You work out faithfully most days of the week, both cardio and strength training, and love the way exercise makes you look and feel! You notice you’re gaining strength and your energy level is through the roof. All good things! The only problem is you aren’t losing weight. In fact, the scale shows you’re up a pound after several weeks of working out. What’s going on?
It’s frustrating when your goal is to lose weight and the scale isn’t budging, but this doesn’t mean your exercise program isn’t working. How are you measuring your weight loss? A standard scale doesn’t distinguish between the type of tissue (muscle vs. fat) you’re losing or gaining, so it gives you incomplete information.
Is It Fat, Muscle, or Water?
An increase in body weight could be because you’ve gained muscle, thanks to your strength training sessions. You may also have gained water weight. It’s not uncommon for women to gain a few pounds just before menstruation and when taking hormone replacement therapy. Birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy can also cause an increase in body weight.
Take a look at your prescriptions too. A significant number of prescription medications cause weight gain, including antidepressants, medications used to treat chronic pain, seizure medications, and even some blood pressure medications, like beta-blockers. In fact, there are far more medications that cause weight gain than cause weight loss. According to Louis Aronne, MD, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Cornell Medical College, 10-15% of weight gain may be due to medications.
A body fat scale will give you more information, although these scales are not entirely accurate. However, if you use them as directed, weigh first thing in the morning after urinating, and avoid stepping on the scale with wet feet, you’ll get a rough idea of your body fat percentage. The measurements you get from body fat scales is most useful for following body fat percentage changes over time. This is more helpful than tracking your body weight. If your weight is going up but your body fat percentage is dropping, you’re gaining muscle and that’s a healthy change!
Are You Out Eating Your Workouts?
If you’ve determined that you are gaining body fat, not muscle, and it’s not due to medications or water weight, the next step is to look at your diet. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that people who exercise often compensate for the calories they burn by eating more and eating more indulgently. After a tough workout, a little voice in your head might tell you that it’s okay to have an extra cookie or an order of French fries because you worked so hard. Has that ever happened to you?
Unfortunately, humans are notorious for overestimating how many calories they burn during a workout. To put things in perspective, you’d have to walk an hour and 17 minutes to burn the calorie equivalent of a large order of French fries. That order of fries goes down a lot faster than the time it takes to burn them off!
How can you avoid overeating your workouts? Along with an exercise journal, keep a food journal. Write down everything you eat and drink for a few weeks and look at your entries. You may be surprised at the extra calories you’re taking in after a workout. Calories aren’t everything, but they still matter. Also, look at the quality of the food you’re consuming. Are you indulging in refined carbs, sugar, and junk food or are you choosing nutrient and fiber-dense options? Hope it’s the latter! Your body needs nutritional support after a workout, not junk food.
Are You Sitting Too Much?
Another problem that contributes to weight gain in people who exercise is sitting too much between workouts. If you work an office job or work at home doing computer work, you may sit in a chair as much as 8 to 10 hours per day. Why is this bad? Research shows that structured workouts can’t make up for too much time sitting in a chair.
The worst is uninterrupted sitting. Hours of sitting in a chair reduces how much lipoprotein lipase the inner walls of your blood vessels make and release into your bloodstream. Lipoprotein lipase is an enzyme that takes up fat circulating in your blood, removing it from circulation. When this doesn’t happen, blood fats continue to circulate and will eventually be stored as body fat. If long workouts are exhausting you to the point that you sit for the rest of the day, you may gain body fat, even if you’re doing a structured workout and being consistent about it.
Don’t Be Too Obsessed with the Scale
If you’re discouraged about not seeing your weight drop, focus less on the scale and more on other positive mental and physical health benefits you get from working out. Rather than obsess over a number, pay attention to how your clothes are fitting. If they’re becoming a bit looser, you’re on your way! It’s not healthy to obsess over a number that changes on a daily basis due to factors like hydration, salt intake, water retention, constipation, and eating a large meal. These factors say nothing about how much body fat you’re gained or lost. Relax, keep exercising, and pay more attention to what you eat and how much you sit when you’re not working out.
The Bottom Line
It’s frustrating when you believe you’re doing everything right and you’re still not losing weight. Hopefully, these tips will help you distinguish between fat, muscle, and water weight gain. If you are gaining body fat, be sure you’re not sitting too much or out eating your workouts. A food and exercise journal can help you get an objective view of where you stand and make appropriate tweaks and adjustments. Also, be sure you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep per night and managing stress. These things matter too.
University of Rochester Medical Center. “When Your Weight Gain Is Caused by Medicine”
WebMD.com. “Are Your Meds Making You Gain Weight?”