If You Want To Maintain Your Weight After Losing It, This One Thing Is Super Important

Photo: Ruslan Dashinsky

In 2016, a study came out indicating that contestants on the popular weight loss show The Biggest Loser had alarmingly slow metabolisms after losing a large amount of weight at a rapid pace. One man, for example, had to eat 800 fewer calories per day than the average man his size in order to maintain his weight.

But a new study provides some hope in the quest to truly understand how weight loss and maintenance actually work: When researchers caught up with Biggest Loser contestants six years and 30 weeks after their run on the show ended, they found that those who exercised an average of 80 minutes per day were able to maintain their weight more easily than those who didn't. While this is more exercise than the CDC recommends for longevity (150 minutes per week), there's no question that it's a step in the right direction.

Interestingly, the conversation surrounding fitness in recent years indicates that weight loss has practically nothing to do with regular movement and everything to do with food. So where does exercise fit into the weight loss puzzle?

Lifestyle habits and the positive feedback loop.

While nutrition and weight loss experts agree that weight loss is 80 percent nutrition and 20 percent exercise, when you're in a controlled environment where you're instructed to eat and move in a specific way, going out on your own and implementing this technique isn't easy. "The issue with The Biggest Loser is that the participants are taught how to diet and work out at 110 to 150 percent of their capacity," explains health and running coach Michelle Cady. "It's hard to live by the 80/20 rule when back in real life. The most important thing to do is incorporate healthy lifestyle habits that incorporate both food and fitness in a long-term plan that plays on this positive feedback loop: You move your body, you feel better, you eat better, you sleep better—wake up, repeat."

Women's health expert Dr. Anna Cabeca adds that while this study certainly proves that calorie-restricted diets are hard on the metabolism, all hope isn't lost. "Prolonged and daily exercise can help," she says. "Some other benefits to prolonged daily exercise are an increase in muscle mass, which speeds up the metabolism, as well as decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol."

Exercise and your mental health.

It's no secret that exercise has a positive impact on mental health, but according to Cady, being in a positive frame of mind is crucial for weight maintenance." When we move our bodies, whether it's a high-intensity spinning class or a quiet walk in the woods, our brains get a workout too," she explains. "Whether they need space to think or space to jam out to great music and escape the stresses of life: The endorphins, the time away from technology and a reminder of the brain-body connection is a great part of the 'after-burn' effects of exercise."

She adds that the happy feeling you get from exercising makes you less likely to indulge in foods that lack nutrients. "After a great training session at the gym or a brisk 60-minute walk outside, you're more motivated to make healthy food choices," she says. "The opposite is also true. Hungover? Bloated? Lethargic? You'll most likely skip exercise and order takeout. This is an example of a negative feedback loop."

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Remember to work your muscles.

Last but not least, Cady cautions that focusing solely on cardio isn't enough for long-term weight maintenance—you need to work your muscles, too. "If I were coaching a graduate of this program, I would make sure they were on a smart strength training program to build muscle," she says. "For every extra pound of lean muscle mass on your body, you burn an extra 50 calories a day. This is a great recipe to rev up your metabolism and build it back slowly, over time. I'd also encourage them not to overdo it on high-intensity cardio that overloads their nervous system or too many 'junk miles' of cardio—that slows down the metabolism."

Looking to get into ketosis in order to burn fat? Here's how to do it if you're vegan.

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