Warm weather, skimpier clothing, and the prospect of wearing a bathing suit are often motivation enough to help get you into shape for the summer. But what happens when frolicking at the beach is only a memory? You can maintain your summer-svelte figure all winter long if you know what it takes to stay the course of weight maintenance.
It's so easy to fall back into bad habits – you eat a little more, exercise a little less, and before you know it, the weight creeps on. By the time you notice those extra pounds it's nearly holiday season, so you decide to wait until after Jan. 1 to try to lose weight. Sound familiar?
If you're tired of the annual weight-gain cycle, let this be the year you maintain your summer figure all year long. WebMD consulted four weight maintenance experts to learn what it takes to be a successful loser, once and for all.
Examine Your Habits
Successful maintainers don't make arbitrary distinctions between seasons or times of year, says Anne Fletcher, registered dietitian and author of the Thin for Life books.
"It is not about the time of year, but instead a way of thinking and a way of life that keeps the weight off," she says.
For the past 16 years, Fletcher has been researching and writing books on successful weight maintainers, whom she calls the "masters." When she asks them how they are different from other people who have lost weight and then regained it, they overwhelmingly say they could not go back to their old ways.
"They finally got to a point where they no longer wanted to look or feel the way they did, and this mindset became critical to establishing new and healthier behaviors for life," explains Fletcher.
Her advice: Look at the behaviors or habits that helped you lose weight. What were you able to do in the summer that helped you lose the weight? Be very specific about the helpful behaviors, and write them down in a journal to help you clearly define how you'll keep up the good work.
If, for example, you ate cherries instead of high-calorie desserts and started swimming laps when the weather turned warm, Fletcher suggests finding winter fruits that satisfy, and seeking out an indoor pool to continue the activity you enjoyed.
Don't underestimate the role of exercise in weight maintenance, the experts advise.
"The biggest mistake people make is not emphasizing physical activity enough," says John Foreyt, PhD, director of Baylor College of Medicine's behavioral research center. "It is the No. 1 predictor of successful weight maintenance."
To keep the weight off, you need to do something physical every day -- such as brisk walking -- for 60 minutes, Foreyt says.
And don't be intimidated by the 60-minute recommendation. It works just as well to exercise in shorter increments throughout the day.
"Start with exercise you can live with," suggests Hill, director of the Center of Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado. "Most people walk, but you may prefer other kinds of fitness.
"Walking is a baseline," he adds. "To get additional benefits, notch it up to moderate or vigorous aerobic activity and add in resistance training on occasion,"
The bottom line is that the longer and more vigorously you exercise, the better. And the benefits of regular activity go beyond weight control.
"Regular physical activity reduces stress, strengthens muscles and bones, energizes, reduces the risk of chronic disease, and makes you feel good," says Hill.
Weigh In Regularly
Weight can fluctuate on a daily basis. But if you are committed to weighing yourself regularly, you will know when you're gaining.
There's some controversy over just how frequently you should weigh yourself, but experts agree it's important to weigh in at least once a week.
Research suggests that regular weighing is the second most important behavior for maintaining weight loss (after exercise), Foreyt says. He recommends doing it every day.
"When it becomes a habit, it is an excellent tool for managing daily activities and food intake," he says.
Weighing regularly can be an excellent motivator. But if you become overly emotional and discouraged by the numbers on the scale, it can do more harm than good.
"Do what works best for you, but don't let the scale control you or make you crazy," says Pat Baird, RD, a member of the National Weight Control Registry who lost over 80 pounds and has kept it off for over a decade.
"I tell my clients to weigh in at least every couple days so when you see you are gaining weight, you can nip it in the bud immediately, before it becomes a problem," she says.
Figure out how frequently you need to weigh yourself to best guide your food choices and activity level, Fletcher advises. "And have a concrete plan on how you are going to handle it when you regain 3-5 pounds."
Celebrate the Benefits
Another secret to keeping weight off, experts say, is never to forget why you lost it in the first place.
"A great way to stay motivated is to keep a journal of the pros and cons of how you felt in mind, body, and spirit before the weight loss, and how you feel now at a healthier weight," says Fletcher.
This technique keeps the focus on the benefits of weight loss -- from improved health to more energy, from better sleep to a smaller clothing size.
"The 'masters' find ... vivid pictures in their minds of the pain or struggles they experienced when they were heavier -- such as the intimidation of not fitting into an airline seat -- and contrast that to how great their life is now," Fletcher says.
Baird has her clients reward themselves with tangible items that serve as constant reminders of their success.
"Buy yourself a paperweight or key chain or something that every time you see it, you feel a sense of accomplishment," she suggests.
3 Weight Control Strategies
When it comes to weight control, one size does not fit all. The experts who spoke to WebMD suggested three different diet strategies:
1. Make it personal.
"Over the years, I have become much more flexible about weight control guidelines," says Baird.
The best predictor of success is to do whatever works for you and let it become a part of your lifestyle -- as long as it is sensible, she says.
"A sensible plan allows you to enjoy your favorite foods and is not a starvation or crazy fad diet," Baird says. "Years ago, I would have never thought some dietary patterns could be successful, but my personal experience and failures, along with my clients', have taught me that sensible, personalized plans work best."
2. Balance protein, fats, and carbs.
Another school of thought from the research camp suggests a more defined pattern of nutrients. Having a little more protein and less fat can keep you feeling satisfied and thus help with weight control, some experts say.
"Our research has shown that the folks that control their weights best follow a pattern of 24% fat, 56% carbohydrates, and 20% protein," says Foreyt.
3. Focus on fitness and portion control.
A third recommendation focuses on exercise and portion control.
"Diet alone does not work, and if you make physical activity your primary focus, you can be more flexible with your food choices and portions," says Hill. "Members of the Registry who have successfully lost and maintained sizeable amounts of weight average 60 minutes of exercise a day, and that gives them more freedom and diet leeway."
It may be more important to evaluate how much you're eating than what you're eating, he says.
"When you start gaining weight, go back and look at your portion sizes," says Hill. "Just reducing portion sizes alone is usually all you need to do to get back on track."
It's important to expect slip-ups, and not to be too hard on yourself when they happen, the experts say. If you have a bad day, just get back on track as soon as you can, and do your best to learn from your mistakes.
Some experts suggest it is harder to maintain a weight loss than to lose it in the first place.
"The compliments and the excitement of losing weight are gone, yet the need to control your food intake and exercise daily is a never-ending commitment," says Foreyt.
His mantra is that it requires "eternal vigilance" to maintain weight.
"You must always be mindful of what you put into your mouth and stay vigilant in your commitment to healthy behaviors, so when you slip, you can rely on all these tools to help get you back on track," he says.