping on the scale can be an effective way to keep ourselves in check, helping us to take note if there’s a trend up or down over time. But the number on the scale doesn’t tell the full story of what those pounds are comprised of. If you’ve been combining strength training with cardio and a lower-carb, protein-rich diet, for example, you’re likely going to see an increase in muscle mass, along with a decrease in body fat. But the number on the scale may not budge – or it may even go up a bit.
It’s fine to use the scale as a gauge to help keep ourselves in check, particularly over the weekend or throughout the holidays. But keep in mind that it’s only that – a general estimate of where we are in terms of body fat, muscle mass, bone density, and hydration.
Instead, go by how your clothes fit. If your jeans are getting looser by the week, who cares what the scale says? You know that you’re losing body fat, and that’s all that matters.
Another option is to measure your percent body fat. Many gyms offer body fat analysis with a device like InBody, or a body fat assessment using skin-fold calipers. A few things to keep in mind: The accuracy of a skin-fold test depends on the skill of the tester, and results can vary from tester to tester, so try to have the same person measure you each time. And body fat results can vary with hydration status, sweat losses, and food intake, so it’s best to measure body fat around same time of the day, ideally pre-workout.
The bottom line
If any of these common pitfalls sound familiar, take small, strategic steps to overcome the behaviors and habits that are holding you back. You’ll find yourself on the path to a stronger, fitter you, without the frustration or self-sabotage.