When you start a new exercise program, you may find that you gain weight at first instead of losing it. It’s nothing to worry about and you’re not doing anything wrong, so don’t give up. Some types of exercise, such as strength training, can make you gain weight because of added muscle.
Water retention is another cause of weight gain. Experts say that this happens as part of a healing process, and is a way of getting glycogen into the body more efficiently. This leads to the weight gain. If you have concerns, have your body fat checked by a personal trainer at the gym, or take regular measurements of different areas of your body. If you find you have been going wrong, you may need to make changes to your diet. Read on to find possible causes and how to tackle them:
Consuming too many calories
Many people eat more after exercise to make up for the calories they have burned. If you’re eating a low-calorie diet and keep a food diary to add up the calories, you will find you’re consuming more calories than you realised. Use this diary or the website Calorie Count to find out how much you’re eating. If you find you’re consuming too much, you’ll need to change your diet.
Also, it’s wrong to think you can eat as much as you like when you’re doing more exercise. You need to monitor your calorie intake when losing weight.
Not consuming enough calories
It seems contradictory, but consuming too little calories could slow down your fat loss. If you don’t eat enough, your metabolism will slow down. You must eat enough to maintain your strength when you increase your activity.
Not letting your body respond
Your body won’t respond straight away when you start exercising regularly. New eating habits and strenuous activity will cause the body to make changes. Allow yourself a few weeks or months for your body to adapt, and then you will see results.
Not addressing medical problems
Some conditions, such as thyroid problems, can make losing or gaining weight harder. You need to visit your doctor to find out if any medication you’re taking is affecting you losing weight. Your doctor could also rule out other potential causes if you feel you’re consuming enough calories and have given your body time to adapt, and are still gaining weight.
You’re building more muscle
If you find you’re gaining weight when you’ve started a strength program, you might not be losing fat as quickly as you’re gaining muscle. Some people build muscle quicker than others do but don’t let this put you off. You just need to alter your program, so you can do more cardio training to lose weight. When you’re weight training, you can also increase your muscular endurance by keeping to 12-16 reps.
To conclude, it’s important not to give up on your training. If this problem does not sort itself and persists, consult with a personal trainer or dietitian to help you make positive changes to your workouts and eating habits.
- Why Does My Workout Cause Weight Gain?
- Long-Term Weight Loss Is Real (But You’ve Been Fooled)
- Why do you really gain weight?
- The Only Real Weight Loss Secret
- Your Exercise Routine Is Making You Gain Weight — and It Has Nothing to Do With Your Metabolism
- 1. Studies show many people who start exercising more gain fat
- 2. Many people with strict exercise routines don’t move as much during the day
- 3. You aren’t burning as many calories from exercise as you think
- 4. You’re probably eating back more calories than you burned in the first place
- 5. Gender also plays a role in how hungry you get post-exercise
- 6. Having a high body fat percentage means you’re more likely to feel starving after a workout
- 7. Here’s how to stop feeling starving after you exercise
- 8. Remember — the scale can’t tell you how healthy you are
- 4 Reasons Working Out Could Cause You to Gain Weight
- Gaining Weight While Working Out: 4 Common Causes
- Should I Stop Working Out If I’m Gaining Weight?
- Why Do You Gain Weight Before You Lose It?
- Stress and exhaustion are throwing you off.
- Your allergy pills are to blame.
- Your portions are probably bigger than you think.
- You’re eating the right thing, but at the wrong time.
- Your “healthy” food is packed with calories.
- Your age might be a factor.
- 5 crucial exercise lessons I learned when I cut my body fat nearly in half in 6 months without losing my muscle
- 1. Weight training is essential if you actually want your body to look fit.
- 2. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn when resting.
- 3. You don’t need to be out of breath and dripping in sweat for a workout to be effective.
- 4. Setting non-aesthetic goals will keep you motivated.
- 5. Exercise in the ways you enjoy, as that’s how it’ll be sustainable.
Why Does My Workout Cause Weight Gain?
Have you been exercising and eating clean, but when you step on the scale, it says you’ve gained a few pounds? While it can be easy to let a higher number on the scale screw with your head (especially if you feel you’ve been doing all the ‘right’ things), it isn’t cause for panic. Here, four things you need to know according to experts if you’re gaining weight while working out and eating healthy.
1. Water Retention After Exercise
Water can alter your weight by as much as 10 pounds (or more).
Think you just lost a few pounds from that serious spin class? Don’t get too excited—it’s just water loss due to sweat. And if you’re seeing a higher number, that could be due to water retention (that sometimes happens after exercise). The takeaway: The amount of water in your system has a heavy influence on the number you see on the scale.
“Water makes up approximately 65 to 90 percent of a person’s weight, and variation in water content of the human body can move the scale by ten pounds or more from day to day,” says Jeffrey A. Dolgan, a clinical exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, Florida. This is one of the main reasons diuretics are so popular—they flush the water out of your system, resulting in only a short term weight “loss”—but they don’t help to change your body composition in any way. (Related: How Your Hormones Affect Your Metabolism)
2. Weight Gain Immediately After a Workout
A lot of factors can influence your weight—including your workouts.
So, you’re working out but gaining weight? Have you ever noticed that right after (or even a day or two after) an intense workout the scale goes up? That’s normal, and it doesn’t mean you’re actually gaining weight, says Dolgan.
“A person’s scale mass is a combination of muscle, fat, bone, the brain and neural tract, connective tissue, blood, lymph, intestinal gas, urine, and the air that we carry in our lungs,” he says. “Immediately after a workout routine, the percentage of mass in each of these categories can shift as much as 15 percent.” Intense workouts cause variability on the scale due to factors like hydration status, inflammation from muscle damage repair (we call this delayed onset muscle soreness), even the amount of intestinal by-product or urine and blood volume, says Dolgan. So there you have it: if you’re gaining weight while working out and eating healthy, it’s probably not the type of weight gain that you think it is.
