Every time I have a new client scheduled to see me to learn how to lose weight, I have a pretty good idea of how our first conversation will go. The first thing they usually want to know is how much I think they should weigh. The answer is usually less than straightforward, and that question is inevitably followed up by a similar and equally vexing query. “How long will it take?” I’ve had this same conversation countless times over the years, and my answer is always the same: “It depends.”
I realize that’s not a satisfying response. But the rate at which a person will lose weight depends on a lot of things. It’s like a road trip. You can look at the map, determine how many miles you have to travel, figure your average speed and then estimate how long it will take you to get there. That works sometimes. But maybe you come across a traffic jam or a detour. Maybe you drive through a town you’ve never been to and decide to stop a while.
It’s much the same with weight loss, even though the math is also fairly simple. I can estimate how many calories you burn at rest (your resting metabolic rate), and then tack on some extra calories for your current level of activity. If you want to lose a pound in a week’s time, you’ve got to come up about 500 calories short of that number every day. That’s done by eating 500 fewer calories, or burning off an extra 500 through exercise, or preferably some combination of the two.
The problem is that there are just too many things that affect the final outcome. For one thing, estimates of how many calories you burn every day are just that—estimates. Keeping track of how many calories you eat is just an estimate, too. And most studies say that people underestimate the calories they eat by at least 20%.
What about those calories you think you’re burning? An exercise chart might tell you that swimming burns 500 calories an hour. But are you swimming nonstop for 60 minutes? Are you even swimming at all? I once spotted a client at the local pool having a lengthy conversation with a girlfriend while sitting on the steps in the shallow end. She never saw me, and I had to bite my tongue at her next visit when she told me that she’d been “swimming for an hour three times a week” and couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t losing weight.
So, just like that road trip, you can make a rough guess as to how long it will take you to reach your goal. But you need to accept that it’s only that—a guess. If you consistently cut 500 calories from what you need, then yes, you should drop about a pound per week. But just like when you drive your car, you may not go at a consistently steady speed or burn through your fuel at a perfectly consistent rate. And just like traffic jams and detours, things get in the way to slow us down or get us off track. But eventually we get back on the road and keep going.
So, if you’re wondering how long it will it take to lose weight, I encourage you to focus instead on all the positive changes that are made along the way. Because in the long run if you improve your diet and get more active, the weight will take care of itself—in its own time. And just like a road trip, sometimes it’s best to focus more on the trip and less on the destination.