Updated: Aug 15
It can be frustrating to start a fitness program that is working well for you, just to have progress stop or even regress.
Before giving up on a plan that may still be right for you, you want to read this.
Over the years I have seen a common cycle develop that I call the "psychological plateau".
A psychological plateau is when multiple - "unintentional" or openly excused - slip ups start and overtime become more frequent.
These slip ups usually involve food, drink, and skipping exercise. Each going against a fitness plan that was working. Excuses become more common to minimize the true impact these choices actually have. A little here and a little there, until progress stops or regression.
Instead of identifying personal choices as the culprit, it's easier to think something is lacking in the fitness program or even think your body is broken - Essentially forgetting when the program was followed, the body responded.
The Psychological Plateau
There's good news! A psychological plateau has nothing to do with the physical side of fitness, even though it absolutely affects your physical progress. The body can do more, but the mindset has shifted from a growth mindset, to a fixed mindset - whether it's fully recognized or not.
Where does the derailment start? Usually around important responsibilities that were once managed to fit in fitness goals.
Community & social engagement
Extended travel and holidays.
Here's the thing, life is not going to stop placing demands on time and energy. That is as true today as when the fitness program "was working". You already proved to yourself you can do this. You can absolutely turn things around and get back on track.
How to Combat a Psychological Plateau
Here we share nine strategies we use to coach our personal training clients when they find themselves being pulled from their health and fitness goals.
1. Remember “Your Why”
This, in our opinion, it is the most important. Your “why” can have a powerful effect on your determination to finish what you started or maintain what you have worked so hard for.
Your reason(s) for starting a fitness program in the first place is your motivation.
Something inspired you. What was it? Has that been achieved? If not, why? If it has, do you want to lose it after all your challenging work?
Remind yourself of your “why” daily, so you remember what you are working for! You want this! You are in control and are choosing your path!
Try visual reminders of your "why" to stay on track.
Here are a few ideas: *Cleverly placed sticky notes *Daily reminders set on your calendar with positive messages *Wear a specific piece of jewelry *Hang up an old pair of jeans you want to fit in in your room
2. Stop Over Thinking and Go Back to Basics
When recommitting it is common to think you need to come out blazing. If full throttle mindset is something you thrive on, that's great. But it's not a necessity to get things done. Many times, less is more.
Break it down into a simple pattern. Why did you start? Who helped you? What helped you? Return to that.
If working with a personal trainer works
for you, reconnect.
If meal prepping on a certain day works for you, do that.
If tracking food is good for you, start.
If you know exercise works best for you directly after work, make it happen.
Rather than planning out an elaborate strategy to get back on track, start with what has already worked for you.
We recommend everyone start with three basic healthy lifestyle choices.
*Focus on healthy nutrition *Do not skip exercise. In fact, find more ways to move. *Increase daily water and avoid drinking empty calories
3. Tell Your Goals to Multiple People
Telling a coworker, spouse, friend, trainer, or teammates your specific goals can be a powerful accountability lifeline. Choose these people wisely. You want someone who will encourage you and help you.
You can decide what this looks like. Personal details really don't have to be shared. You can ask for help if they see you slipping or just put it out there that you have goals.
Consider telling this person your "why".
4. Consider a Meal Prepping Service
In our experience, food is the number one factor in folks back sliding on their goals.
If this has been a pitfall for you, we highly recommend investing in a meal prepping service. Specifically, one who delivers healthy, balanced, prepared meals to your door.
Utilizing these resources to bridge gaps is a smart idea and can be structured to accommodate your life and schedule.
Here is a link with 10 of the best meal prepping services for your convenience.
5. Don't Celebrate Milestones as a Victory
Milestones represent short-term goals. Personal trainers, Nutritionists, and fitness enthusiasts use short term goals to carve a path to a bigger objective.
Milestones can be hard earned and really should be celebrated. But not to the extent that the long-term objective is no longer the focus.
When an NFL team is working to get to the Superbowl, they are incredibly happy and celebrate each game they win. However, they do not lose sight of the Superbowl and the work they still have in front of them. It would not make sense for the team to continue to celebrate last week's win during this week's practices.
In our experience, next to food this is the second most common pitfall in psychological plateaus - Over celebrating milestones. Ironically, the over celebration is usually extended and unbridled food cheats.