3. Weight Gain with Strength Training
Muscle does NOT weigh more than fat.
“A common comment when looking at the scale is that ‘muscle is heavier than fat,’ which is misleading,” says Dolgan.” A pound of fat weighs the same as a pound of muscle; however, the volume of muscle is denser than the volume of fat and therefore, heavier.”
When you start to change your body composition with your workouts—by building more dense muscle mass and decreasing your body fat—your scale weight may increase, while your body fat percentage may decrease. These changes happen over weeks and months (not hours or days) so the scale is useless when tracking them, says Dolgan. (Scared that strength training will make you bigger? Here’s exactly why lifting weights won’t make you bulky.)
4. Weight Gain from Muscle vs. Fat
The scale says nothing about your fitness level or body composition.
As noted above, the scale can’t tell you how much of your body weight is muscle versus fat, which means if your goal is to improve your fitness level, it’s not the best tool for measuring improvements. (Related: 10 Ditch-the-Scale Ways to Tell If You’re Losing Weight)
“If someone is trying to improve their fitness, they should ignore the scale and pay more attention to objective measurement tools like body composition to track their progress,” says Dolgan.
While weighing yourself can be one way to track your progress, it shouldn’t be the only way. And it certainly isn’t worth obsessing over with daily weigh-ins (and, as a result, fretting about gaining weight while working out and eating healthy). Don’t forget, Dolgan says, losing pounds on the scale does not mean that you are more fit—it just means you are lighter, which doesn’t mean much at all. And keep in mind that if you’re exercising but gaining weight, it could be that your workouts are effective, but you need to get your diet in check to see weight loss results. (That’s just one of the reasons you aren’t losing belly fat.)
Why is it that most diets cause weight loss followed by a period where you gain weight? It’s a mystery that leads most people to believe that the entire diet industry is a hoax.
While there are many (many) bad diets that can easily be blamed for why you gain weight, most diets are designed to work. We know this because people lose weight and can keep it off. So what, then, causes the big divide between those that keep pounds off and those that gain them back?
The answer is something known as “set point theory,” which probably means nothing to you. But if you’ve ever found that you gain weight when you diet, it’s likely the missing piece of the puzzle that can change everything.
If more people understood that plateau is a part of weight loss, then they wouldn’t quit prematurely.
Long-Term Weight Loss Is Real (But You’ve Been Fooled)
I’ve been journaling–somewhat consistently–since second grade. While unpacking boxes after a recent move, I found an entry from 1991 (I was 9) that read: “I don’t have to always fit into big pants.”
I was that guy. The chubby guy who needed his pants tailored for his Bar Mitzvah because they didn’t make suits for young men with a waist so big and height so… restricted.
If my story sounds cliche, well, it is. But it’s not too good to be true. The part missing from the fast-forwarded version is that I struggled with weight loss (and the dreaded weight loss plateau) and body image for years. I’d go as far as telling people I was allergic to chlorine to keep my T-shirt on in the pool. (I’ll never understand how I thought this explanation would work. It’s not like the shirt protected my skin from the water, but I digress… )
My ultimate success was a byproduct of many (many) failures and learning how to overcome times of despair and lost hope. I shifted away from gimmick diets and “four-week plans” and focused on blocking out my negative thoughts and becoming happier with who I was. Then I could finally focus on the other part of the weight-loss battle: building a realistic plan for my body.
It’s the same approach I’ve used to coach hundreds of overweight people to better health and fitness and more happiness. But it all starts with believing a simple truth that is starting to feel more like myth than reality: You can transform your body. Most people just do it the wrong way. Too fast. Too impatient. Too generalized. And too unrealistic.
I’ve worked with clients who have lost 100 to 200 pounds. And most of the time, these successes happen over the course of months (or even years), not five episodes on a television show. At least, that’s the case for those who successfully keep the weight off.
This is an especially important point because some research (and recent media coverage) suggests that long-term weight loss is hopeless. While many people do, in fact, gain weight they previously lost, it’s not because dropping fat is “mission impossible.”
Instead, it starts with changing your definition of “success,” setting aside instant gratification, and understanding how weight loss actually works. When that happens, everything changes and anyone can build a plan that ensures they’re not another sad statistic.
Why do you really gain weight?
First, some bad news: All nutritional approaches or diet plans stop “working” at some point. Weight loss stops. You don’t see changes, and you believe that either you or the plan are no longer functioning. The good news: When it appears to stop working, it’s actually still working.
Confused? Stay with me and it’ll make more sense.
We know that as you lose weight, your metabolism tends to slow down–although it’s not absolute. (This research reviewed 71 studies and didn’t find a significant drop in metabolism.) We also know that if you’re patient about (focus on losing one to two pounds per week at most), then you’re more likely to keep it off for good. But most people quit before significant weight loss occurs. It usually looks something like this:
Step 1: You lose weight (sometimes, a lot, and very fast)
Step 2: You stop losing weight
Step 3: You’re still not seeing any changes.
Step 4: Weight gain.
Step 5: You’re pissed off, frustrated, and quit.
This process usually happens in less than 6 weeks. If you believe some studies, the average person diets for an average of 6 weeks — followed by 14 weeks “off” a diet. That’s not a good balance of results.
The thing is — and what no one tells you — steps two and three (stalled progress/plateau) are often an important part of the weight-loss process.
Dropping one to two pounds per week is considered healthy, but it’s also the average. That means you might lose four pounds one week and zero the next. On those weeks when the scale doesn’t change, it’s not necessarily a sign that your body has reached its weight-loss limit.
