Plateaus and Physical Activity

Increasing physical activity can help break through a weight-loss plateau.
Plateaus and Physical Activity

Exercise Is a Plateau Breaker
Increasing physical activity can help break through a plateau. Exercise burns calories and may reduce the loss of lean muscle mass during weight loss.1 Aerobic exercise, like brisk walking and biking, burns calories, and resistance exercise builds lean muscle which increases energy expenditure and helps boost metabolism. 2

Fluid retention, which may result from high sodium consumption or premenstrual bloating, can contribute to a plateau. Additionally, research suggests that obesity increases fluid volume and the imbalance in fluid regulation that accompanies obesity does not normalize after weight loss.3 Still, fluid balance varies considerably among individuals. It's been reported that drinking more water and increasing exercise reduce fluid retention and help people work through a plateau, but scientific evidence supporting this recommendation is lacking.

A Change of Pace
Over time, the body adapts to doing the same aerobic or strength training routine. As training progresses, the organs that transport oxygen, including the lungs, heart, muscles and blood vessels, work more efficiently and with less effort.4 For example, the lungs take in and release more air in a single breath, so there is less "huffing and puffing" during exertion; the heart pumps more blood in a single stroke, which lowers the heart rate; the blood gets diverted to muscles more efficiently. Consequently, less energy is expended during activity, which can slow weight loss or lead to a plateau.

Increasing the time spent doing an activity or the intensity of the activity can increase the calories burned during exercise. Changing a workout with a new activity or alternating between different activities can help prevent the muscles from becoming too accustomed to doing one type of exercise.

This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated December 17, 2011.

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1 Rippe JM, Hess S. The role of physical activity in the prevention and management of obesity. J Am Diet Assoc. 1998 Oct;98(10 Suppl 2):S31-8.

2 Hunter GR, Weinsier RL, Bamman MM, Larson DE. A role for high intensity exercise on energy balance and weight control. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1998 Jun;22(6):489-93.

3 Marken Lichtenbelt WD, Fogelholm M. Increased extracellular water compartment, relative to intracellular water compartment, after weight reduction. J Appl Physiol. 1999 Jul;87(1):294-8.

4 Wackers, FJ. Exercise. In: Zaret BL, Moser M, Cohen LS, eds. Yale University School of Medicine Heart Book. New York: Hearst Books; 1992:chap 7:87-88.