Is There a Weight Set Point?

Is There a Weight Set Point?

Before the new year, I asked my readers to submit questions for a new blog series that I am calling “Fact or Fiction”! In my e-mail to my subscribers, I asked them to send me their burning questions about fitness, health, weight, habits, and nutrition. You can submit a question here, and I may answer it in a blog post soon!

Today’s post is the very first installment in the “Fact or Fiction” series!

This week, I want to address a question that was sent anonymously:

Do some people just have a set weight that they won’t really be able to get below? Is it worth trying to push for something that’s different than your natural body shape?”

Because so many of my new clients want to lose weight, this is a topic that naturally comes up during my consultations in different ways, like:

  • Is it possible to be healthy at a higher weight than is considered “healthy” by BMI standards?”
  • I have never been able to get below _________ pounds, even at my skinniest. Why do I stop losing weight?
  • I can only get below _________ pounds if I run five miles a day and am hungry all the time. Is there a better way?
  • I was _________ pounds when I was ________ years old, but now that I’m over 50 / have been through menopause / have had a baby, I can’t get below ________ pounds. What gives?

As I often do, I’m going to open up the discussion to a broader topic, because I think the subtext of questions like these is actually:

“Is it OK if I’m technically overweight but I’m healthy?”

These inquiries move me, because I know they’re coming from people who have tried to lose weight many, many times. Many people are trying to decide if it is even worth it to “push for something that’s different,” like this anonymous question asked.

So let’s leave questions of aesthetics and end-stage fat loss (i.e. trying to go from a flat stomach to totally ripped abs) out of the conversation for the moment and just focus on weight and health as it relates to the concept of “overweight” by BMI standards.

When it comes to evaluating a client’s weight and weight loss goals, I don’t use a BMI calculator to decide what someone’s weight should be based on their height and age. Instead, it’s a conversation made up of five questions. And – surprise! – these questions apply to everyone, even people who, by BMI standards, are at a “healthy” weight.

It’s one of those truths that’s so obvious that it’s right under your nose but you can still miss it: it’s your lifestyle, not the number on the scale, that really matters. When we talk about weight set point, what I’m investigating with each individual is whether or not their lifestyle supports health, regardless of what the numbers look like on a BMI chart.

Do I help clients choose appropriate weight loss goals? Definitely. Do I work with some clients to establish benchmarks for eating and behavior that encourages needed weight loss? Most certainly.

But I write blog posts like these to remind us all that it is the lifestyle that really matters.

Here are the five questions:

#1 Do you have a health condition?

My first question: are you suffering from a lifestyle-related health condition that would be improved by weight loss (like Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or aching lower body joints)?

This is a short one. If the answer is “yes,” then you are quite likely not at your ideal weight. In other words, you are above your own ideal set point, whatever that is! You would benefit greatly from changing (and then maintaining!) some lifestyle patterns to improve the management of your condition.

The truth is that many lifestyle-related conditions improve with weight loss, and then once the condition improves, weight loss is also easier to maintain. In other words, it’s a cycle. Unfortunately, the reverse is also often true – a higher percentage of body fat makes the condition worse, and the condition also makes weight loss harder. PCOS and other conditions that affect insulin sensitivity come to mind. The good news is that once you have the toehold, progress becomes easier.

If you have a condition that would be improved by weight loss, I encourage you to tackle weight loss through smart lifestyle change, and decide later what your ultimate ideal weight will be.

By the way, you don’t need to have a weight loss “target” to get started. Even a 10% reduction in body weight often makes huge changes for health. This means if you are 200 pounds, making the lifestyle changes that get you to 180 is possibly sufficient to make the most significant improvement in your condition. You don’t necessarily need to aim for what is a “healthy” weight on a BMI chart.

Next…

#2 What is your waist-to-hip ratio?

Secondly, take your measurements, at the smallest part of your waist and the widest part of your butt. This is a helpful indicator of your personal health. Is your waist-to-hip ratio less than 0.85 if you’re a woman, or less than 0.9 if you’re a man? Then you’re probably in a zone of an ideal weight for you, even if you want to get leaner for aesthetic or health reasons.

