Countdown to Maintenance

How to get ready for a lifetime of slimness

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on May 06, 2004
6 min read

After months of healthy eating and regular exercise, you're this close to getting into that pair of slim-fitting jeans. You're excited, proud, elated -- and, truth be told, a little nervous. After all your hard work, how can you make sure those pounds don't sneak back onto places they don't belong?

"Actually losing weight is the easy part, it's keeping it off that's hard," says James O. Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado.

Not what you want to hear, given that diets aren't exactly a piece of cake.

But dealing with difficulty is easier if you're ready for it. To help you prepare, nutrition and weight-control experts who spoke to WebMD -- along with a dieter who is keeping the pounds off -- offer some advice on transitioning to the maintenance phase of your weight-loss program.

Motivation and Support

First, the experts say, make sure you have a strong support system in place. That can mean family, friends, a doctor or nutritionist, online or real-life buddies who've been in your shoes, or anyone who is supportive and encouraging.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that once you've hit your goal, you'll no longer need help.

"Transitioning from the weight loss mode to the maintenance mode is the part of the dieting process that people usually don't get help with," says Hill.

And with little support available, some people simply try to stick to their weight-loss diet forever -- a recipe for failure. "Some people can do it for a long period, but you're doomed to fail if you try to stay on a 'diet' forever," Hill explains.

Also, you may need to re-examine what motivates you. Keep in mind that you will no longer have the payoff of seeing the scale move steadily downward. Instead, your motivation will be the rewards of a healthy lifestyle -- looking and feeling good, and knowing that you're doing good things for your health.

"The glory days might be over in that you're not seeing any significant changes in your body anymore," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Now it's down to the nuts and bolts, and making the lifestyle changes that will stick for life."

Exercise Is Essential

Speaking of lifestyle changes, this is no time to slack off from your exercise routine. Believe it or not, physical activity becomes even more important in the maintenance phase.

"Physical activity helps during weight loss, but by and large most of the loss is through calorie restriction," Hill says. After the diet is over, however, that changes.

"You have a smaller body and your metabolism goes down," says Hill. "Now you require less energy than before you started dieting, so unless you increase your physical activity, you have to food-restrict forever, which doesn't work. The people who succeed after the diet are the ones who make up for the drop in the metabolism by being more physically active."

So plan to gradually start making your workouts a little longer, a little more intense. And now that you've gotten a bit fitter, how about adding some new activities to your repertoire? You don't have to start running or take aerobics if that doesn't appeal -- try golf, tennis, hiking, yoga.

Get Set for Setbacks

Despite your best intentions, setbacks are going to happen. So it's important to have a plan to deal with them.

"If you're meeting your exercise goals and monitoring your weight, just adjust your food intake to counter any increase," says Hill. "You have to have a strategy if your weight goes up, and for most people cutting back a bit on portion size will do it."

And, he says, don't panic! Instead, take your slipup as an early-warning system and get it under control before it affects your success.

"The first thing is to have a serious talk to yourself," says Hill. '''Well, I've gained back five pounds, but I haven't gained back the whole 40 -- it's still worth salvaging.' Even if you gain back a little, you're still at a much better place than before. Your first step is to not gain back any more. Then later on, you can worry about recouping that five."

Ask yourself how the setback happened and how you can avoid it in the future.

"Go back to what worked with the original diet -- go back to what gave you the initial success," says Moores. "Then, take some time, by yourself or with a counselor, to find out how it happened, so you learn from the experience and pay attention to it so you can defuse it the next time."

And to make sure those small setbacks don't turn into large ones, weigh yourself regularly (weekly is often enough). Losing a couple of pounds is far less daunting than losing 10 or more.

Moores and Hill also say that it's important to:

  • Get in tune with yourself. "People who lose weight successfully and keep it off really know their bodies and are in tune with themselves," says Moores. "They know when they shouldn't be eating something, and when they've eaten too much. It's an inner ability to do it because it's important for you -- for your health, appearance, energy level, strength."
  • Find your balance. "Think energy balance -- keeping your weight off is matching your food intake to your energy expenditure," says Hill. "The more physical activity you do, the more you can eat. What we suggest is that you find an individual physical activity goal that allows you to maximize your physical activity in a way that's reasonable for your busy lifestyle."
  • Figure out what works for you. "For most people it is such an incredibly individual process and experience," says Moores. "[It takes] knowing and recognizing that one size doesn't fit everyone, and there will be peaks and valleys. This will help you along the way before, during, and after the diet."

The Success Story

That's what the professionals have to say, but what about someone who's been there?

That would be Carolyn Castel of Brookline, Mass., who weighed in at 185 at the end of her pregnancy in June 2002, at 5 feet tall. A year later, she still weighed 142.

"For five months I was on a hard-core diet, and I lost most of the weight at the beginning," says Castel. "Now, I weigh 118."

The bottom line, she says, is that maintenance takes even more work than weight loss.

"I think keeping it off is harder," says Castel. "I had such success losing the weight, that there may be more anxiety in keeping it off."

But Castel, who went from a size 12 to a size 6, has kept the weight off and feels confident that her success will be long-term.

Her secrets?

"Not overdoing it, and really thinking about what I want to eat," she says. "Perfect example: I stopped to get a cup of coffee the other day, and decided to get egg on a bagel -- and the bagel was huge. I took the top part off and ate only the bottom part.

"I wouldn't have done that before, but I asked myself if I really wanted all that, and I knew I didn't."

And while exercise wasn't a part of her game plan during the diet, it is now.

"Exercise didn't play a role in the weight loss, but now it really is an effort to tone, to help maintain, to lose a couple more pounds, and to help me have a cushion," says Castel.

As for those inevitable slipups, her advice is right in line with the experts' -- don't freak out.

"The weekends are the hardest -- I'm more tempted to cheat, so I might start Monday morning a pound or two higher than I want to be," says Castel. "You can't panic about it, though. You just pull back on what you eat for the next few days."