To put it another way, your plateau is a necessary part of the process. You must stall in order to move forward (again). And when you understand why–or, more importantly, accept this reality–it changes everything.
The Only Real Weight Loss Secret
Your body does not like change. I don’t care who you are; it’s very resistant to anything that takes it out of its comfort zone (a.k.a. homeostasis). When that change occurs–specifically when you try to lose weight–your body does everything in its power to adjust and get you “back to normal.” This is a process known as set point theory.
If you ask me, set point theory is the reason why so many people fail on long-term weight-loss goals. If more people understood that plateau is an expected and natural part of the process, then they wouldn’t quit prematurely. Sometimes the scale isn’t moving simply because your body is adjusting to change.
Here’s how it works:
We all have a “normal” body weight. Whether we like that weight or not is a different story, but this is the weight that we’ve come to “accept” as our own. We also have a look we desire, whether it’s your college weight, your pre-baby body, or where you were that one time you got super fit a few years ago.
Your mind wants to achieve your goals, but your body wants to cling to what’s familiar. So when you try to change, physiological reactions occur to suck you back into the body you’ve known for so long.
The more weight you lose, the harder your body works to resist that change, or even pull you back to your old weight. It does this by slowing your metabolism (comparatively) and increasing your hunger. Sucks, right?
Just wait, it’s not all doom and gloom. If you can hang in and resist the urge to quit, these changes are temporary and can help ease the permanence of your weight loss.
Set points are not carved in stone. It’s more like frozen in carbonite, a la Han Solo. You can undo the process by changing your body and allowing your body to adjust. This is why plateaus can be so deceiving. Your body is adapting to its new reality. Once it does, that’s when you’re ready to take the next jump and see a “whoosh” of new weight loss.
Everyone’s set point is a little different, so there’s not one rule for how long you have to wait. The more weight you have to lose (say, more than 50 pounds), the quicker it can happen initially without hitting your set point. If you want to lose closer to 15 or 20 pounds, you might hit a wall after the first 10.
This is why you’ve seen so many magazine cover lines about “How to Lose the Last 10 Lbs.” Those should really say, “How to Be Patient After You Lose the First 10 Lbs.” But that doesn’t sound as sexy.
Once you hit your set point, your body likely needs anywhere from four to eight weeks to adjust to your new weight. Then you’ll establish a new set point, and your body will respond like that’s your new normal.
It doesn’t sound that exciting, but it’s better than you think.
If you go from 200 to 180 pounds or 150 to 130 pounds and wait out the set point process, your body’s drive to move back to the old weight has changed. It becomes much easier to stay at your current weight because your body no longer thinks it’s outside its comfort zone–and you’re able to start losing weight again. On the flip side, it becomes much harder to gain weight, as well.
The result: you don’t feel like you’re constantly following a pain-in-the-ass plan. That’s why long-term fat-loss never occurs in 30 days or anything magical. It’s a process.
Finding the right eating approach is about seeing the long-game. Almost any plan can deliver the quick results. Ignore those. Instead, focus on what you think you can do for six to 12 months. When you do, you won’t be as frustrated when you hit the set point. Instead, you’ll be buying time–not buying a new approach (literally)–until the weight loss starts again.
Winning the War on Hunger: Practical Solutions to Overeating
Fix Your Diet: Understanding Proteins, Carbs and Fats
Big Meals vs. Small Snacks: What’s Best For You?
You may start exercising for a lot of different reasons: You need to lose weight for your health. You plan to run a 5K or marathon. You want to enhance your fitness for cross country skiing or to impress at the beach.
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Whatever your motivation, expect to gain a few pounds at first. But don’t panic. The pounds won’t hang around if you keep at it.
“The key point here is that weight and muscle mass changes will occur,” says Gary Calabrese, PT, DPT Senior Director of Rehabilitation and Sports Therapy at Cleveland Clinic. “Initially, they aren’t all what some people may perceive as headed in a positive direction, because you may gain a little weight at first.”
Why the initial weight gain?
When you start an exercise program, your body naturally goes through several changes in the first couple months.
A new exercise regimen puts stress on your muscle fibers. This causes small micro tears, also known as micro trauma, and some inflammation. Those two conditions in your muscle fibers are the reason you may gain some weight.
Your body responds to the micro tears and inflammation in two ways that cause temporary water weight gain.
The first is a healing response.
“That stress and micro-tearing damage to the muscle fibers induces water retention in the body,” Dr. Calabrese explains. “There may be a small amount of inflammation around the micro tear, and your body retains fluid there to try to heal it.” These are short lived changes in the muscle.
You will also most likely experience delayed onset muscle soreness in the 24 to 36 hours after exercising. That is your body’s natural response to those micro muscle tears and the breakdown in muscle tissue.
So, don’t overdo. Eat properly and give your muscles the proper amount of rest so they can heal and rebuild, Dr. Calabrese says.
Increased muscle fuel also adds a little weight
The way your body provides energy to the muscles also can add weight at first.
Glycogen or sugar that your muscle cells convert to glucose is the energy source for your muscles. When you exercise regularly, your body stores more glycogen to fuel that exercise.
Stored in water, glycogen has to bind with water as part of the process to fuel the muscle. That water adds a small amount of weight, too.
“As your muscles become more accustomed to the exercise and more efficient, however, they begin to need less glycogen to maintain the same level of energy output,” Dr. Calabrese says. “Thus, your water retention becomes less, so your weight will start to go down.”
You will start to lose that initial water weight gain (of roughly one to three pounds) a few weeks or a month after starting an exercise program, he says.
Secondary weight gain from new lean muscle mass
There is another source of weight gain that people often misunderstand, Dr. Calabrese says.
