Physical Fit: Um… Can Someone Please show me the Plateau Exit?

Well, it was bound to happen. I’m no stranger to the weight loss/fitness battle, and plateaus are just part of every journey towards better health. Since I experienced my inaugural physical fit, I have experienced pretty consistent progress… until just in the past couple of weeks. Whether it is the autumnal allergies that seem to be depriving me of oxygen (with the elephant that has taken up residence on my chest) or the apparent lack of coordination resulting in a couple of embarrassing injuries (twisted ankle from falling off my shoe and a strained boob… yes, strained boob! Go ahead and laugh),  I found myself slowing down quite literally, with an inability to perform to the same levels as I had achieved, and I just plain hurt. And though weight loss was not the entire goal of my fitness journey, it was part of the original plan. That stopped as well; came to a screeching halt.  So, it seems that I find myself on this butte, hoping that I can find my way out of the sluggish lack of progress.

As usual, with this type of situation, there is no lack of helpful and and sometimes less than helpful advice available. Aside from the widely conflicting explanations available on the internet itself, there are friends and family members with a plethora of contributions to the mix. I have heard them all at this point.

You are eating too much.

You aren’t eating enough.

You need to do more strength training.

You need to do more cardio.

Drink lemon water.

Fast for a day.

Are you stressed?

You name it, I’ve read it or heard it. There are so many offered options for “LOSING WEIGHT FAST!!!” and “Meal Plans for Fat Burning,” the mind boggles. Often these little gems involve a price tag. The truth is that I have been desperately seeking any and all information that might provide an alternative to my own sinking suspicion that I am fighting a losing battle against an aging metabolism (not to mention reaping the benefits of fighting rollercoaster weight issues my whole life). Well-meaning friends have tried to be supportive and helpful, offering their variety of experiences and winning solutions that have worked for them. I am grateful. Truly, I am. However, my recent influx of contradictory advisement has created a maelstrom of info-overload that threatens to breach the boundaries of my cranium. The bad part is that the frustration was starting to work its evil magic upon my mind and whisper the sweet nothings that say “See, it didn’t work. You should just give up. Here, have some chocolate.”

That is where the true negativity of plateaus get us. We are human. We like to be rewarded for our efforts and see that our hard work has achieved what we intended. When that doesn’t happen, it is very tempting to give up. The common sense philosophy would be, just power through it, and you should get right back on track. BUT… how long do you power through? What happens if nothing seems to jump start the process again?

My research and introspection have turned up the most likely culprits in my own situation:

1. Age – Whether I like it or not, I have reached an age where metabolism is not my friend.

2. Gender – Along with the age demographic, I’m female. Hearing me roar is all well and good, but as women, our bodies like to hold on to adipose tissue and our male counterparts on average have less resistance to offloading pounds.

3. Eating habits – Yes, I watch my caloric intake, but for increasing metabolism, I need to eat small meals more frequently. Therein is my problem. My work schedule sometimes results in forgetting to eat until it is time to go home in the evening. Not good. I’m starving my body and putting it into “starvation mode.” Not to mention that I am just starving and hangry and end up eating more than I should.

4. Stress – There has been a lot said about stress hormones, like cortisol. It is true, cortisol is increased when we are stressed. Cortisol is really helpful in stressful situations, allowing the body to break down glucose and activate it for use (fight or flight, you know). The problem is that when we maintain high levels of stress (and high levels of cortisol) over time, the hormone works against us and can break down muscle tissue and result in fat deposits (especially in the mid-section). We also end up craving a lot of simple carbohydrates and sugars. Bottom line? I’m stressed… for a number of different reasons, and it isn’t helping my little plateau issue.

5. Sleep – This goes with the stress issue. A recent discussion with a friend reminded me of some of the important functions of proper sleep. It isn’t just a matter of rest vs. fatigue. Sleep, or rather the deeper levels of said sleep, allow our brains and bodies to dump the excess cortisol and “reset” in order to start all over again for the next waking cycle. Lack of sufficient sleep or unhealthy sleep habits that disrupt the normal sleep cycle prevents the cortisol dump and we start out the next day at a higher cortisol level. Sleep is not my greatest skill either. I generally do not get enough of it (per recommended standards) and wake up several times per night.

So, those are my big five: The most likely reasons that I’m hitting the plateau, but I also wanted input from someone I consider very knowledgeable about fitness, because my plateau has not been solely about the scales. It has also been something I’m experiencing in my performance with cardiovascular training and strength training. My friend had some incredibly helpful ideas to contribute. First, he confirmed that not all beings are created equal, and that what works for some do not work for all… Thus, I need to pay attention to my own body. However, he did indicate that habit and getting into a regular pattern with our workouts is the enemy. He talked primarily about “muscle confusion” as the weapon to use on this enemy.

Our bodies are incredible machines. They adapt and learn. The human body is going for the most efficient use of the resources available. Engaging the same activities over and over provides just the opportunity for our body to adjust to save calories. So, we need to confuse the muscles. How do we do this? Change up the work out and don’t get into a rut of the same routine day after day. Using different types of activities helps, but focusing on different muscle systems on different days will keep the body guessing and prevent it from shutting down the metabolic systems for efficiency or developing a muscle memory that will limit the benefits of resistance/strength training.

So… thanks to helpful friends, review of high school biology, and a perusal of YouTube workout videos; I have my new strategy and game plan. I am going to check in with the fitness trainer at my gym to work on updating my initial plan. I am going to focus on muscle confusion by focusing on different muscle systems. I will be more consistent about my meditation practice and have at least 20 minutes per day, and I will attempt to get more consistent sleep (that may be the most difficult task). We’ll see how well it works and how faithfully I follow the plan. If any of you are feeling the plateau blues or experiencing lack of motivation for starting (or restarting) healthier habits, realize that we are not alone, and we can find the exit to get us off the plateau and back on track!

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