Something that I prefer about waist-to-hip ratio over BMI is that measurements are more realistic about the importance of fat distribution – this can vary between races and ethnicities. Because of differences in genetic makeup and resulting tissue density, BMI can be misleading. But belly fat tends to be bad news for everyone’s health.

BMI is also less helpful for older people if they do not strength train and they lose muscle as they age. As women approach menopause, fat tends to accrue more around the middle and muscle all over the body is lost… even if scale weight doesn’t change much. This type of fat gain is worrisome, but BMI standards often stop women over 35 from realizing that their health is taking a turn in the wrong direction. By checking in with your waist-to-hip ratio, you can alert yourself to possible health concerns brewing in your body composition.

Is your waist-to-hip ratio (measured at the smallest part of your waist and the widest part of your butt) more than 0.85 as a woman or more than 0.9 as a man? Then it’s likely time to consider which habits could help you make the most impact on your health, even if you are a “healthy weight.”

#3 Are you sufficiently active?

Are you active at least 150 minutes a week… or preferably 300 minutes per week? Do you exercise moderately for 150 minutes or more per week (i.e. fast, heart-pumping walking) and/or more vigorously for 75 minutes or more per week (i.e. more intense cardio or hard weightlifting)? Do you strength train at least twice per week?

These are the baselines for sufficient exercise, as defined by the American Heart Association. Whether you like exercise or not, it will improve your health and likely your weight if you meet these baselines. And my experience is that most Americans do not meet these guidelines, even if they estimate that they are “moderately active” or “very active.” When the minutes actually add up, they’re just not hitting these targets.

Truthfully, there are busy weeks when I do not meet these targets. It is a goal that I always shoot for, but it is admittedly a challenge when the rubber hits the road of mom life.

This mismatch of perception and reality is a major problem when people are self-evaluating – this is why building objectivity (through rigorously journaling/tracking) is so good. It’s also why external accountability is helpful.

Let me paint a picture of 300 minutes of activity, as defined by the AHA. This means that you would work up to doing this schedule:

  • Walk/bike/elliptical 30 minutes a day at least five days a week (start with this)
  • Run, swim, cycle, do the elliptical, row, or do strength circuits at a higher level of intensity at least 25 minutes three days a week
  • Strength train at least twice per week, let’s say for 25-30 minutes each time

If you do the math, you can see that some days would have more than one “helping” of activity – like a 30-minute strength training session and a 30-minute walk. And this is a baseline – not a picture of someone who is extremely active or fitness-crazed!

To keep formal exercise from completely taking over your life, it’s helpful to relegate the “moderate” exercise to lifestyle activities instead of a “workout,” like taking your dog for a walk or going for a fun bike ride with your kids. In other words, some of your activities must be integrated into your lifestyle for the whole schedule to work without you spending hours at the gym every day. But, on the flip side, there will need to be time spent engaged in formal exercise – probably 30 minutes a day.

#4 Are you “fit”?

This is different from the previous question, because we’re looking more at performance instead of activity.

Can you do all the basic activities of your daily life with no problem? Can you easily jump into new activities with confidence? On the flip side, do you often skip social or family activities because you wouldn’t be comfortable in your body’s abilities?

It is marvelously beneficial to your health to build your fitness – your strength, your balance, your endurance, and your speed. I have my clients lift heavy weights, hop on one leg, row as fast as they can, run 5K’s, and more, whether they’re 26 or 62.

Regardless of your age, if your weight and/or fitness limits you in your basic life activities, then you are likely not at your ideal weight. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about high performance – running a 5K in under a certain amount of time, for example. I’m talking about absolute performance – being able to do something at all that makes your daily life easier or more fun.

#5 Do you have a reasonably healthy relationship with food?

Finally, do you eat to meet your physical needs, enjoy food, and have alternative strategies for stress reduction other than eating? Do you do your best to eat foods that promote health, like plenty of fruits, vegetables, and leaner proteins? Do you do your best to limit foods that don’t promote health, like excess refined sugar? Do you have a healthy relationship with “treat” foods?

I can’t define “healthy eating” in one quippy sentence or fast-fact standard. It’s a complex picture. Michael Pollan’s one-liner “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is a great start, but it doesn’t necessarily meet everyone’s needs when it comes to changing body composition. There are plenty of people who meet activity guidelines but have difficulty managing their food intake (in terms of quality, quantity, or both).

