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Take Your Time

You may have been startled to read, as many were, the recent NY Times article chronicling the struggle 16 former “Biggest Loser” contestants faced once the cameras stopped rolling. For all of them it has been an uphill battle of weight gain despite their very best efforts, and for some, that weight gain has even surpassed what they lost while on the show.

But while the science of the study explaining metabolically why these contestants have been fighting such a losing battle may be news, many of us in the fitness community are not particularly surprised, since the results confirm what we’ve intuitively known for years: rapid, extreme weight loss is not healthy for the body, and is not sustainable long-term. If something sounds too good to be true, chances are it is.

But before you throw in the towel on your own weight loss goals, don’t! It’s important to keep in mind that the study referred directly to a group that took very extreme measures to lose massive amounts of weight in a short period of time:

  • Contestants exercised for 6+ hours per day (burning between 8,000-9,000 calories), were on a highly restrictive diet, and needed to take supplements to help them survive the grueling conditions.
  • We’ve known for years that the more you lose and gain weight, the slower your metabolism works. Since the contestants experienced such dramatic weight loss in such a short time frame, their metabolic rates were even more dramatically affected.

But what I personally found most surprising was their bodies’ inability to produce leptin, an essential hormone that controls hunger. Even years after the show, their bodies are still only producing up to half the leptin they should be. Not only are they no longer able to eat as much as the average person without gaining weight, but they are ravenous!

So what does this mean for the rest of us? This study reinforces good common sense: if you want lasting weight loss, the answer is to incorporate healthy habits that you know you can sustain long-term. Sure, dieting for a few weeks might get you fast results, but if you can’t see yourself maintaining those habits long-term, the moment you stop the weight comes back on.

Instead, ask yourself: what healthy habits can you sustain? Eating at home the majority of the week? Drinking lots of water? Making a point to find excuses to walk instead of ride, eating breakfast, choosing active vacations, growing vegetables? The success lies in the little details, not extreme changes…

And one more thing: though challenging your body with exercise is productive and healthy, there is a limit. More is not always better! When you over-exercise as these contestants did, your body can perceive this as stress, which combined with calorie deprivation, can be very traumatic to the body and slow your metabolic rate even more.

Sometimes, kindness is the best approach. 🙂