How fitness plateaus can be a good thing

At some point, most people who have started an exercise program feel like they’ve “hit a plateau” – they’re exercising just as hard, or being just as careful about what they eat, but feel like they’re not seeing any progress.

As a senior clinical exercise physiologist with the UW Health Sports Medicine Fitness Center, Jude Sullivan will often have clients come to him and say, “No matter what I try, I’m not seeing progress.” His first questions are often, “What are you trying to accomplish, and how long have you been working on it?”

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Progress is individualized

“If someone feels they’ve reached a plateau, it generally means they have a fitness goal in mind, like losing weight,” explains Sullivan. “But what may seem like a plateau may not actually be one.”

Sullivan acknowledges that it can be difficult even for professional trainers to figure out what’s going on because progress is so individualized. The same fitness regimen can have different results depending on the person. It can be easy for people to fall into the trap of thinking they’re not progressing — especially if they’re not tracking their progress.

“There is a tendency to focus on really good days, or really bad days. But if a person isn’t tracking his or her progress, it can be easy to think there’s been no change. Or, they have unrealistic expectations for how quickly they can reach a particular goal. That’s why it’s important to maintain perspective.” he shares.

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Quick adaptation leads to fitness plateaus

Someone who has just started with a program might see big changes right away – such as losing weight – and that, according to Sullivan, can be intoxicating.

But the body is an expert at adapting. When it is continually exposed to the same stimulus every day, it adapts quickly, and the same continued stimulus ultimately results in diminishing returns. And that is when the progress starts to stall.

The danger is thinking the way to deal with it is to work harder or do more.

“Many people think they have to push harder because they’re not seeing the gains, but that’s not always so,” Sullivan says. “Their bodies may not be ready, so despite their best efforts, they may actually start to backslide. And the temptation to always push harder can make people more susceptible to injury, or leave them feeling stale. What they really need is to take time for active recovery.”

Active recovery basically implies that the amount and/or intensity of exercise are reduced for a brief period – such as one week every four weeks – as a proactive counter-measure to eliminate the possibility of a long-term plateau. It might include adding a different activity than what is normally a part of the routine (for example, rollerblading instead of running).

But, active recovery periods aren’t the only important element to avoiding plateaus. Changing your perspective can also help.

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Staying at your goal

“Most people think about plateaus in the negative – they’re not losing more weight or they’re not getting any stronger – but the question is: can they live with the changes they’ve already made? It’s not just a matter of getting to a particular goal, it’s also about staying there,” says Sullivan.

He explains that often people are fixated on the end – losing the 20 pounds, running a longer distance – that it’s easy to forget about what happened on the way to getting there.

Maybe they haven’t lost 20 pounds, but they have lost 10 and are active nearly every day, despite a history of being sedentary. So, there are successes every step of the way. And it’s also important to remember if the changes aren’t sustainable, there’s a chance they may find themselves sliding back to where they started.

That’s also one reason why accountability is so important. Whether it’s a group that can support and motivate, an exercise buddy, or even an app that tracks progress – having a sense of accountability can keep people on track toward their goals. And while working with a trainer can be helpful, it’s not always necessary. In fact, Sullivan views his job as helping clients learn how not to need him.

“A lot of what we do is try to help individuals remember the little things – are you getting enough rest, are you eating real food, are you staying hydrated?” says Sullivan.

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“It always comes back to the basics – taking the time to care for the fundamentals,” he says. “If you don’t, what’s the point of exercising?”

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