When your body revolts: plateaus in body fat loss

Exercise. For many of us it is a love/hate relationship. We feel like we have to do it, but we don't really enjoy it. Why do we work so hard at something we don't always enjoy? Is it the promise of body fat lost, or that exercise high we feel? We operate under the assumption of a physical if/then equation. If I put in the time, I will see the results. In the beginning this is the case. You head to the gym, find the nearest treadmill and climb, on and 30 minutes later you are done. After that you hit the machines for your strength training.

Initially, this workout program works and since January you have lost 5-10 pounds. But in the last two weeks nothing has happened. Your body has turned on you and revolted! WHAT IS GOING ON?

Your body adapts

What has happened is that your body has adapted to what you have been doing, plain and simple. Your body is very efficient at conserving energy. The biggest thing a novice exerciser has going for them is their initial inefficiency at modes of exercise.

Translation: everything is new to your body and it has to work very hard at adjusting to and accomplishing 30 minutes on the treadmill or a set of lat pulldowns. Your body learns fast. Soon you will be able to walk on the treadmill or do your leg presses in your sleep because your body learned those movement patterns.

Say hello to your first "plateau." Lucky for you a plateau shouldn't have to overstay its welcome. It can be fleeting. The way to overcome or bypass a plateau is simple: do something else. Keep your body guessing. This can be accomplished if you remember the acute variables of an exercise program: frequency, intensity, time, type, and enjoyment.

Frequency relates to how many workout sessions. Intensity is how hard you are working out. Time relates to the length of time of your session. Type is the mode of exercise, for example, walking on the treadmill, using the Stairmaster, taking an aerobics class, etc.

Last, but definitely not least, enjoyment. Let's face it, you are much less likely to do something you hate. Pick modes of exercise that you enjoy. Take an exercise class, play tennis, go for a walk with a friend. Stick with activities you like the most.

Baseline assumptions

Now that you know the variables we are working with, we can talk about manipulating them. Let's first establish some baseline assumptions.

* First, I will assume that you have consulted with your doctor and that you are cleared to exercise. If you have any cardiovascular risk factors make sure that your doctor knows your planned exercise intensity.

* Second, if losing body fat is your goal, I am assuming that your caloric intake has stayed the same throughout your exercise progression. The basic rule of fat loss is the Law of Thermodynamics. Simply put, burn more calories than you take in and you will lose weight. An increase in caloric intake could be responsible for your plateau.

* Lastly, make sure that in addition to cardiovascular exercise you are strength training as well. I cannot emphasize this enough. You need to challenge your skeletal muscle in addition to your heart muscle.

Changing workouts

Now for the fun stuff! Changing up your workouts. It is important to remember that the rules for manipulating your workout variables apply to both strength training as well as cardiovascular exercise. Since most of us have very busy schedules and it is already difficult to squeeze in our workouts, the easiest change to make is with the type of exercise you are doing.

There is really no "best" exercise. The "best" exercise is the "new" exercise. For example, if you have been using the stationary bike for the last two months as your only mode of cardio, it is time to for something new -- try an elliptical trainer instead.

I suggest that you change modes every two to three weeks. This gives your body enough time to learn the movement pattern but not enough time to overly adapt to the new skill. After two to three weeks, switch again. Perhaps try running or an aerobics class.

Adjust intensity

The next variable to adjust is intensity. When you switch to a new mode of exercise, aim for an intensity of about 50-60 percent of your max heart rate (if you can). Ask a personal trainer for help in figuring out your intensity (based on heart rate) if you don't know how to do it.

The reason that you are starting out at a relatively low intensity is that you are doing something new. You might be surprised at how challenging new modes can be. After one week at 50-60 percent, move up to 60-70 percent intensity, and then 70-80 percent, if you can do this safely. Higher intensity exercise means more calories burned after you are done.

For the average person, a frequency of 3-5 times a week is enough exercise. You should always have at least one day a week off so that your body can rest and recover. How long should you exercise? Twenty to sixty minutes a day should do it, especially if you are adjusting your mode and intensity appropriately.

Enjoy your workout

Remember what the last variable is? ENJOYMENT! With so many forms of activity out there you should not have to trudge through your workout. Think outside the box. Maybe taking a water aerobics class is for you, or tai chi, or even taking the dog for a run.

Exercise does not only occur in the gym. What did people do 50 years ago? Anything that elevates your heart rate and challenges your muscles will provide a training stimulus for your body to overcome.

Watching your food intake and changing up your exercise routine should get you past that plateau and you will hopefully enjoy the process. Stay fit and have fun!

Bob Bozarth is a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He is also the owner of Move Forward Fitness. He can be reached at: bob@move forwardfitness.net.[[In-content Ad]]