The Superbowl analogy speaks to the psychological plateau: At a progress assessment a client reaches a milestone they set for themselves and wants to celebrate. They choose to celebrate with a cheat meal. That cheat meal often turns into a cheat weekend.
A few more small slips start creeping in during the week.
More frequent cheats start triggering craving, until slowly and unintentionally, some vices are back in every day eating.
It starts with a “celebration of a milestone,” but it is the psychology behind the celebration that causes the real damage. Inadvertently justifying a little extra has been earned, will not hurt, and will not stop progress.
The truth is, not only will it stop progress but can also undo progress.
Milestones should be celebrated and with a cheat meal if it's desired. Being proud of the work accomplished is good. But keep your eye on the Superbowl.
6. Ditch “Cheat Meals”
“Cheat Meals” are as bad as they sound. We are not treating ourselves; we are cheating ourselves when we abuse our bodies with bad nutrition.
It can be extremely difficult to get unhealthy foods out of our daily eating. This is true both mentally and physically. Cravings can take days and even weeks to overcome in the first place.
Allowing those foods and drinks back in will more than likely start that process over. Plus, our body does not want or need junk for. Our mind does.
Yes, it is reasonable to think eventually it will be ok to have birthday cake, desserts, and drinks back into life. But save that for after goals are reached and on a maintenance plan.
For now, think outside the box to truly reward your hard work and celebrate your accomplishments. There are much better ways to honor your efforts.
Rethink your milestone celebrations. Here are some of our favorites:
*A new outfit / shoes *A pedicure / spa day *An active date night *A vacation or destination trip *A piece to a hobby or interest *A home furnishing / tool *Technology you have your eye on *A free day to sleep and rest
7. Put it On the Calendar
Treat your workout schedule the same as your other appointments. Put it on your calendar and do not double book. When you review your calendar for availability for other obligations, do not look at your workout as a movable appointment. It should not be.
Of course, emergencies will arise, and adjustments will need to be made from time to time. But these should be the exception and not the rule.
8. Mentor a Friend or Family Member
If you were far into your fitness journey before you hit a psychological plateau, it may be time to mentor someone. If you now have a good understanding of nutrition and exercise, helping others get healthy can inspire the mentor to “practice what they preach.”
Of course, we do not want to offend people. This tip is best done with someone you know has been working on similar goals.
We see great synergy between athletes with mentoring. When a seasoned player reaches out to a younger player, it can inspire both to do their best. Especially if they have a good friendship, play the same position, and see potential in each other.
Mentoring can also be applied to a close family member, such as a child. Guiding their food and exercise in a way that invites togetherness and unity can provide quality time and personal goal progress. That is a win / win.
9. Set a New Goal to Reach Your Original Goal
This tip can be a powerful tool for rekindling interest when experiencing a psychological plateau. Strategic goal setting can motivate and help keep us on track.
For instance, if someone is already eating good and going to the gym with a weight loss goal, they may desire some variety. Especially if it will take some time to achieve their healthy weight.
Choosing a goal or activity should always keep the original objective in mind and naturally give the same results.
For instance, if a person with the weight loss goal decided to join a local rock climbing gym; their physical movement increases, interest is engaged, and the activity chosen helps them in the overall goal to lose weight.
Some Ideas for Physical Activity Outside the Gym
*Join a beginner city league for a sport you are interested in *Register for a local charitable run that challenges you *Sign up for a class that teaches skills such as self-defense or boxing *Take a culinary class and invite family over for dinner
These are just a few ideas we have used to help clients avoid the pitfalls of psychological plateaus. We hope you have found some (if not all) helpful. They can and do work. You are worth every ounce of effort.
The Physical Plateau
Our bodies adapt to conditions placed on them, such as exercise and nutrition. Adjustments to food and exercise may be necessary to help your metabolism stay active as your bodyweight changes and fitness levels improve. This is especially true when working towards a long-term fitness goal.
If you are adhering to your nutrition and exercise plan, we recommend working with a qualified Personal Trainer or Nutritionist to adjust your program. They have the expertise to customize your plan.
However, if you are working through this on your own, we have more information on how to combat this and get your metabolism going in our article 3 Ways to Know If You Are In Weight Loss Plateau.