You will gain weight from lean muscle mass that you add by building your muscles with exercise or weightlifting. But this won’t happen right away.
It will take you at least a month or two to add any lean muscle mass that would show up in your weight. By that point, you will probably be experiencing a good weight-loss trend because of the exercise.
“Again, people may not consider the early changes to their bodies as positive,” Dr. Calabrese says. “But there will be good changes later, so you have to stick with your exercise program.”
Get informed guidance before you start
Before you add any exercise to your routine, talk to your doctor to make sure your body is healthy enough for exercise.
Next, sit down with a medically based physiologist, physical therapist or athletic trainer who is well-versed in the effects of exercise. He or she can help you map out your exercise program, learn about the proper nutrition and rest you will need, and discuss the changes your body will experience as a result of your training.
Then, get on with your program.
And look forward to the final step — when you take that new body of yours out to enjoy the ski slopes or a sunny, sandy beach.
Your Exercise Routine Is Making You Gain Weight — and It Has Nothing to Do With Your Metabolism
You’re doing everything right — exercising every single day, eating healthy foods, and feeling great. But when you look at the scale, it doesn’t seem to budge. Or worse — you’re noticing your pants fit a little tighter around the waist, and the scale is slowly creeping up.
Exercise can help you build muscle and amp up your metabolism. This is true. But it turns out there’s another reason why your strict workout routine is making you put on the pounds. And if you already have a higher body fat percentage, find out why it’s harder for you to lose fat (page 6).
1. Studies show many people who start exercising more gain fat
Have you noticed a change since you started moving? | iStock.com/dolgachov
You’ve heard it before: The scale is going up when you exercise due to muscle (or perhaps water retention) — but certainly not from fat. But The New York Times says a study suggests many people who start a new workout plan wind up heavier than ever before. And the weight is coming from fat gain.
Losing weight seems like a simple formula: Take in fewer calories than you expend. That’s easier said than done, however — and the study proves it. Some of the women studied gained as many as 10 pounds in their first 12 weeks of exercising.
Next: Here’s one reason why many people gain fat when they hit the gym.
2. Many people with strict exercise routines don’t move as much during the day
You need a balance of both diet and exercise. | LightFieldStudios/Getty Images
We know the importance of exercise, and we’re doing it more than ever. The problem with strict routines is though you may be vigorously moving for an hour so, the rest of your day is most likely spent sitting.
Biomechanist Katy Bowman explains there aren’t many of us who consider the result of “exercising one hour a day and not exercising the other 23,” Quartzy reports. “This single bout of movement in an otherwise sedentary life doesn’t fully meet our need for movement.”
Next: Do you know how many calories your favorite activity burns?
3. You aren’t burning as many calories from exercise as you think
It may look and feel hard, but is it working your body as much as you imagine? | Patchareeporn S/iStock/Getty Images
Your spin class or hot yoga session might make you feel like you’ve burned thousands of calories, but Vox explains exercise only makes up a tiny portion of calories burned throughout the day. Only 10% to 30% of your daily calories burned are from your physical activity. And while you may burn 500 to 600 calories during an hour-long workout session, you can eat that back in a matter of minutes when you’re finished. This makes creating a caloric deficit from just exercise alone a near impossibility.
Next: Yes, your hunger will sabotage you in the end.
4. You’re probably eating back more calories than you burned in the first place
Do you treat yourself after a workout? | Matthewennisphotography/iStock/Getty Images
Before you carbo-load right after your next gym session, it’s smart to grab a protein-rich snack that’s just a few hundred calories if weight loss is your goal. Eating foods high in fiber (think fruits and veggies) will also fill you up without filling you out.
Health also gives this tip to prevent overeating after a workout: Work out before mealtimes. If you’re prone to overeating after you exercise regardless of whether you ate beforehand, this will give you extra calories for wiggle room.
Next: This surprising factor also matters in how hungry you are after working out.
5. Gender also plays a role in how hungry you get post-exercise
Women may struggle with this more than men. | iStock.com/LUNAMARINA
It turns out women may actually get hungrier post-exercise than men, The Huffington Post notes. Experts believe this may be because women are biologically more prone to hanging onto fat for childbirth. When your body sees you’re using up energy stores, it wants to fill them as quickly as possible to ensure you’re hanging on to fat.
Next: If you have a lot of body fat, we have bad news.
6. Having a high body fat percentage means you’re more likely to feel starving after a workout
You may feel starving after a large meal. | iStock.com/wckiw
Many believe the more body fat you have, the easier it is to lose weight. But that’s not always the case. The Huffington Post notes the hormone leptin helps suppress your appetite, but obese women may be resistant to it. That may be why women with a higher body fat percentage are often hungrier post-workout than those who fall within the “normal” range.
As for how to combat this, it turns out shorter workouts may not have as heavy of an effect on your appetite.
Next: Want to stop the hunger? Here’s how to do it.
7. Here’s how to stop feeling starving after you exercise
A small, pre-workout snack may be in order. | AnaBGD/Getty Images
So what’s the real way to stop overeating after a workout? While drinking plenty of water, saving your calories for after your workout, and being mindful of what you’re eating is helpful, Self says keeping your blood sugar steady is really the key.
Your body burns glycogen — stored carbohydrates — when you work out. When your glycogen stores start to dip, your blood sugar levels also dip, which sends hunger signals to your brain. To stop this process, eat a healthy pre-workout snack an hour or two before you plan to exercise.
Next: Here’s one important fact you must remember about your weight.
8. Remember — the scale can’t tell you how healthy you are
You should rethink how you gauge your health. | Ensuria/Getty Images
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff suggests “rebranding” how we think of exercise, Vox notes. It’s true it may not be the answer for weight loss — but that doesn’t mean we can forget its many other benefits. Freedhoff even calls exercise “the world’s best drug” because of its ability to prevent cancer and improve everything from blood pressure to your mood.
