Losing weight seems like a pretty easy concept when you think about it. You eat less, exercise more and the weight is supposed to come off. The fact is, I’ll bet you already know how to lose weight. If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably lost weight many, many times…so many times, you’re an old pro at it. You may even have your ‘go-to’ diet or exercise program, powering up your old Weight Watcher’s account or starting back to the gym whenever the weight starts to creep up.
But what happens when you go off that diet or stop that workout program? You gain it right back, sometimes with a few extra pounds thrown in.
So what you really want to know isn’t how to lose weight, but how to lose it and then make it stay lost…forever. There’s no real secret to losing weight. The real challenge is making it permanent.
By the Numbers
Weight loss is such a complex process, the only way we can really wrap our heads around it is to drill it down into a bunch of numbers. You already know these numbers, probably as well as any weight loss expert: You know that to lose one pound of fat, you have to burn about 3500 calories over and above what you already burn each day. You don’t really want to burn 3500 calories in one day, but rather to cut that down into daily calorie deficits, say cutting 500 calories a day with a combination of diet and exercise.
To go by the numbers, you have to go through a few calculations:
- Calculate your BMR (basal metabolic rate). You have some options for how you can do this:
- Option 1: Do the Math – Use this revised Harris-Benedict formula to get an estimate of your BMR:
- Male: (88.4 + 13.4 x weight in kg) + (4.8 x height in cm) – (5.68 x age)
Female: (447.6 + 9.25 x weight in kg) + (3.10 x height in cm) – (4.33 x age)
- Male: (88.4 + 13.4 x weight in kg) + (4.8 x height in cm) – (5.68 x age)
- Option 2: Use an online calculator like the one below. It’ll do all of the math, including calculating your daily energy expenditure and thermic effect of food so that you don’t have to.
Your BMR is the most important part of the weight loss calculations because it tells you how many calories your body needs to maintain bodily functions such as breathing and digesting and well, existing. This is the minimum number of calories you need to eat each day. Important Note: No calculator is 100% accurate and these formulas don’t take into account things like bodyfat, frame size or other factors that can make a difference in your BMR. Learn more about your metabolism.
- Calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). For this you multiply your activity level with your BMR :
-Sedentary…………….BMR x 1.2 (little exercise)
-Lightly active………..BMR x 1.375 (light exercise)
-Moderately active…..BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise)
-Very active………….BMR x 1.725 (hard exercise)
-Extremely active……BMR x 1.9 (hard exercise daily)
- Activity Multiplier:
- Keep track of how many calories you eat. For at least a week, enter and track your calories online (e.g., with FitWatch) or use a food journal to write down what you eat and drink each day. Be as accurate as possible, measuring when you need to or looking up nutritional information for restaurants, if you eat out. After a week, add your totals for each day and average them out to get a general idea of how many calories you eat each day.
- Calculate the thermic effect of food (TEF) – Multiply your total food calories by 10%. The reason? Your body actually burns calories to digest food, which is a nice, passive way to burn more calories.
- Compare your numbers. Take your BMR number x your activity multiplier. Compare that number to your food calories, minus your TEF. If you’re eating more, you’ll gain weight. If you’re eating less, you’ll lose weight…at least, theoretically. Caution: Remember, these are only estimates and some experts guess that these numbers could be off by as much as 1,000 calories. One reason for the error is in the difficulty in estimating our daily activity levels. Many of us may say we’re ‘moderately active’ when we may actually be ‘lightly active.’ And, of course, our activity levels can change from one day to the next.
Mary is 46 years old, is 5’4″ and weighs 165 pounds. These are her stats:
BMR = 1465
Activity Level = Moderately Active (1.55)
Food Calories = 2700
TEF Calories = 270
Mary’s BMR/Activity level is 2270. She’s eating about 2430 calories a day (less her TEF). That means Mary is eating about 160 calories more than what her body needs, which could eventually lead to weight gain.
Is There an Easier Way?
There isn’t an easier way to lose weight, but there is an easier way to figure out how to lose weight if these formulas are a little too much for you. The absolute simplest involves one thing: Make small changes in your diet and activity levels every single day. With this method, you don’t always know how many calories you’re cutting, or how many calories you’re burning. But, if you’re doing more movement than before and you know you’re eating less than before, you are creating a calorie deficit and the weight loss will follow, even if it’s slow. Some ideas:
Instead of… Do this… An afternoon Coke Drink a glass of water. (calories saved: 97) An Egg McMuffin Eat a small whole wheat bagel +1 Tbsp of peanut butter (calories saved: 185) Using your break to eat chocolate Walk up and down a flight of stairs for 10 minutes (calories burned: 100) Hitting the snooze button Get up 10 minutes early and go for a brisk walk (calories burned: 100) Watching TV after work Do 10 minutes of yoga (calories burned: 50)
Total Calories Saved: 532 (based on a 140-pound person)
Beyond Your Diet
There’s no doubt that your diet is probably the single most important aspect of a weight loss program. Why? Think about it for a moment; you can easily eat just one wrong thing and end up eating more calories than you’re burning, even if you exercise.
