We’ve all had moments during a weight-loss effort when we start to lose momentum. At times, it can feel like our goal weight is so far away, and we may be tempted to give up. If weight-loss starts to seem like it’s a never-ending process, it may be time to incorporate some maintenance phases into your plan.
A maintenance phase is a period of time where you simply focus on maintaining your current weight and provides a much-needed physical and mental break from the intensity and focus of a fat-loss regimen.
“A lot of people go hard every day and they need some time where they don’t push themselves,” says Chris Freytag, a personal trainer, health coach and founder of Get Healthy U TV.
Think about it: Following a new diet and creating new exercise habits is hard work — both physically and emotionally. Your muscles, connective tissues and joints may be worn out from your new fitness routine, and if you’ve been cutting back on certain foods (or cutting them out altogether), your willpower is likely exhausted.
What’s more, certain times of the year tend to be busier than others (Think: back to school and holidays). Or, some weeks at work may get unusually hectic. If you already have your hands full, adhering to a weight-loss plan at the same time can feel overwhelming. Understandably, many people end up putting their weight-loss goal on hold and falling back into old, unhealthy habits.
If you know you’ll have a hard time following your weight-loss plan during one (or all) of these occasions, try turning them into a maintenance phase. Doing so can prevent the inevitable burnout and feelings of failure, which often causes people to completely abandon the healthy habits they worked so hard to create and makes getting back on track so much harder.
Freytag recommends looking at your year and identifying times when you either tend to get really busy, or you know you’ll want a break from the intensity of your weight-loss program. For example, you may decide to follow a program during the first few months of the year (January through March) and use spring break as an opportunity to relax a bit. Or, if you know it’s going to be too difficult to stay on track over the holidays, plan on that as a maintenance phase.
Of course, none of this is set in stone, and you may find you need a break sooner or later than planned.
“Fitness is a long-term thing,” Freytag says, “you don’t always have to be 12 weeks on, 12 weeks off.”
Just don’t confuse “maintenance” with “doing nothing.” You’ll still (hopefully) follow healthy eating habits and keep up a regular exercise routine during a maintenance phase — just pull back on the intensity a bit.
Freytag recommends setting a goal to meet the CDC guidelines for physical activity. This means doing a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio (i.e., walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio (i.e., jogging or running) and two full-body strength sessions per week. Make sure to add variety to your training so you don’t get bored.
Freytag also suggests incorporating flexibility training like yoga or Pilates into your routine during a maintenance phase. “A lot of people, when they’re trying to lose weight, go really hard on the cardio and strength training,” she says. Activities like yoga and Pilates can help your tissues recover from all that hard work so you can go back into your weight-loss phase feeling strong and refreshed.
As far as diet, Freytag advises following the 80/20 rule: Maintain your healthy eating habits 80% of the time, and allow yourself a little leeway 20% of the time. This could mean indulging in dessert when you go out for dinner on the weekend or having a drink with friends, “but it’s got to be gradual,” Freytag says. “Maintenance phase doesn’t mean you go off the rails.”
It’s also a good idea to find an accountability component, whether that means checking in with another person or finding an exercise class you can attend every week. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people can help you stay motivated and on track.