And let’s not forget the amount of body fat you have also doesn’t dictate how healthy you are. Don’t get too attached to the scale’s numbers, and remember to move your body for more reasons than just weight loss.
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4 Reasons Working Out Could Cause You to Gain Weight
Right off the bat, I think it’s important to note that weight gain from working out doesn’t happen to everyone — but if it’s happening to you, don’t worry. I’ve seen it happen. It’s completely normal and likely temporary.
Let’s run through the list of four common reasons you might be experiencing weight gain from working out, and we’ll see if we can find a match.
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Gaining Weight While Working Out: 4 Common Causes
1. It’s temporary inflammation.
The most likely reason your scale crept up is inflammation. When you work out, it causes little tears in your muscle fibers. This is called microtrauma and it’s why you feel sore after a workout.
When you incur injury, including microtrauma, your body releases inflammatory mediators that swarm the area and perform triage, bringing in healing white blood cells and opening up blood vessels to flush out debris and toxins. There’s so much going in that area that it swells up, or inflames.
The fluid required for inflammatory response obviously weighs something — and that might show up on your scale. When inflammation is allowed to occur in a healthy way, it’s temporary.
Of course, keeping your diet healthy and allowing for adequate rest and recovery will help speed the body to less inflammatory phases of healing, but the main key is to keep calm and carry on.
If you’re new to fitness — or perhaps just new to a particular kind of fitness — there’s going to be a lot of adaptation going on and therefore a noticeable level of inflammation. It should subside in a couple weeks.
2. You’re gaining muscle.
Another reason you could be gaining weight working out is that you’re building muscle faster than you’re shedding fat.
The general consensus in the fitness community is that the most muscle weight someone who is new to fitness will gain is about two pounds a month, but that’s not a hard-and-fast number.
On more than one occasion, I’ve assisted women who are frustrated because they felt their new exercise regime was making their thighs fat.
And their legs were getting bigger, but only because increased muscle was pushing out the fat, making the legs increase in diameter. The trick here is patience. Once that fat burns off — which it does if you keep at it — thick legs will give way to a toned pair of gams.
3. Your diet is off.
Yes, exercise burns calories, but it also increases your hunger. So if you’re not following a proper diet, you could easily eat more than you should — and you could be adding fat.
Even if you are consuming a low quantity of calories, poor food choices can cause all kinds of issues, usually centered on hormonal imbalances that cause your body to hold onto fat.
We’ll say it one more time: diet is key.
4. Your body is under too much stress.
Exercise is a good thing, but it also puts your body under stress. If done right — with the proper nutritional support, rest, and recovery — the stress caused by exercise toughens you up, fortifying your body against further stress.
However, if you pile exercise on top of a bunch of other lifestyle stress — or if you work out beyond your limits — balance will be lost. Exercise will contribute to your total stress load, becoming part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution.
So if you work twelve hours a day, drink more than two alcoholic drinks a night on a regular basis, smoke, sleep less than seven hours a night, have a chronic injury, eat a junk-filled American diet and you’re overweight, exercise could tax your body just like all the bad habits on this list and actually cause weight gain in a couple different ways.
First, the inflammation process does not progress to the later phases of healing, and you can end up with chronic inflammation throughout the body.
Second, you’ll increase the release of the stress hormone cortisol that, in turn, can promote fat accumulation — particularly fat around the stomach.
Should I Stop Working Out If I’m Gaining Weight?
No matter the reason you might be gaining weight from working out, don’t stop working out!
Give your unexpected added pounds a couple of weeks to work themselves out. If they don’t, step back and see if there’s any other aspect of your life that needs fine-tuning.
Fitness is a holistic issue. Whether your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, or simply get healthier, you want to look at your sleep and other lifestyle habits, not just your diet and exercise regimen. Sparta wasn’t built in a day.
Why Do You Gain Weight Before You Lose It?
You’d think that going on a strict diet and exercise regimen would help you drop pounds quickly, but most people actually gain weight at first. If this has happened to you, don’t give up on your goals just yet. Not only can certain types of exercise, like strength training, make you gain weight from added muscle, you could also be retaining water.
But what about those cases when the weight gain is actually fat, not muscle or water? There are a couple of scenarios that could explain this. Athletes training for triathlon events and even new runners training for their first 5K may easily make the mistake of abusing the “carb-loading” concept. Eating too much pasta and bread will pack on the pounds, so if you’re carb-loading, make sure you know what you’re doing.
Another common mistake exercisers make is overusing protein bars and drinks. The average protein bar easily packs 300 calories, which isn’t a problem unless you’re eating one right after your workout and then eating a meal on top of it all. Unless you’re burning thousands of calories every day in training, protein bars and calorie-rich protein shakes need to be a meal replacement, not a snack.
When consumed correctly, these foods can help you to power up after your workouts and give you lasting energy.
These high insulin levels keep the body in storage mode and make weight loss more difficult, says Dr. Reid. The beginning of this road is insulin resistance — when your pancreas is working overtime, but blood sugar levels are still normal. All that extra work wears out the pancreas until it can barely do the job of keeping the blood sugar in normal range. Left unchecked, insulin resistance can lead to prediabetes, in which blood-sugar levels are slightly elevated; if that’s not treated, you can develop full-blown type-2 diabetes.
Here’s what you do: The most effective way to reverse this trend is to eat a diet low in refined carbs and added sugars, and to become more physically active, since muscles respond better to insulin when they’re being used, says Dr. Reid.
