Rapid Rebound

Study suggests weight maintenance period after weight loss is much shorter than hoped

By Jill Pease

Kathryn Ross, PhD, M.P.H.

Kathryn Ross, PhD, M.P.H.

It’s a new year and you’re trying to live up to your resolution to drop a few pounds. So far, so good — you’re following a weight-loss program and your clothes are fitting better at last.

But just how long will you be able to maintain this discipline before old habits, and the pounds, creep back into your life?

Scientists have long believed that following a significant weight loss, people are able to maintain the lower weight for a while, but a new study led by a University of Florida researcher found that is not always the case. Participants in a 12-week weight-loss program started regaining weight much sooner, right around the end of the program.

“We had expected to see some sort of overall maintenance phase and while there is a lot of individual variability — there were participants who were able to maintain their weight and even some who were able to keep losing — on average, that wasn’t the case,” said lead researcher Kathryn M. Ross, Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the department of clinical and health psychology in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, part of UF Health. “They started regaining weight right away.”

While the study did not collect data that would show scientists why the participants started regaining, past research indicates that it is difficult to maintain healthy diet and activity in an environment that is not supportive of healthy weight, Ross said.

“We’re surrounded by easy opportunities to get high-calorie, high-fat foods and it is hard for a lot of folks to build activity into their day,” she said.
The findings were published in the journal Obesity.

Previous research has found that on average, people will regain one-third to one-half of the weight they lost within a year. Studies that follow participants long term have typically had them come back for assessments at three or six months after the initial weight-loss program, a timeframe that does not allow researchers to gather precise information about when people shift from maintenance to regain, Ross said.

To gain a better understanding of regain patterns, Ross and her team designed a study that had participants continue to weigh themselves daily at home for nine months after the initial weight-loss program. Participants used a smart scale that transmitted their weight data directly to researchers via a cellular network, giving researchers a day-to-day view of participants’ weight changes.

The study involved 75 participants who took part in an internet-based program for employees of a Rhode Island health care corporation. During the 12 weeks of the initial internet program, participants lost an average of 12.7 pounds, or about one pound a week.

The team found that, on average, participants transitioned to regain around 77 days after the program started, after which point they gained an average of 0.16 pounds per week. At 225 days, they shifted to a slightly slower rate of regain at about 0.14 pounds per week.

Ross is working to identify high-risk periods for weight regain and to develop interventions that address challenges of weight maintenance, such as increases in hunger and temptations to eat high-calorie foods or skip physical activity.

Ross stresses that not everyone who loses weight will regain it. Resources such as the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks individuals who have successfully maintained weight loss, provide several insights for weight maintenance strategies. Ross also offers some tips.

“I encourage folks to weigh themselves daily,” she said. “This allows you to see how the changes you’re making in your eating and activity are impacting your weight. I urge people to look at the trends and not so much the day-to-day variation.”

Ross suggests that people slowly add back in calories after achieving their goal weight, starting with an extra 100 a day, and adjusting up or down, based on how it affects weight.

“There is not a huge difference between the number of calories people are eating when they hit their goal weight versus what they need to maintain,” she said.
Finally, physical activity is just as important in weight maintenance as it was in weight loss. To maintain weight loss, the American Heart Association, The Obesity Society and the American College of Cardiology suggest 250 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking.

In addition to Ross, the research team included Peihua Qiu, Ph.D., chair of the department of biostatistics in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the UF College of Medicine; Lu You, a doctoral student in the UF department of biostatistics; and Rena Wing, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School.