Maintenance Phase: What It Is — And Isn’t

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Maintenance is often labeled synonymous with regression (to move backward, away from your goals). If you’re not making progress, where are you going? You may even hear: “Stagnation is the enemy of progress…”.

Written by Coach Kailey Moonen

The self-help world echoes this message. Unfortunately, the fitness industry has its own way of using this messaging to influence your behavior. It portrays a constant need to be in a dieting (losing weight or body fat) or building (growing muscle) phase to see progress, which, as you may have guessed, is not always true. In fact, maintenance is not synonymous with regression or stagnation — especially when it comes to your health and fitness. Maintenance in and of itself is a valid and worthwhile goal within your fitness journey.

Maintenance: What It Is — And Isn’t

Maintenance is the point where your intake supports your expenditure — or eating an amount of calories that is essentially maintaining your weight, not necessarily resulting in significant changes in scale weight or body composition. It’s important to remember that maintenance calories are a range, not a fixed number, meaning there is a 150-300 calorie range in which your body weight will be maintained. This is likely due to changes in your BMR (basal metabolic rate) and NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) levels. Be mindful not to confuse a 𝙝𝙚𝙖𝙡𝙩𝙝𝙮 maintenance with one that has 𝙖𝙙𝙖𝙥𝙩𝙚𝙙 from a chronically low caloric intake (and if you are unsure about this, hiring a coach to help guide you can be of massive advantage).

If you’re a goal-oriented person, think of maintenance as a “season” of your life or fitness journey: a period in which your body can establish a new status quo, communicating an energy amount it is physiologically comfortable with. Time spent around this caloric range will prime you for your next dieting phase, setting the stage for success within future fat loss goals (if that is your goal), so don’t attempt to rush through this part. It’s your permission slip for re-entering a caloric deficit whenever the time comes.

The Role of Reverse Dieting

A Reverse Diet is not another fad diet; it is not a weight loss solution; it is not a way to eat whatever you want and not gain weight; it is not a fool-proof way of increasing calories and not gaining any body fat — that part is somewhat inevitable, but we can keep it under control. How exactly you go about this process can depend on a few factors, primarily your dieting history. This includes the type, intensity, and length of diet and the number of dieting phases attempted. Some tell-tale signs your body could use an increase in food include fatigue, excessive hunger/lack of hunger, a flatline in daily energy, and decreased sleep quality, to name a few.

Going through the reverse diet process will impact your body, particularly your energy balance, in several ways, giving your body some relief.

    • NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) levels will increase. NEAT is the energy expended by things like walking, cleaning, maintaining your posture, cooking, work-related tasks, talking with your hands, fidgeting, et cetera. Your body perceives more energy is available due to increased food intake, making it more willing to move and expend calories.
    • TEF (thermic effect of food) will increase. TEF represents the calories needed to digest your food. As you eat more, your body spends more energy to break down and digest the food you are consuming daily.
    • EA (exercise activity) will increase. EA is the calories used to fuel your body during things like strength training and aerobic exercise. More food intake leads to increased energy and performance. Your recovery will also improve because your body will be more anabolic (ready to build up), and protein synthesis will increase.

As these internal processes upregulate, the benefits you may notice from living at maintenance will improve your overall quality of life. You may see:

  • Improved sleep quality
  • Better body composition
  • Less food focus/hunger
  • More food freedom/flexibility
  • Improved social life
  • Strength gains
  • Skin/hair health
  • Balanced hormones
  • Improved gut health
  • Improved libido
  • Increased mental clarity
  • Regular menstrual cycle

Hopping off the chronic-dieting-hamster-wheel will genuinely change your life. It will also help you reach your goals in a more sustainable and maintainable way.

When you have been dieting for an extended period, the idea of eating more food can be truly daunting. So, be sure to work your way up as slow as you need to make the process more realistic for you — this could be adding anywhere from 5-15% to your total daily calorie intake, for example.

Maintaining Your Maintenance 

To “maintain” maintenance, an excellent first step is to establish your goals during that specific period of time. Shifting your focus from scale-based goals to non-scale victories will help tremendously with the mindset aspect of switching gears. While numerical goals have their time and place, focusing all of your energy on constantly reaching specific numbers can be all-consuming and challenging to adhere to at any point in your journey.

What if you shifted your mindset and started pushing yourself to stack up the small victories each day? Instead of being so lasered in on numbers and the pressure to meet them, take a look at how you are improving in:

  • Handling untracked meals/days
  • Your relationship with food
  • Eating more fruits/veggies
  • Taking extra rest days
  • Walking for leisure/recovery
  • Making time for play
  • A new hobby
  • Positive self-talk
  • Self-image
  • Confidence in the gym
  • Strength gains
  • Perfecting your form
  • Stretching more often

To Sum It All Up

Your metabolism is adaptive. Our choices over time create our current physiological and metabolic status. Restoring your metabolic baseline and experiencing different seasons of nutritional periodization (planning) remedies this. Flexible nutrition is more than being flexible in your food choices – it is also about implementing different strategies that contribute to your overall long-term success, maintenance phases included.

Written by Coach Kailey Moonen, CPT

Kailey Moonen - Physique Development

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