She recommends either investing in a fitness tracker or simply using the one that comes with your phone. “People hear you need 10,000 steps each day, which sounds intimidating, but you can also use it just to see where you’re at and make doable increases,” Dr. Reid says. “If you’re at 2,000 steps, try to go up to 2,500 a day next week.” Swapping to foods with a lower glycemic index (GI) — which means they’re digested more slowly, keeping blood-sugar levels steady — is also important for controlling your insulin levels. Dr. Sowa recommends these lower-GI food swaps: riced cauliflower instead of white rice; zucchini spirals or shirataki noodles (made from plant fiber) instead of pasta; and pumpernickel or stone-ground whole wheat bread instead of white bread or bagels.
Stress and exhaustion are throwing you off.
If you’re up at night worrying about your aging parents, your hormonal teens, and the general crappy state of the world, this can affect your metabolism. “Stress and lack of sleep can cause a cascade of hormonal changes that change your metabolism and affect your sense of hunger and fullness,” Dr. Sowa explains.
Stress pumps up the hormones ghrelin and cortisol, which increase your appetite and can make you crave carbs; at the same time, it dials down the hormone leptin, which helps you feel full. Not surprisingly, a recent Swedish study of 3,800 women over 20 years found that the more stressed you are by work, the more weight you gain. Stress also affects your ability to get a good night’s sleep, and we know that lack of sleep can also throw off your metabolism rates and hunger cues.
Here’s what you do: It’s easy — just fix the world and make everyone around you kinder and more sane.
Hm, maybe not. But you can manage your stress by downloading a free app such as Pacifica, which can help you work toward personal goals such as thinking positively and decreasing anxiety by sending you meditations and visualizations to do throughout the day. To sleep more soundly, you already know you should put down your phone, computer, and iPad an hour before bedtime, but new research shows that shutting out all light — including that sliver of moon through your window — can help with both sleep and metabolism. A study last year at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that after subjects spent just one night of sleeping in a room with increased light, insulin levels were significantly higher than those who slept in complete darkness, potentially affecting metabolism rates. So consider investing in some good blackout curtains.
Your allergy pills are to blame.
“We’re not 100% sure why, but it’s believed that histamines, chemicals produced by your immune system, have a role in appetite control,” says Dr. Reid. That means that “antihistamines may cause you to eat more,” she says. A large study from Yale University confirmed that there is a correlation between regular antihistamine use and obesity. Dr. Reid points out that some antihistamines such as Benadryl also cause drowsiness, so if you take them regularly, you may be tempted to crash on the couch rather than go for a run, causing more weight gain.
Here’s what you can do: If you suffer from seasonal allergies and are constantly taking antihistamines, talk to your allergist about alternative treatments such as nasal steroid sprays, nasal antihistamines (which have less absorption into the bloodstream, and therefore less effect on hunger), leukotriene inhibitors such as Singulair, or allergy shots, suggests Jeffrey Demain, MD, founder of the Allergy Asthma & Immunology Center of Alaska. He also says that managing your environment — using a HEPA filter, washing your sheets frequently in hot water, keeping pets out of your bedroom — can help reduce the need for allergy meds. While you’re at it, do an inventory of any prescription medications you’re taking that are known to cause weight gain (including certain antidepressants, beta blockers, corticosteroids, and the birth control shot) and discuss with your doctor if there are equally effective alternatives that don’t cause weight gain, says Dr. Reid.
Your portions are probably bigger than you think.
Anyone who’s ever sat in a vinyl booth staring down a bowl of pasta big enough for a toddler to swim knows that portion sizes in America are ginormous. But research
from the University of Liverpool published last year found that after being served large-size meals outside the home, people tend to serve themselves larger portions in their own kitchen up to a week later, meaning supersizing appears to be normalized, says Lisa R. Young, PhD, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim.
Even if your home-cooked portions have crept up only 5% over the last few years, that can be an extra 100 calories a day, which adds up to more than 11 pounds a year, says Lawrence Cheskin, MD, chair of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. And the official measure of what’s a “serving” isn’t helping. “The FDA standards for how many ‘servings’ are in a package of food are based on how much food people actually eat, not how much you should eat,” Young explains. For example, to reflect the growing appetites of the American people, a serving of ice cream was increased last year from 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup. More realistic, perhaps, but still more calories than many of us need.
Here’s what to do: First, Young suggests you spend a few days getting a reality check on how much food you’re actually eating at each meal. “When you pour the cereal in the bowl in the morning, pour it back into a measuring cup. What you thought was 1 cup might actually be 3 cups, especially if you’re using a large bowl,” she says.
Also, instead of relying on a government agency (or the chef at your favorite restaurant) at to tell you how much to eat, learn to listen to your own body, says Young. “Serve yourself just one modest portion on a small plate, and when you’re done, wait 20 minutes,” she says. It takes that long for the hormones in your belly to reach your brain and tell it you’re full. If you get to 20 minutes and your stomach is grumbling, have a few more bites.
You’re eating the right thing, but at the wrong time.
Let’s say you switched jobs recently, and dinner is now at 9 p.m. instead of 6:30. Or your new habit of Netflixing until the wee hours also involves snacking well past midnight. Even if you’re not eating more, per se, this change might account for the extra poundage.
There’s a delicate dance between your circadian rhythm (the way your body and brain respond to the daily cues of daylight and darkness) and your calorie intake that can mean that same sandwich or bowl of fro-yo that you eat at lunchtime may actually cause more of a weight gain when eaten at night. A 2017 study at Brigham & Women’s Hospital found that when college students ate food closer to their bedtime — and therefore closer to when the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin was released — they had higher percentages of body fat and a higher body-mass index. The researchers theorize that this is because the amount of energy your body uses to digest and metabolize food drops as your inner clock tells it to get ready to snooze.
