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'Don’t ever give up': Long-term weight-loss maintainers share tips for success

Researchers asked thousands of people who had lost a substantial amount of weight and kept it off for more than a year to reveal their best advice.
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When asked about how their life has changed after slimming down, the weight-loss maintainers cited major improvements in confidence, pain, mobility, body image, and mental and physical health.Mike Harrington / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Losing weight is hard enough, but maintaining that slimmer figure can seem like mission impossible for many people.

Only about 20% of Americans who lose weight are able to keep it off long term, research has found. What’s their secret?

A recent study aimed to find out. Researchers asked thousands of people who had lost a substantial amount of weight and maintained it for more than a year to reveal their best tips.

The resulting paper — described as the first large-scale study to allow weight-loss maintainers to share what helped them succeed in their own words — was published last month in the journal Obesity.

“One of the most impressive findings was how weight-loss maintainers described perseverance in the face of setbacks,” said Suzanne Phelan, the lead author and a professor in the kinesiology and public health department at California Polytechnic State University, in a statement.

“Setbacks were not described as failures. They were seen as a temporary interruption in their path. Many weight-loss maintainers described getting back on track at the next meal or the next day.”

Whether you’re just starting your weight-loss journey or need some motivation to continue, the advice could help inspire you and keep you on track.

Meet the study participants

Researchers sought out and analyzed the written responses from more than 6,000 people in the WW International (formerly Weight Watchers) Success Registry — a database of WW members who are weight-loss maintainers.

On average, the study participants had lost about 53 pounds and maintained it for more than three years. The vast majority, 92%, were women.

They were asked open-ended questions such as, “What is one piece of advice that you would give to help someone succeed at long-term weight loss?” and “What is the single most important thing in your life that has changed as a result of weight loss?”

Some of their most striking answers are listed below.

Strategies for success

The two main pieces of advice for maintaining weight loss from people who have successfully done it were perseverance in the face of setbacks and continuing to track food intake, the study found.

Here is some of the advice they shared:

  • “Simply put one foot in front of the other and start and never stop. Just keep going. Know that if you persevere, you will get there. There will be peaks and valleys, plateaus, gains, holidays, bad times but just get up and do what works 80% to 90% of the time and you will get there. Do Not Stop. Never accept a small failure as a total defeat. If you truly want to accomplish and maintain weight loss, you can do it,” one participant wrote.
  • “Don’t EVER give up. You can have a bad day, a bad week, month, or even year, but you can always start where you are and change your own ending. I’ve had weeks where I’ve done everything right and still the scale didn’t reflect that hard work. But my body did. The way I felt did. You just have to keep going and keep working hard and it will pay off eventually,” added another.
  • “Go ahead and accept that this will be a lifetime of effort and attention. You wouldn’t expect to do laundry one time and be done. If you want to lose weight and maintain it, you have to keep doing the work. It’s still better than being in pain and unhappy all of the time,” one comment read.

When it came to tracking food intake, the weight-loss maintainers advised just paying attention to what’s on your plate rather than judging yourself.

  • “Maintain the habits that got you to goal, especially being aware of what you eat,” one participant wrote.
  • “You have to get up every day and make a choice to track and eat right,” another advised. “It is going to be difficult, and there will be days that you will fall, but you can get back up and keep moving forward.”
  • “Tracking was instrumental in helping me lose weight, 2+ years later I still track almost every day,” a participant added.

Another database of weight-loss maintainers, the National Weight Control Registry, found similar sentiments. Most of its members continued to eat a low calorie, low fat diet and 90% exercised for about one hour per day. Three-quarters weighed themselves at least once a week.

Staying motivated to stay slim

One major theme was looking back and fearing a return to the way things were. So the focus was on staying vigilant, maintaining the current weight and continuing to enjoy better health and quality of life.

  • “I don’t want to go back to hurting and feeling sick all the time,” a participant wrote.
  • “It’s harder being overweight than it is to work at a healthy lifestyle,” added another.

The ‘profound rewards’ of keeping weight off

There’s plenty to look forward to after all that effort.

When asked about how their life has changed after slimming down, the weight-loss maintainers cited major improvements in confidence, pain, mobility, body image, and mental and physical health.

  • “I had so much pain in my back and my knees that it was hard to get up out of bed and now that’s not even something that is much of a consideration anymore,” one person wrote.
  • “Losing the fear that defined me almost all my life. The fear of going to a restaurant and not knowing if I will fit in the seat. The fear of flying and knowing I will have to ask for the ‘elephant belt,” another added.

“My attitude has completely changed,” a participant wrote. “I am not trying to better for anyone other than myself. For the first time in 10 years, I am happy with who I am and where I am in life.”