You've cleaned up your diet, sweated off countless calories, and watched pounds melt away. But now the scale has come to a screeching halt. What gives?
It's an unfortunate law of weight loss: The last 10 pounds are harder to shed than the first 30. That's because the slimmer you become, the fewer calories you burn just going about your day, explains Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, founding director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and author of The Runner's Diet. For every pound you lose, your metabolism slows by up to 20 calories a day.
But we do have some good news: Easy tweaks to the good habits you've already established can push you past your plateau and help you reach your final weight loss goal.
Healthy Habit: Doing cardio 4 or 5 times a week
Speed Results: Do interval training 3 times a week
Cardio melts calories, but to keep seeing results, ramp up your intensity, too. Canadian researchers found that when women did 10 sets alternating a 4-minute burst of intense cycling followed by 2 minutes of easy pedaling, they burned up to 66% more fat during subsequent aerobic workouts. "Interval training can trigger a boost in metabolism so you burn more fat during low- and moderate-intensity activity, and even at rest," says Jason Talanian, PhD, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario and co-author of the study. You can apply this principle to any workout, whether you're power walking, jogging, or using an elliptical machine: Alternate between a moderate effort that makes you slightly breathless and a vigorous pace that makes speaking more than a couple of words difficult. In a 30-minute interval workout, you'll burn 20% more calories than if you maintained a steady pace — and you'll keep burning more fat afterward.
Healthy Habit: Walking as often as possible
Speed Results: Stand an extra hour a day
It's one of the dirtiest tricks your body can play: The more you exercise, the less you're inclined to stand, walk around, twiddle your thumbs, and generally burn calories during the 23 hours you're not working out. And small changes in standing versus sitting can add up. A study from Iowa State University found that obese women stood for 2 hours less than their lean counterparts — a simple habit researchers say could make a difference of 300 calories a day. Being aware of this potential pitfall can help you outsmart it, though. Standing for an hour more a day — at your desk, in the doctor's waiting room, or at your kids' soccer game — will burn 100 more calories than if you were sitting, says Darcy Johannsen, PhD, RD, a postdoctoral research associate. On the weekends, let your postworkout treat be window-shopping rather than movie watching to prevent a slump in calorie burn.
Healthy Habit: Wearing a pedometer
Speed Results: Set a step goal
Numerous studies show that wearing a pedometer can prompt you to be more active. To maximize your results, set goals and track your progress. People given a specific step goal increased their walking by about a mile a day, while those without a target didn't alter their habits, finds a review of 26 studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Start by shooting for an extra 2,000 steps a day, working up to 10,000.
Healthy Habit: Lifting weights
Speed Results: Switch to circuit training
Get a more time-efficient workout and burn a third more calories by doing strength and cardio in one shot. Cardio blasts calories immediately, while strength-training increases metabolism over time, so combining the two gives you the ultimate bang for your buck, says Prevention advisory board member Wayne Westcott, PhD. In a study led by Westcott, exercisers who did a 25-minute circuit routine (alternating 1 minute of weights with 1 minute of cycling) 3 times a week for 12 weeks trimmed their waistlines by 4%. At home, do 1 minute of jumping jacks or easy rope jumping between every strength exercise.
Healthy Habit: Cutting out unhealthy fats
Speed Results: Be a part-time vegetarian
Eating less meat is a proven way to lighten up on the scale. Research shows that vegetarians weigh an average 20% less than nonvegetarians. George Washington School of Medicine researchers found that women who followed a vegan diet for 14 weeks lost 2 1/2 times as much weight as those who limited fat intake. There's no need to go cold turkey — just eating less meat can make a difference. In a Brigham Young University study of 284 women, 53% of those who typically averaged about 10 ounces of meat a day were overweight, compared with 16% of those who ate less than 6 ounces. Plant-based foods are naturally low in calories and high in nutrients and satiating fiber, so you feel full without overdoing it, says Gabrielle M. Turner-McGrievy, RD. A cup of lentil soup, a small handful of nuts, or 1/4 cup of chickpeas tossed with whole-wheat pasta and veggies are all good protein-rich swaps. Not ready to nix meat altogether? Start by trying three vegetarian dinners a week for a month to allow your tastebuds to adjust. (Trust us, they will — in another weight loss study of new vegetarians versus low-fat dieters, a third more of the vegetarians had stuck with the diet a year later.)
Healthy Habit: Boxing up half your entree
Speed Results: Munch a pre-meal apple
An apple a day could keep the pounds away, suggest Pennsylvania State University researchers. Diners who had an apple 15 minutes before an all-you-can-eat pasta lunch ate 187 fewer calories than those who skipped the snack. At 65 calories per cup, the apple fills you up. "Starting a meal with a lower-calorie food leaves less room for high-calorie entrées, so you naturally eat less," says Julie Flood, PhD, a nutrition researcher formerly with Penn State. Try a veggie platter with hummus or a tossed salad for a similar effect.
Healthy Habit: Watching portion size
Speed Results: Be extra-vigilant on weekends
Shrinking portions is a no-brainer for weight loss, but when it comes to zapping stubborn pounds, lax weekend habits could cause the scale to stick. Even dieters on calorie-controlled plans average an extra 420 calories a weekend (starting Friday night), finds a Washington University School of Medicine study — enough to stall weight loss. To be a weekend calorie warrior, avoid temptation at home and out. Using smaller plates could instantly cue you to eat less, research shows. Away from home, carry a healthy, portable snack (like raw veggies) and steer clear of the food court.
Healthy Habit: Keeping a food diary
Speed Results: Track calories online
Dieters who jotted down what they ate lost twice as much weight as those who didn't keep a record, research shows. Stay extra-accountable by logging your meals and workouts for free at prevention.com/healthtrackers; you'll also get colorful side-by-side graphs of your calorie balance.