Here’s what to do: There are a few life hacks to keep the late-night snacking to a minimum. Dr. Sowa suggests you commit to writing down every bite you eat after dinner: “Whether it’s on a sticky pad or on an app, keeping track of what you’re eating, how much you’re eating, and how you’re feeling when you eat it will hold you accountable for the calories, and it will also help you figure out if you’re truly hungry or just bored,” she says. She also suggests capping off your evening meal with a brain-and-heart-healthy tablespoon of Fish Oil. “It’s a healthy fat that coats your stomach and makes you feel less hungry later,” she says.
Your “healthy” food is packed with calories.
You could be eating the cleanest, most organic, dietitian-approved variety of plant-based, or ethically farmed food, but that doesn’t mean the calories evaporate into pixie dust when they go in your mouth.
And in fact, research has shown that when you’re eating something healthy — avocados, salad, yogurt, whole grains — the part of your brain that pays attention to fullness tends to turn off. “Even when you’re eating healthy foods, you really have to pay attention to your hunger and satiety signals,” says Véronique Provencher, PhD, professor of nutrition at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada. “In several studies we have found that when we perceive a food as healthy it creates a bias in our own judgment, and we think we can eat more of it, no problem. We think a salad is healthy, so we feel we can eat as much as we want with as many dressings or toppings as we want.”
So what can you do? First of all, treat eating like going to the theater, and turn your phone off — and turn away from the computer or TV screen. “We have found when you are eating and working on your computer or watching TV or on a screen you are disconnected from hunger and satiety clues,” says Provencher. Something else that may help, other experts say, is to become more aware of portion sizes and what’s in your food. Try the Weight Watchers app, which helps you sort out questions like which “healthy” yogurts are full of sugar and calories, and how much avocado you should spread on your toast.
Your age might be a factor.
Each birthday you celebrate brings on one undeniable change: your basal resting metabolism (the rate at which your body at rest burns the energy you take in from food) slows down. “It’s not a dramatic drop,” says Dr. Cheskin. “But as you age, you’re probably also getting less active and more tired, and your body tends to lose muscle mass, which burns calories more efficiently than fat.” So even if you’re eating the exact same amount of food as you did when you were younger, your body is simply not burning it off as effectively as it did during the glory days of your 20s.
Here’s what to do: You can only budge your BMR a little, but there are a few things you can do to make the math work in your favor. The first is to build up your calorie-burning muscle, says fitness expert Michele Olson, PhD, a professor of sports science and physical education at Huntingdon College. “Keep up cardio three times a week for 30 minutes, but add challenging weight training on top of that,” she says.
Olson recommends these exercises that can be done at home. Start with what you can do and build up to 2 sets of 12 of each, every other day.
- Chair squats: Sit of the edge of a chair with arms crossed; stand up and sit back down for one rep.
- Triceps dips: Sit on the edge of a chair, supporting yourself with your arms, slide off, walking your feet out in front of you a few steps; with knees bent and body below the seat, bend elbows; press up until arms are straight. (Use a chair without wheels!)
- Push-ups, from your knees, or full push-ups, if you can.
Another metabolism-boosting strategy: Replace some of the carbohydrates in your diet with proteins, which take more energy to digest, therefore burning off more calories through diet-induced thermogenesis, as well as making you feel fuller for longer. Dr. Sowa suggests you eat about 100 grams of protein over the course of the day, filling your plate with lean chicken, fish, shrimp, or plant-based proteins such as garbanzo beans, tempeh, and edamame, to give your meals more metabolism bang for your buck. This may only add up to a weight loss of a few pounds a year, but combined with exercise, the cumulative effect can be significant, says Dr. Sowa.
Marisa Cohen Marisa Cohen is a Contributing Editor in the Hearst Health Newsroom, who has covered health, nutrition, parenting, and the arts for dozens of magazines and web sites over the past two decades.
5 crucial exercise lessons I learned when I cut my body fat nearly in half in 6 months without losing my muscle
“It works a little bit like your bank balance: Spend more than you earn, and the balance goes down,” he said.
“However, what most people really want to do is not just lose weight, but rather lower the proportion of body fat to lean tissue, therefore improving their overall body composition.”
This is a little more challenging. However, it’s not impossible, as I’ve learned this year.
Read more: I lost 35 pounds in 6 months without going on a diet, and it taught me 7 lessons about eating for healthy fat loss
Over the past six months, I have cut my body fat nearly in half and maintained almost all of my muscle mass — it’s dropped ever so slightly, to 31.3 kilograms (69 pounds) from 31.8 kilograms (70.1 pounds).
Indeed, the results of my InBody scans with Worthington revealed that my body-fat mass dropped to 13.5 kilograms in June from 25.4 kilograms at the end of November. My overall weight at the time of the second scan was 69.5 kilograms, down from 82.6 kilograms.
In my first scan, my results for pretty much every measurement were in the “over” range, which essentially meant I was carrying an unhealthily high amount of fat.
I had already been lifting weights consistently for 18 months, so I knew I was strong, and the scan proved this too: My muscle mass was high.
However, because my muscles were shrouded in a decent layer of, well, insulation, I didn’t look particularly strong or fit.
Me in June performing a sumo deadlift. Luke Worthington
I wanted to lose some of the fat for various reasons (one of which, of course, was vanity, because I’m only human), but I was scared I’d lose my muscle too. Anyone who has actively tried to get stronger and achieve those elusive #gains will tell you that putting on muscle is a slow process, especially for women.
But Worthington told me it was totally doable, provided I didn’t drop my calories too low and that I trained wisely.
If you’ve decided you want to get leaner, you probably feel as if you want to go hell for leather and slim down fast. But if you want to hold on to your muscle mass, you need to take your time.
