Setpoint Theory: Are You Battling Your Biology

June 25, 2021

Tad Taggart

“Summer shred” is a common phrase or phenomenon around the gym. If you aren’t familiar with this term, it is otherwise known as working on the “beach-ready body”. This pursuit often pushes gymgoers to hop on a treadmill or elliptical and pound away for hour upon sweaty hour. The belief is that burning enough calories will whittle away the fat, shedding pounds and revealing a physique akin to those of Greek statues. Unfortunately, it’s more common than not for many ‘summer shredders’ to burn endless calories and still not end up looking like Michelangelo’s David. If the science says that staying in a calorie deficit helps to burn fat and lose weight, why does it still feel like all that running on the treadmill is really going nowhere?

If this resonates with you, the source of your frustrations may be boiled down to an observation of human biology and metabolism known as “Setpoint Theory”. This is likely a phenomenon you, yourself, have experienced but maybe didn’t realized has a name or scientific explanation. While this theory can be explained through an intricate interplay of metabolism, genes, and hormones, I feel this theory is best represented by a rubber band. Imagine you have a rubber band wrapped around an immovable stake in the ground. That stake is your body’s current “setpoint” weight. This is the weight that your body would prefer to be at, based on the many interactions of your physiology. The rubber band is your genes trying to always pull you back to your setpoint weight. Your pull on the rubber band, wrapped around this stake, is like your efforts to change your weight. It is true that you can pull and stretch the band, but note that rubber bands become much harder to pull the more they are stretched. In the same way, your weight is malleable, but only to a point. Truly, your weight will move more easily when it is closer to your setpoint weight. As you continue to stretch that rubber band, it becomes more and more difficult to pull the further from the stake it is. In the same way, your weight becomes harder and harder to budge the further it is pushed from the setpoint. Your efforts to ‘stretch the rubber band’ are reflective, usually, of dieting and exercise to try and lose weight. The more you slave away on the treadmill and lose pounds, the more the weight-loss slows to a crawl and, eventually, a dead-stop. In this instance, you’ve pushed your limit on how far you can truly push your weight from your setpoint. Further, what happens to the rubber band once you release the effort to stretch it? It snaps back toward the original length, looped around the metal stake. This is the same with our efforts to diet and exercise to burn calories. Once all the efforts stop, the body settles back towards the setpoint weight. Note, this theory applies to weight/muscle gain, as well.

So what do we do? Do we despair in the hopeless efforts to change our weight, only to have our genes snap us right back to our setpoint? Not quite. There are various lifestyle and dietary factors that can actually make it easier to move away from our setpoint (and stay there). Some choices, like eating fresh fruits and vegetables, managing stress, and engaging in exercise that supports muscle mass and a healthy metabolism, can all serve to reduce your body's pull back to the setpoint. Some lifestyle factors can even effectively move your setpoint! In the case of our rubber band, our changes in nutrition and fitness are like swapping out our current rubber band for a much thinner one. In this way, the pullback to our setpoint (the stake) is much weaker. In other words, your weight change goals not only become easier to achieve but also more sustainable. These changes often require that you try things you might have never thought to try or develop habits you might have never even considered. For you it could mean trying meditation, cooking a new recipe, attending a new yoga class, having a trainer guide you through a new workout plan, or getting nutritional guidance from a professional.

Don't waste energy and time pulling on that thick rubber band pulling you back to your setpoint. Choose a new approach and swap in a thinner rubber band for greater success in your health and fitness goals.

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