Congratulations, you lost that final 10 pounds and can fit into your skinniest pair of jeans again. But now comes what is often the hardest part—maintenance mode. How can you ensure those jeans remain in your wardrobe’s heavy rotation? Attention all dieters: Calorie counting alone doesn’t cut it. If you want to keep the weight off, pump some iron. According to a new study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the key to sustaining weight loss is resistance training.
The purpose of the study spearheaded by Gary R. Hunter, a leading professor in the university’s Department of Human Studies, was to determine the effects of aerobic and resistance training on AEE (activity-related energy expenditure) and ARTE (physical activity index) following weight loss. In layman’s terms, he set out to clear up the convoluted relationship between dieting, weight loss and exercise.
It is widely known that to lose weight, you have to consume fewer calories than your body burns. But, once you lose weight, your body doesn’t burn calories at the rate it did before because your decreased body mass is using less energy. Also, your NEAT (non-training physical activity energy expenditure) decreases after weight loss, meaning your body isn’t using up calories as much as it did before the weight loss. After dieting, aka starvation mode, your body has been tricked into thinking it needs to conserve energy.
“NEAT is a fancy word for how your body ‘exercises’ itself throughout the whole day, even while you are sedentary,” says Melissa Mellady, MS, Exercise Physiologist, Northwestern Executive Health at Northwestern Medical Group. “With weight training, you get long-term benefits of burning calories because you have more muscle mass to burn more calories, even while your body is resting. While with cardio, you are only burning calories in the moment.” Burn calories while you’re resting? Yes, please. But it turns out that’s not the only benefit you can get from resistance training—it seems to switch on an activity button in your brain.
Hunter and his team took 140 pre-menopausal woman, guided them through an 800-calorie-per-day diet, resulting in a 25-pound weight loss. As you might have guessed, after weight loss, the people who did cardio and resistance training maintained a higher NEAT. But what is more striking is that Hunter saw a relation between resistance training and increased activity and “economy” of activity throughout the day, even when they weren’t working out. As Hunter explains to LivingHealthy, the resistance trainers’ “participation in free-living physical activity significantly increased.”
Meanwhile, the non-exercisers’ day-to-day energy expenditure decreased. “These results suggest that resistance training is especially important for preventing decreases in energy expenditure and thus increased probability of weight regain following weight loss,” he says. They also suggest that building muscle tends to make it easier to be more active in everyday life. The women who did not exercise became even more sedentary than before losing the weight, and their ease of movement also worsened. Though the study was limited to women, Dr. Hunter tells us that he believes the results would be very similar for men.
Melissa Mellady is in agreement with the results of the study. “If someone loses weight and does it through diet alone, muscle and fat are both lost in the process,” she says. “What happens is, you have less muscle on your frame so you don’t need as many calories a day, and you will have to continue restricting those calories more and more if you wish to maintain your weight loss.” However, if you resistance train and put on muscle, according to Mellady, you will burn more calories–even as you’re fidgeting at your desk or sweeping the floor—and be able to keep the weight off.