What a Set Point Weight Means for Your Fitness Journey

Body diversity set point

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If you’ve ever tried to change your weight, you know that reaching your goal is just the beginning—maintaining it can be just as tricky. There are hundreds of studies that explore why this might be the case, and some of them point to the idea of a body-weight “set point.”

What is a Set Point?

Your set point is essentially your default weight—the weight you always ping back to after a period of weight loss or gain, or that you naturally land at when you’re living in balance with reasonable eating and movement habits.

It’s believed that, due to a number of factors, your body tries to defend your set point weight. It goes like this: If you cut calories and restrict your diet, your metabolism and activity levels slow in response to conserve your energy. However, if you start eating more, your metabolic rate and activity levels both increase, so you soon end up returning to your original weight. Frustrating? It can be. Unchangeable? Not if you know the determining factors of your set weight. And according to studies, there are four: genetics, diet, movement, and hormones. But, should we try to change our set point or live as healthy as possible but let natural take its course? We decided to investigate these very questions, so we reached out to two experts to weigh in.

Read on to learn about the four factors that influence your body-weight set point, what you can do about them, and if you should try to change your set point.

Meet the Expert

  • Mike Tanner is the Head of Learning and Development and a Senior Performance Specialist at Bodyism.


Genetics

The 23 pairs of chromosomes we have contain genes that tell our bodies what proteins to make.

How It May Affect Your Set Point

Genetics is, in fact, the smallest determiner when it comes to your set weight. However, it is true that you can be predisposed to certain genes that control how and where you store fat.

What to Do

Genetics are genetics, right? Trying to fight against them sounds futile—not one of us can alter the fundamental things that make us, well, us. What you can do, however, is optimize the other controllable factors of your health.

Hormones

Hormones are chemical messengers used by the body to influence certain functions and processes.

How They May Affect Your Set Point

Hormones affect your body-weight set point in two ways—they alter how your body accumulates and stores fat as well as how often you feel hungry. “The leptin hormones in your body tell you that you are full,” says Tanner. “Whereas the ghrelin says you’re hungry, like a gremlin. Sound about right? Once ghrelin kicks in, your hunger increases.”

What to Do

The good news is that calming these hormones is much easier than it sounds. You simply have to tick off the basics of looking after yourself, which means getting enough sleep, exercising often, finding ways to manage stress, and eating a fiber-rich, whole foods diet. In other words, keep the processed foods on the shelf and opt for foods in their more natural state, like vegetables, fruits, legumes, lean proteins, eggs, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Also, limit your consumption of foods with added hormones, like conventional (non-organic) dairy and meat, and highly-processed soy products. These foods can act as “endocrine disrupters,” meaning they alter your body’s own natural hormonal balance, potentially causing weight gain and changes in body fat storage.

“Give your body what it needs right before those hormones kick in. If you’re tuned in to your body, you’ll notice a trend in the times you get hungry,” Tanner notes. “If this is happening every day at the same time, choose to feed your body with the right type of nutrients to avoid excess hormonal cues.”

Also try to get at least seven hours of quality sleep per night, and find ways to manage your stress levels, such as through mindfulness meditation, yoga, breathwork, tai chi, or walking.

Diet

Diet includes everything you eat and drink.

How It May Affect Your Set Point

It’s a given that your diet will affect your weight. As we know, to maintain a certain weight, energy intake (or calories consumed) should generally match the energy expended. It’s not quite as simple as that, though. Even with that “thermostat” in working order, the idea that restricting calories and hitting the gym a little harder will result in long-term weight loss isn’t always true.

What to Do

Skip the crash diets if you want to lose weight. “Crash dieting can show results for a short period of time, but in most cases, it will leave you binge eating in a few days,” says Tanner. “Adding one thing at a time to your daily routine to achieve your goals, rather than completely cutting everything out, will help you avoid yo-yo dieting, which can mess up your hormone levels and make it harder to sustain weight loss.”

Sudden, drastic cutting of calories can also mean that your body weight changes too fast, which makes it harder for your body-weight set point to catch up and reset to a new level. Plus, you risk losing lean muscle tissue, which will slow your metabolism. So, to maintain a lower weight, swap fad diets for high-protein, low-fat foods, and take the “dieting” slow. For example, try losing 5% to 10% of your overall weight first, and focus on maintaining that for two to three months before you take the next step down. Again, always focus on high-quality foods in their most natural state.

Fitness

In this context, fitness can include both planned, intentional exercise as well as your regular activity level (such as whether you sit at a desk most of the day, work on your feet doing a labor-intensive job, etc.).

How It May Affect Your Set Point

As mentioned above, weight loss typically happens when the output of energy is greater than the input. It’s even been proven that exercise can switch off certain genetic markers that lead to obesity. If you’re going to lower your body-weight set point, working out is a major factor. However, our next point might alter the way you approach the gym.

What to Do

By far the best way to achieve long-term weight loss with exercise is by adding muscle to your frame. This is because muscle is a metabolically-active tissue that allows your body to burn a lot more calories even when you’re at rest. If anything is going to prevent your body from defending a set weight, it’s this, so look to weights and toning workouts for your upcoming gym sessions. Great full-body workouts include weight lifting, rowing, barre, and boxing. If you’re usually a devout cardio fan, make sure you’re adding strength training and eating enough protein to maintain your muscle mass.

Should You Try to Change Your Set Point Weight?

So, ultimately, there are some things you can do to encourage healthy weight loss, such as following a nutritious diet with an appropriate caloric intake, and getting consistent exercise. But, it’s also important to consult your doctor and discuss whether your goal weight is actually healthy for your body. “In our culture, we tend not to trust our body, particularly regarding weight and regulating food intake,” says Mincemeyer. But, our bodies tend to establish set point weights or weight ranges because they are biologically ideal, and often have a genetic influence. And, Mincemeyer says trying to diet down to a weight below this value or range can ultimately be counterproductive. “The evidence shows that the majority of weight loss attempts result in eventual regain of weight; often the weight regain will result in a higher body weight than before the initial weight loss,” she explains. “Our body's natural protective mechanism when we lose weight is to slow the metabolism to regain that weight, and it may drive the set point even higher.”

It is certainly possible that you might be above or below your natural body-weight set point at this time—for example, from restricting and/or over-exercising or from binge eating or emotional eating. In these cases, Mincemeyer says “switching your focus to behaviors instead of trying to control outcomes is key to living with a more peaceful relationship with food and body, and ultimately experiencing better health.”

She recommends Health At Every Size (HAES) and Intuitive Eating interventions, non-diet approaches to nutrition and fitness that take the focus off of weight loss and put them on behaviors like listening to your body’s hunger and satiety cues instead of counting calories. “Focusing on these behaviors can allow our body to drift to its natural set point, wherever that may be, [and can result in] higher self esteem, more balanced nutrition choices, and more physical activity,” explains Mincemeyer. “The most important thing we need to remember is that we need to trust our body to know what it's doing.” Sounds like a prefect recipe for a healthy body and mind.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Richard E. Keesey, Matt D. Hirvonen. (1997). Body Weight Set-Points: Determination and AdjustmentThe Journal of Nutrition. 127 (9): Pages 1875S–1883S.

  2. Darbre P. D. (2017). Endocrine Disruptors and ObesityCurrent Obesity Reports6(1), 18–27. 

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