A drastic calorie deficit is not only unsustainable but unwise if you actually want to achieve the toned, sculpted physique many of us crave.
Keeping your protein levels up is also crucial for maintaining muscle — studies have found that following a high-protein diet can help maintain muscle and boost metabolism, keep you feeling full when you’re trying to lose weight, and reduce hunger.
I’ve already written about how I changed my diet to lose fat healthily and sustainably, but there are also important lessons I’ve learned about how to exercise if you want to hold on to your muscle while doing so.
1. Weight training is essential if you actually want your body to look fit.
Squats are a great example of a compound move. Luke Worthington
Simply losing weight probably isn’t going to result in the taught, toned physique many people desire.
People I speak to often think “toned” arms and legs come from doing a lot of reps with low weights, whereas heavy lifting is thought to create a “bulky” look many women dread.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Toning” isn’t really a thing — it’s muscle building. My training mainly involves heavy lifting and low reps, but my arms aren’t “bulky,” because building big muscles is incredibly difficult as a woman. What you will get from this style of training, however, is the “toned” look.
As a general rule, to build muscle you need to be in a calorie surplus, and to lose fat you need to be in a deficit. So if you want to hold on to your muscle while taking in less energy than you’re burning, you need to work your muscles.
Read more: You’re probably squatting wrong, according to Ellie Goulding’s personal trainer
“Retaining lean tissue whilst in the calorie deficit needed to reduce body fat will require regular strength (resistance) training,” Worthington said. “Lean tissue is very much a ‘use it or lose it’ commodity.
“Weight training has the added advantage of being targeted and specific to loading (and overloading) specific movement patterns or body parts. Simply put: You get stronger quicker!”
He added that “additional benefits of weight training include improved mobility, sports performance, reduced injury risk, improved hormonal health, improved mental health, and increased bone density,” which he said was especially important for women.
If you truly hate lifting weights, however, you needn’t force yourself. Although weight training is by far the most effective form of strength training, according to Worthington, it’s not the only one.
He recommends gymnastics, swimming, some forms of yoga, and martial arts as other ways to work out that use some form of resistance to improve strength.
2. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn when resting.
Feeling strong feels awesome. Rachel Hosie
“Having more lean muscle can speed up the fat-loss process, as increased lean muscle increases your resting metabolic rate — so simply put, you are burning more calories in a resting state,” Worthington said.
Increasing your muscle mass is one of the best ways to boost your metabolism, and because I already had a decent amount of muscle, I found that my progress wasn’t slowed as much as it might have been by, say, a weekend of sheer indulgence and overeating.
On the flip side, studies have found that a loss of muscle can lead to a drop in your basal metabolic rate, which makes it harder to keep the weight off.
The more muscle you have, the higher your basal metabolic rate, meaning the easier it is to keep the weight off once you’ve decided to move into maintenance. Many people find that with very little muscle, you have to keep cutting calories lower and lower to keep off the weight you’ve lost.
3. You don’t need to be out of breath and dripping in sweat for a workout to be effective.
Improving your mobility is important too. Luke Worthington
If you think you won’t burn as many calories during your weight training workouts as during more fast-paced cardio, think again. According to my Fitbit, I tend to burn more calories from an hour of weightlifting than a spin class.
“Not all workouts have to be in fifth gear,” Worthington said. “Your body can operate with many different energy systems, and we should train them all.
“There are times to finish in a sweaty mess in the corner, and there are also times to focus on movement quality and control.”
Read more: An Instagram fitness trainer with 2.2 million followers says you’re approaching exercise the wrong way
Just because you’re not gasping for air after a set of squats doesn’t mean you haven’t raised your heart rate, and you don’t need to annihilate yourself for a workout to be effective.
A study conducted last year and published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that you can reap the same rewards from exercise regardless of whether you’re doing high-intensity cardio or simply walking lots throughout the day.
“Many people see HIIT classes as their introduction to exercise, saying they will see a PT ‘when they’re fit enough,'” Worthington said, referring to high-intensity interval training.
“It’s a little like saying you’ll go see your doctor once you’ve gotten over your illness. The process should be the other way around.
“Start your exercise journey with a suitably qualified and experienced trainer (judge them on their clients’ journeys and outcomes, not on their ab selfies), then when you are competent and confident in your movement abilities, work with the trainer on selecting group exercise classes that are most suitable for you.”
4. Setting non-aesthetic goals will keep you motivated.
Lateral lunges are a useful exercise to improve side-to-side movement skills for sport. Luke Worthington
If you’re working out only because you want to change how your body looks, you’re likely to quit before you see results.
Losing fat or building muscle takes a long time, especially if you’re doing it healthily. That’s why it’s a good idea to set training goals that aren’t related to aesthetics.
For example, at the beginning of the year, I challenged myself to do an unassisted pull-up. I managed that a few months later (which felt awesome), and I’m now trying to do five consecutively. Having a goal like this has kept me motivated.
5. Exercise in the ways you enjoy, as that’s how it’ll be sustainable.
Playing netball is one of my favorite ways to exercise. Rachel Hosie
Do you know what you don’t have to find the motivation to make yourself do? The things you enjoy. And that simple fact is the key to exercising consistently.
For me, it’s weightlifting, playing netball, and dancing. I adore all three of these types of exercise, so I actively look forward to doing them, not just how good I know I’ll feel afterward.
You might think you don’t enjoy exercise, period. But that’s probably not the case. Persevere, and find what suits you.
When exercise is fun, you’ll stick to it. Training will no longer feel like a chore, punishment, or necessary evil to “offset” a packet of cookies or boozy weekend. It will become a joy.
Put simply: Start exercising because you love, not hate, your body.