But I can guarantee you that improving your eating is 100% worth it, and I don’t advise following a strict diet that eliminates whole food groups. Take the time to devise a lifestyle-based approach to nutrition that works for you, even if it means enlisting the help of a professional. Don’t bang your head against the wall by taking up the same old diets that never worked long-term for you in the past, and don’t get sucked into new, gimmicky approaches.

So… what does this have to do with weight set point?

Bad news: there is a “set point” for weight. But don’t stop reading yet.

I start with the five-question conversation about your lifestyle because I often find that people jump ahead to theorizing and asking the really big questions before they’ve fully explored the possibilities of action.

In other words, are you checking all five boxes from this blog post? Because if you’ve been doing all of those things pretty well for three months and haven’t lost a pound, then let’s talk about set points.

Changing your body’s “weight thermostat” is a consistent, committed, and ongoing orchestration of habits. It involves:

  • Developing a sufficiently high volume of exercise habits that are realistic, that you enjoy, or that you can at least can tolerate. This doesn’t mean “living at the gym,” but it is probably more exercise than you want to do right now.
  • Changing your approach to eating on a practical, daily level, so that your healthy eating habits have a chance to flourish. This means saying “no” to unsustainable diets and the overuse of willpower; and saying “yes” to the unsexy habits of increasing your protein intake, eating less sugar, creating automatic portion control routines, and more. Keep in mind that food environment plays a huge role in changing your diet.

But wait… here’s the good news

Now, take everything you’ve read up to this point in this blog post and remember that the person who wrote it has major weight loss experience, now twice because of having a baby. I am not writing from a skinny, judgy, ivory tower.

Because as someone who has been down this road both personally and have been privileged to travel the journey with others professionally, I am pleased to share the good news with you, that there is another set point, too.

In addition to your weight set point, you also have a mental set point – your perception of how hard or easy it is to maintain certain lifestyle habits.

Here’s how it works: if you currently exercise about 100 minutes a week, 300 sounds insane. But once you get used to 300, you get used to 300. That’s less than an hour a day of exercise and activity. The trick is that you have to do it long enough – probably several months – to really get used to it. Many people give up before they cross that beautiful bridge.

People don’t believe me, but even if you hate exercise, it’s possible to begin to like exercise.

I have a unique vantage point. I have the joy of seeing many people (including myself) go from being averse to exercise – from finding it absolutely unrewarding – to falling in love with a particular activity.

I see people who never ran in their lives become avid runners and compete enthusiastically in 5K’s, 10K’s, half marathons, and marathons. I have seen women who formerly exercised only out of weight management obligation become genuinely excited about their ability to do pull-ups, push-ups, and handstands. I have seen older clients extract exponentially more enjoyment out of their golden years by being able to bike on vacation, run races with their adult children, and independently take care of their large, multi-story homes.

Similarly, with repetition, the lens through which you view food will begin to change. You’ll gain more clarity and decisiveness about when you say “yes” and when you say “no.” You’ll be empowered with more knowledge about how to organize your diet. You’ll be more streamlined in how you prepare your food so that it doesn’t feel like meal prep takes up every spare minute. You’ll adjust to an increased level of awareness around food and health without feeling like you’re counting every calorie or macro. You’ll gain an enthusiasm for making some dishes the “healthy way.”

Both food and exercise habits have a tendency toward inertia. This is a disadvantage when it comes to changing bad habits, but it’s a benefit when it comes to maintaining good habits. We adjust. We adapt. We embrace “new normals” if we allow enough time to let the jello set.

Do people have a variety of natural body shapes? Yes, and this can’t possibly be captured solely by BMI. But can everyone exist somewhere on a spectrum of “more healthy” and “less healthy” within their own natural body type, based on their lifestyle and body composition? Absolutely.

Even though the “set point” is real, it is moveable. And most of that movement happens because of a willingness to be open to change – not just in your lifestyle, but in your mind.

So don’t worry about BMI, and look at your lifestyle instead.

Want to chat more about this topic one-on-one, regarding your goals? Set up a call.