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Plateaus and Relapse: What to do when exercise does/doesn't work

This is a continuation from last week's blog: Taking the First 3 Steps to a Healthier, Happier Life

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Now that you've been going to the gym for a few weeks you may be wondering, "what's next"? You're starting to feel better, workouts are not quite as hard as they used to be, and your clothes are fitting looser, too! However, you might also be feeling stuck. The exciting newness of starting your fitness routine has worn off, and maybe the results aren't coming quite as fast as you initially expected them to... Sometimes if feels like all this hard work just isn't working out for you...

Graph that rises and then flattens
Fitness Plateau

Do not be alarmed! Feelings of complacency, boredom, and even failure sometimes creep in after the first few weeks of a new exercise program. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is hard work if it is something new for you, and you may be reaching what we call a Plateau, or maybe you've completely Relapsed back to your former lifestyle.

Plateaus in fitness occur when all forward progress towards your goals appears to stop. An example might be: In the first month of exercise Jane lost 20 pounds by watching her diet and exercising twice/week with a trainer. However, the next month she only lost 10 pounds, and this month it looks like she may only lose 2 pounds!

There are many physiological and psychological reasons for the existence of these plateaus, but they remain to be frustrating if looked at incorrectly. We will discuss more on fitness plateaus and how to handle them shortly.

The other outcome mentioned above was Relapse. This is when you no longer appear to be working towards your fitness goals, and have reverted back to your old habits. Relapse looks like: John started using his gym membership right away. He came three days/week and in the first month he felt much stronger than before he started. Then he got busy at work and started coming to the gym only one time/week, and now he rarely comes at all.

How to Handle Fitness Plateaus

Even though they can be extremely frustrating, reaching a Fitness Plateau actually means that your exercise routine has worked! One of the main goals with exercise is to get the body to adapt to stress. When we work out we are adding stress to the body. We may even be doing minor damage to our bodies systems and tissues, but the body will recover and become stronger and better able to handle the stress of exercise. Reaching a plateau indicates that the body has become well adapted to manage activities that were once strenuous and even damaging. Plateaus are positive, not negative experiences.

With that being said, plateaus often occur before we reach our goals. Weight loss may stop and strength gains may come slower, but this does not mean forward progress is no longer possible. Weight loss is a good example of how plateaus work.

When someone attempts to lose weight with diet and exercise they typically lose several pounds easily at the very beginning. Then the pounds become harder and harder to lose, and sometimes weight loss may seem to stop completely. This is okay! Usually this does not happen because the person has done anything wrong. Instead it means your body can handle more change. This change may be a more intense exercise regimen, cutting more junk out of the diet, or adding more general activity. If managed correctly, a plateau can be broken and linear progress can resume.

Weight loss is also a good example because the ultimate goal with losing weight is to reach a sustainable, final plateau (you cannot lose weight forever). This is also true for many fitness goals, and this final plateau is called Maintenance. We will discuss Maintenance in a blog next week.

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How to Bounce Back From a Relapse

Relapse is another possible outcome when starting out a fitness routine, or when changing any habit for that matter. Relapse is typically a negative experience, and is when progress does in fact stop and the individual reverts back to the actions/habits that were previously done. Relapse is not the end of the world, and it does not mean that the individual is a failure! Many reasons for relapse exist, and typically these reasons are out of the individuals control. Family emergencies, busy seasons at work, holidays, vacations, and illness or injury can all be culprits behind a relapse. A long plateau may also lead a person to relapse.

The best way to handle a relapse is to expect it. While you cannot predict when or what may cause you to halt your progress, you can be prepared for it. Avoid having an 'all or nothing mentality' when it comes to your goals, and if/when a relapse occurs treat it as a speed bump rather than a road block. Also, communicate what you are experiencing with your network of support. Be honest and avoid making excuses when you share with your gym, trainer or instructor that you're facing a few setbacks. These professionals will understand (we see relapse many times!) and will look forward to your return. They might have a few strategies around your relapse, too.

The journey towards a healthy lifestyle, and accomplishing your fitness goals is not a sprint. It's even longer than a marathon. It is a continuous trek towards improved wellness, and even seemingly major set backs are merely pot holes. We look forward to seeing you in the gym this week!

-Corey Evans, CSCS, CISSN

If you missed last weeks blog, you can read it here:

This blog series will end next week with How to Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

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