We don’t say this to make you paranoid about every bite you take, but it’s important to understand how this energy balance works so you can get it right. Say you’ve been eating great all day, tree bark and lemon wedges, water instead of Coke, etc. You’ve been walking all day and you even finish a workout that burns another extra 350 calories. You rock.
Then you go to dinner and have two margaritas and a glass of wine along with dinner. Your drinks alone are worth up to 450 calories and, right there, you’ve canceled out your workout.
That doesn’t mean you have to starve yourself or that you can’t have a margarita from time to time. However, if you really want to lose weight, you have to commit to more exercise and less tequila.
Exercise is an important weight loss tool, but how much you need varies from person to person. The guidelines recommend at least 250 minutes per week, which comes out to about 50 minutes, 5 days a week. However, it’s important that you choose the right workouts—workouts you enjoy and workouts that take you into your target heart rate zone so you can burn more calories. There are some workouts that are better than others for burning calories including:
- Interval Training
- Basic Circuit Training
- High Intensity Interval Training
- Tabata Training
- Metabolic Conditioning
The caveat is that these workouts are very advanced and done at a high intensity. If you’re a beginner, even if you used to workout like a crazy person, start with a beginner program to avoid injuries, burnout, and misery. It takes time to build the strength and endurance for high intensity exercise.
Now How Do You Keep That Weight Off?
The real key to the weight loss process has nothing to do with actually losing the weight. Most of us can easily figure out how to cut enough calories to do that, right? What we can’t figure out is how to keep that weight off.
There are a number of reasons we regain weight: following unrealistic diets or exercise programs we can’t sustain, for example, or completely giving up on healthy eating and exercise during the holidays. We also tend to think that there’s an end to all of this healthy lifestyle stuff. That, as soon as you lose the weight, you can finally enter the ‘maintenance’ phase of your program which, for many of us, means we don’t have to exercise as much and we can finally stop monitoring every single bite we take.
Unfortunately, there is no maintenance phase to the weight loss process. To keep the weight off, you have to do at least as much exercise as you did to lose the weight and, frankly, you may have to do more. The more weight you lose, the less energy your body expends during exercise and the more you have to do to get the same results.
So, keeping the weight off has more to do with how you start the weight loss process than how you finish it. To that end, you have to set yourself up for success and to do that you’ll need to find a few things:
- A Way of Eating You Can Live With for the Long Term. Notice we didn’t say ‘diet,’ simply because most of us can’t follow a diet for more than a few weeks at a time. Diets, by their very definition, involve restrictions and while we can usually handle a certain amount of restriction for the short-term, in the long-term, we rebel. Sometimes, violently. You may find more success by moving away from the dieting mentality and more towards a way of eating. Or maybe it’s time to ditch dieting altogether.
- An Exercise Program You Can Live With for the Long Term. There are so many ways to exercise these days, almost anyone can find something. Exercise at home, at the gym, using videos, using free online workouts, using email exercise programs, working out with a friend, with a trainer, with your dog, on your bike, with your Wii…the possibilities are endless. So, where do you start? First, you start with something simple like a walking program, or whatever sounds doable to you. Then you do the following:
- Don’t give up just because you hate something the first time you try it. Everything will feel hard at first, so give yourself a chance to practice a few times before deciding whether something works or not. Try to find workouts that fit your personality.
- Start easy to avoid burnout and injury. Think of the first few weeks of exercise as a learning phase for both your body and mind. This isn’t the time to go all out…you can do that later when you’ve built some strength and endurance.
- Don’t be surprised if your weight doesn’t change all that much during the first few weeks or months. That’s normal, so don’t stop working out just because the scale doesn’t change.
- Forget about weight loss. It sounds crazy, but forgetting about weight loss and focusing on being healthy can actually lead to greater weight loss success.
- Flexibility. The same workout program won’t always work from week to week, maybe even from day to day. Recognizing that is the number one tool for consistent exercise. It’s always better to do something rather than nothing.
- Forgiveness. Sometimes you’ll screw up. You’ll quit, skip your workouts, eat too much, hurt yourself…it’s going to happen no matter how committed you are, no matter how well you plan things out and no matter how hard you try. We’re just imperfect creatures that way. It’s essential that you recognize these little failures as assets to your overall success. When you can do that, you can forgive yourself and then you can get right back to it.
Keeping the weight off would be so much easier if there were just one thing you had to do. And, depending on how you look at it, there is just one thing to do to keep the weight off and that is: Keep your calories balanced. It’s that balancing act that requires constant maintenance because it changes from day to day. Getting your mental strategies in order is just as important as the physical strategies and it may help to think about it like this: At its heart, weight loss will happen if you just learn how to take care of yourself. Once you start doing that, you may be surprised that you don’t care as much about the scale anymore.
Thanks for your feedback!
- Donnelly, J.; Blair, S.; Jakicic, J.; et al. Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight Loss and Prevention of Weight Regain for Adults. Med & Sci in Sports & Ex: Feb, 2009. Vol 41, Issue 2.
- Kelly, Mark. “Resting Metabolic Rate: Best Ways to Measure it – And Raise it, Too.” ACE.