You know the word. People whisper it furtively while tossing salt over their shoulder, knocking on wood and never letting Jon Gosselin cross their path. Men tear out their hair, women shriek and babies cry at its mere mention. It is the single most feared word in health and fitness circles.
As anyone who has ever lost weight, gained weight, lost muscle, built muscle and/or obsessively watched 24 knows, eventually all good things must come to an end. It the case of 24 that means Jack Bauer will be tortured but for the rest of us non-spy folks, it's a different kind of torture - the fitness plateau. Whether you are stuck at a certain weight or that you can't break through a specific performance barrier, the #1 question I get asked on this site (Why do people ask my advice? I'm as baffled as you are!) is "How do I break through a plateau?"
We've all been there. When you first start a new nutrition or exercise program you often see big results at the beginning. Then the excitement dies down and you settle in to moderate progress. But then - and it is inevitable - all progress ceases and try as you might you can't get any closer to your goal. You work harder, read more and annoy all your friends with your incessant whining and yet you are still stuck. You have plateaued.
I may not be an expert at plateau busting but I do know one thing: the psychological impact is immense. Tears, anger, bitterness, depression and even apathy are all common reactions. Nothing is more frustrating than feeling like you are doing everything right and having it not work. Not only are you stuck but you might even be backsliding a bit. It feels like all your hard work up to that point was for naught. What is the point of continuing to deny yourself the peanut butter brownies and dragging yourself out of bed to hit the gym before work when it isn't helping anyhow?
Some people fight plateaus for a few weeks before their body either kicks back into gear or they figure out an effective change. Others however ending up fighting it for much longer - months or even years. It can be downright crazy making. But rather than just giving up, I offer you these few tips:
1. Know you are not alone. Plateaus happen to all of us. Everyone will hit one at some point in their health journey. I know that doesn't help you lose those last 10 pounds but misery does love company (and, also, chocolate).
2. Remember how far you've come. Whether it's losing 10% of your body weight or finally being able to run a mile without stopping, every little bit helps. All your hard work was not in vain. You may not have accomplished everything you wanted (yet) but you certainly have accomplished something and in regards to your health any improvement is worthwhile.
3. Reexamine your goals. Perhaps you just aren't meant to lose those ten pounds. Are you healthy where you are at? Are you happy? Perhaps that is your body's way of telling you you're good. Or try changing your goal to a performance goal. Quix recently did this, after losing over 100 pounds she has been struggling with a plateau for some time now. Rather than chuck all her healthy habits in frustration, she has decided to give herself all of 2010 as a break from worrying about losing weight and is instead focusing on her new passion for running.
5. More is not always better.Especially when it comes to exercise. This is a lesson I'm still learning I'm afraid. This weekend I got an e-mail from a reader at her wit's end with a plateau. Like me, she had been consisting upping her exercise to be longer and more intense hoping it would fix the problem. And yet the opposite was happening. There is a sweet spot when it comes to exercise and we need to find it. Rest days are as important as workout days. (PS. This philosophy also applies to dieting! Cutting more calories is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to eat more!)
I know how heartbreaking a plateau can be. In fact, I'm at one now. Like I predicted, I lost most of the baby weight pretty quickly but am now stuck with The Last 10 Pounds - a battle I will be fighting for the foreseeable future. At the very least it will be until the Jelly Bean weans as my milkshake brings all the babies to the yard. And possibly longer. So I know how much a plateau sucks. It can make you question every healthy change you've made. It can make you think you are a failure or that the universe hates you. At the very least it is a severe annoyance. But don't let it drive you into a severe depression (that's what Judge Judy is for!) and give up your healthy lifestyle. Because you are worth taking good care of!
Since I know that we all think that everyone else has it easier, I've created a little plateau poll to (hopefully) prove my point: