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Why can’t I lose weight?

One of the most difficult things as a personal trainer is when a client seems to be doing all the right things but still struggles to lose weight. It can be deflating for both client and trainer. They are eating healthily, controlling their sugar intake and have a perfectly calculated calorie deficit. Their macros are bang on, their meal timing is right, they are working out…but their weight remains static. Annoying to say the least! The reason for this is most likely to be a biological regulatory system called homeostasis.

Homeostasis is used to describe a system that is in equilibrium – at balance or in harmony with itself. It is not going one direction or the other. Most of the time, this is a good thing. Maintaining the ‘status quo’ can be beneficial if you are talking about maintaining blood pressure, body temperature, or blood glucose levels sufficient for you to do your daily activities. Sometimes, however, homeostasis is not a good thing. Sometimes the body can develop a homeostasis that is ‘maladaptive’.

In terms of fitness improvements, it means that this equilibrium or balance must be altered. An overload must be added in terms of training (increased volume and/or intensity; change in type of training, etc.) in order for fitness to progress. In other words, you have to get out of your physical homeostasis.

The problem is that for one person this can be simply cleaning up their eating habits and doing the odd spin class. Let’s take my friend Shelly as an example.

Shelly weighs 85kg at 5 foot 6. She starts eating well, does spin twice a week and a run at the weekend. She still has the odd glass of wine a few times a week and might have a bar of chocolate occasionally. Shelly loses 10kg in 6 months and plateaus at 75kg, happy with her new slimmer look.

After 18 months at around 75kg, Shelly then decides that she wants to go from “not fat” to “looks amazing”. In order to do this she adds-in some weight training three times a week, before her spin and running. She also increases the intensity of her running by focusing on speed, instead of plodding along each time. She also manages her carbohydrates around her training, increases her protein intake and cuts out the junk. Over the next 12 months she drops body fat and ends up at a lean and toned 54kg. She’s really happy with her body and tells her friend Kelly all about how she did it. Over to Kelly…

Kelly is also 85kg and 5 foot 6. She’s been going to spin classes for a few years now. She also does Zumba and the occasional bootcamp. “I do loads and I eat well”, she says, frustrated, “But I’m still big”! Kelly is telling the truth, she does more than Shelly did when she was 85kg. In fact, she does pretty much what Shelly did to get down to 75kg, but she’s been permanently stuck at 85kg – why? Homeostasis again!

Her “set point” at that time, for that level of activity and that nutritional intake is 85kg. In order to lose weight she needs to change the homeostasis. “Why do I have to do so much more than Shelly?” she groans. “It’s not fair”. Sorry Kelly, you’re right, it isn’t fair, but that’s life. It’s the same as the stick-thin 18 year old guy who takes 10 years to build a decent amount of muscle, compared to a stocky guy who looks like he works out even when he spends all day watching football and drinking Stella. It’s just the way it is! We all know the guy or girl who eats junk all the time but never seems to put on any weight – that’s homeostasis and genetics working in tandem to annoy the heck out of the rest of the world! But, in order to succeed in your situation, you need to “man up”, “suck it up buttercup” and accept that it’s just the way it is!

If you really want to make progress then you have to forget the things that will p*ss you off and resolve to do whatever it takes to get where you want to be. If it takes you five years of training five times a week, so hard that it makes you want to puke. If it takes you shaving 30 seconds off your 5k time every month for 2 years to get it from 35 minutes to 23 minutes, then that’s what you have to do.

As an aside, go to your local parkrun and watch the body shape of the runners change from first place to last place. I’m not making a case for us all to look like a sub 16 minute 5k runner, but in terms of weight-loss, you ain’t running a 16 minute 5k at 85kg and 40% body fat!

The point is this. Kelly has to do two…three…ten…a hundred…whatever more times work than Shelly if she wants to change her state of homeostasis. Unfair? Tough! Life’s like that. It’s the same in anything. I’m pretty sure that Usain Bolt would beat me in 100 metre race, regardless of the work I put in. I’m sure that, no matter how hard I ever practiced, Ronnie O’Sullivan would beat me at snooker with an eye patch on and a broken arm. I’ll repeat it again – it’s just the way it is!

Let’s end this story the way we all want to it end. Kelly, in fact, did work hard. She worked phenomenally hard! She make little progress for the first couple of years, working hard and yo-yoing up and down but, as she gradually got used to pushing that little bit harder each time, her body started to change because the homeostasis gradually changed. Kelly took 3 seconds off her 5k time here, 26 seconds there. She went from bench pressing 20kg for 10 reps, to 45kg for 10 reps. She did hill sprint after hill sprint with her personal trainer (she even puked on his Nikes once!). It took her eleven years! Eleven years of hard, hard work! She now weighs 56kg of solid, toned, lean muscle. Kelly now works as a personal trainer where she tells other people her story and helps them to do the same. Sometimes, when she’s out with her friends having a coffee, she orders a huge slice of coffee cake. She doesn’t fret over it because she knows that, now, homeostasis is working for her, so she can have a bit of cake without worrying. Every now and then, as she sits there eating it and chatting to her friends, someone looks over at her looking amazing and eating cake, and they think….isn’t she lucky.

Whatever it takes – you can do it!