So you’ve hit your body composition goal and reached an ideal number that’s working for you. You look great. You feel great. And then, a busy, stress-filled week leads to you skipping the gym, eating junk food, and not feeling your best.
How do you stay within that ideal range and maintain the body composition level you worked so hard to attain?
First off, regularly measuring and monitoring your body composition—especially your Lean Body Mass and Body Fat Mass levels—is going to be incredibly important.
Just like you had a plan to get to your target body composition, now you’ll need a plan to keep it.
Your strategy will look slightly different depending on where you started and what your maintenance goals are.
In this article, we’ll look at the two most common starting scenarios and show you how to maintain your body composition for each.
1. If you were overweight and lost a lot of body fat
If you lost a lot of weight and want to keep it off, there are several factors that can make or break your long-term success. We’re going to focus on two:
- Rebuilding your metabolism
- Maintaining healthy habits
Rebuilding your metabolism
Massive fat loss inevitably results in some muscle loss, which in turn leads to a smaller metabolism. Ever wonder why some people can eat whatever they want and not gain a pound, while others seem to gain weight after a single cheat meal?
It’s not because their metabolism is “better” or “faster”; it’s because they have a “bigger” metabolism, which can be thought of in terms of how many calories your body actually needs.
So if metabolism isn’t a factor of “speed” and is a function of calories, the question becomes: how do you know how many calories you need?
That’s where BMR comes into play.
BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate, is the number of calories your body needs each day to perform its most basic, life-sustaining functions (breathing, sleeping, etc.). Research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows the more Lean Body Mass you have, the greater your Basal Metabolic Rate will be.
There are many ways to calculate your BMR, including the Harris-Benedict formula, Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, and the Cunningham equation. The Cunningham equation is the only one that takes your Lean Body Mass into account (note: you’ll need a body composition analysis tool to calculate your Lean Body Mass).
The Cunningham Equation
370+ (21.6 x Lean Body Mass)
Once you know your BMR, use an energy level multiplier to figure out your total daily calorie needs.
As you create an energy deficit and achieve lower body fat levels, your weight loss efforts will likely be counteracted by a number of metabolic adaptations.
You may have heard stories about contestants on shows like The Biggest Loser who lose hundreds of pounds but eventually gain back all (or more) of the weight they lost over time. The average Biggest Loser contestant gained back 90 pounds after 6 years—83.6% of their initial fat loss!
For many of the show’s contestants, their metabolisms never fully recovered to anything near their original levels, in part because they failed to regain and develop Lean Body Mass, and therefore their metabolisms. And when you take in more calories than your body needs, it creates a caloric surplus, which in turn leads to weight gain.
Maintaining healthy habits
The National Weight Control Registry conducted the largest investigation into weight loss maintenance to date, tracking over 10,000 people who had lost weight and kept it off long-term.
Researchers measured the habits common in members who had been successful in keeping the weight off. Not surprisingly, most maintained a low calorie, low fat diet along with high levels of activity. Specifically, participants exhibited these key habits:
- 78% ate breakfast every day
- 75% weighed themselves at least once a week
- 62% watched less than 10 hours of TV per week
- 90% exercised 1 hour per day on average
While exercise was obviously an important factor in maintaining weight loss, you can undo an hour of exercise with just one unhealthy meal.
That’s why it’s not just how many calories you eat that matters but also what you eat that can help you maintain an ideal body composition over time.
So what do you eat if you want to maintain your body composition after losing a lot of weight?
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, diets that are low in carbs, low on the glycemic index (GI), high in protein, and contain moderate amounts of fat have shown positive effects on weight maintenance.
Furthermore, consuming less sugary beverages and more nutrient-dense foods helped people keep weight off over time.
Aim for a plant-focused diet rich in various types of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats from sources like olive oil, avocadoes, nuts, and fish.
2. If you were smaller and gaining size/muscle was your goal
So let’s reverse the coin and say you were a hard gainer who managed to pack on some muscle.
How do you maintain your new physique and prevent muscle atrophy?
The answer to that question depends largely on your age. It’s well known that the older you are, the more susceptible you are to losing muscle mass as you get older.
When researchers studied a group of 20 – 35-year-olds compared to a group of 60 – 75-year-olds, they found that the latter group required more resistance training exercise sessions per week to maintain muscle mass.
Another metanalysis of research studies suggests that regular resistance exercise training combined with a protein-rich diet promoted muscle hypertrophy, and was an effective strategy for counteracting age-related muscle atrophy (or loss of muscle mass).
Similar to people who lose large amounts of fat, folks who pack on a bit of muscle need to continue doing regular resistance training and eating the right types of foods.
Let’s explore what the science says about each of these.
Maintaining Muscle With Exercise
After age 30, you start to lose as much as 3-5 percent of your body’s muscle mass every decade.
Exercise—and particularly resistance training—can help you prevent muscle atrophy, especially when your nutrition is on point.
Your exercise routine needs to remain consistent though in order to maintain body composition because Muscle strength begins to fade after just two weeks of inactivity.
So how much exercise is enough to prevent muscle loss and maintain your gains?
Currently Physical Activity Guidelines for American adults, published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), center around three things:
- Avoiding inactivity.
- Doing aerobic activity (150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes/week of vigorous-intensity activity).
- Strengthening muscles (2 or more days per week).
Although one small study found that for older men (70+) one day per week of resistance training was enough to maintain muscle mass, most people will have success following the current recommend guideline of at least 2 days of strength training per week if you want to prevent muscle loss and maintain body composition.
The importance of protein
Protein has often been called the “building blocks of muscle” and for good reason. According to research, supplementing with protein (and particularly whey protein) can help you maintain your body composition.
However, despite current recommendations that state protein should be consumed at a rate of 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day, roughly 40 percent of people over 70 don’t meet this amount.
Athletes and people who exercise frequently may require even more protein than this.
Here’s an added benefit of upping your protein intake: if an injury prevents you from doing resistance training, you can slow down muscle atrophy by eating more protein.
If you’re looking to maintain muscle mass, eating enough protein is crucial—especially for older adults.
Whether your goal is to get stronger, faster, more agile, or just maintain your current strength and body composition levels, proper maintenance is half the battle when it comes to keeping your ideal body composition.
Once you reach your optimal body composition level, you don’t necessarily need to continue to follow the diet/exercise routine you used to reach your goal. But you do need to ensure your diet and exercise habits are consistent and make a firm commitment to stick with it and adapt as needed.
Regularly monitoring your body composition levels is the only way to know if your diet and exercise routine is working.
If you don’t monitor changes in your body composition, your maintenance plans may be all for naught. Constant vigilance and tweaking your diet/exercise routine to reflect the changes in your body composition is critical.
Everyone’s nutritional and exercise needs are slightly different but complete these steps and you’ll drastically improve your odds of maintaining your current body composition:
- Calculate your BMR and daily calorie needs.
- Eat a high protein diet rich in vegetables and fruits.
- Do strength training at least 2 days a week.
- Monitor your body composition once a week and adjust your diet and / or exercise efforts accordingly.
Like most things in life, maintaining body composition requires dedication and effort. Once you get there and experience what’s it’s like to look and feel like your best self, it’s well worth it.
Scott Christ is a health and wellness entrepreneur, writer, and website strategy consultant. He’s also the creator of the world’s healthiest plant-based protein powder.