Working out is hard enough, without the emotions that go with stepping on the scale — and finding out the numbers are going in the opposite direction. We’ve all been there (sadly): weeks and weeks of clean eating and diligent exercise, only to see that you’re gaining weight instead of losing it. It’s soul crushing, to say the least.

While you may feel discouraged, rest assured it isn’t cause for panic. That change in the scale doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong, nor does it mean you’re going in the wrong direction. There can be some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons you’re gaining weight. Here, four things you need to know if you’re gaining weight while working out and eating healthy.

You’re gaining muscle.

The most obvious answer is also quite motivating: muscle weighs more than fat — or so the myth says. So while building muscle may increase your body weight, you’re probably still losing inches off your waist or thighs which overall will make you look and feel better. So if the scale isn’t budging or starts to creep up, remember just give it some time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither does your “perfect” body. According to Gerard “Coach G” Burley, owner of SWEAT DC in Washington, DC, “Living healthy is about body composition not just weight. Sometimes you are gaining muscle while losing fat making your body look and feel better.” Worry less about the scale and more about performance, or if you’re in to measuring then focus on body measurements and body fat percentage.

You’re not giving your body time to respond.

Just because you start exercising doesn’t always mean your body will respond to that immediately. Exercise — like everything — puts stress on our body, and it can put your body into shock, which ultimately can lead to weight gain. Sometimes, the body just needs time to adjust. “Don’t pay attention to the scale,” Lauren Buckner, owner of Body by Buckner in Washington, DC tells ESSENCE. “Pay attention to how you feel and focus on your increased power, energy and strength. As we workout we are building more muscle and changing the structure of our bodies. We don’t always know how that will play out on the scale, but what we do know is how we feel.”

Water retention.

Another unassuming culprit is water retention. (Just when you thought water was good for you, it turns against you) “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. There’s a theory that the body will actually retain water when you exercise, not only as part of the healing process but also as a method of getting glycogen to the body in a more efficient way. That more efficient fuel system means you may carry around a few extra pounds of water.

You have an underlying medical condition.

In very rare cases, there may be something seriously wrong. So if you’re doing all the right things — eating a calorie deficit diet and exercising more — and nothing is still working, it may be time to talk to your doctor. For example, women with thyroid issues can cause weight gain and weight loss to be more challenging.

The main thing to remember: keep going! You’ll be better off today than you were 90 days ago. And 90 days from now, you’ll be even better than that. And then again after that! Slow progress leads to big wins.

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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? |

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. |

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. |

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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Understanding Exercise-Induced Weight Gain

It is common knowledge that exercise burns calories and helps you to shed extra pounds.
Armed with this knowledge, many people think that losing weight should be easy with enough exercise. You may take this as bad news, but the truth is that for those who aren’t used to exercising and are out of shape, beginning an exercise program may actually lead to weight gain.
This fact, however, shouldn’t stop you from exercising, as you’ll eventually turn the weight corner and start losing.
What is it about exercise that may cause some people to gain instead of lose weight?
Muscle Mass: One of the main reasons exercising can lead to weight gain is that it promotes the growth of muscle mass.
If you are not used to working out and haven’t used certain muscles regularly, after exercising your muscles will be sore and will increase in size. While you may burn off fat, muscle is denser than fat. Therefore, the weight you gain is in your muscles.
And take heart. Since muscles take up less space than fat, your extra weight doesn’t necessarily translate to larger size. In fact, once you start working out, you’ll probably become thinner, even if you maintain your previous weight. Instead of using a scale to determine if you are slimming down, have your body fat tested regularly or measure your body at certain areas.
If you see that you’re losing inches, then you know you’re on the right track.
Cardiovascular activities like walking, running, or swimming will encourage the growth of lean, toned muscles. Other activities such as weight lifting promote the growth of larger, stronger muscles that contribute to weight gain.
But there is good news in this. If you stick with the exercise program, your muscles will soon stabilize in size and after a time, become toned. After your muscles are strong and able to handle more strenuous workouts, you will be able to burn calories faster.
While it may be frustrating and disappointing to see the scale go up after starting an exercise routine, it shouldn’t stop you from exercising. You may just be building muscle faster than losing body fat. This can be especially true if you’re genetically prone to building muscle fast. The key is to incorporate plenty of cardio exercise in addition to strength training. That way you will burn plenty of calories during your routine and be more able to shed pounds.
Eating Habits: When you work out and burn calories, your body will feel the need to replace those burned calories.
This may make you feel hungrier than usual, which can cause you to eat more than normal – sometimes without knowing it. A good idea is to keep a food journal to track of the actual number of calories you are consuming.
You may also end up eating more calories and justifying their consumption since you’re exercising. After a good workout, you may see an ice cream sundae as a reward for the calories you burned. Just be careful. If you’re interested in losing weight, you can’t simply break even with your caloric intake and the amount of calories you burn.
At the same time, eating too few calories can be counterproductive and slow your weight loss. Without enough calories, your body may slow its metabolism. So eat plenty to keep your body well fueled, but choose healthy calories that will help your body recover after a workout and grow stronger.
Hydration: Depending on the time of day you weigh yourself, the scale may read differently. Your weight can fluctuate as much as five pounds depending on the amount of water or food you have recently consumed or the amount of water you have shed in sweat. It is therefore important to weigh yourself at the same time each day.
I’m sure most of you who are clients and reading this are thinking: I’ve heard this before. It’s a hard consept for some to grasp but, we must remember that weight/fat loss is a process and it’s important to understand how the process can be affected.

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.)

What Causes Water Retention and How to Get Rid Of It

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You’ve counted every calorie and checked them twice.

You’ve logged every step and rep, every day.

You’ve bought every supplement that might possibly help.

And you’re still not losing weight.

What the hell?

You know how a calorie deficit works and you’re not overeating.

You know how to prevent “metabolic damage” and aren’t starving yourself.

And you know you’re working way too damn hard in the gym to see the same dismal sight in the mirror and on the scale every day.

Well, when the “obvious” reasons for a weight loss plateau are eliminated, the culprit is often water retention. And when water retention is the problem, it’s important that you address it correctly.

If you do what most people do–exercise even more and eat even less–you’ll likely make the problem even worse.

The emotional firestorm of anger and frustration will burn even hotter…and the only hope for extinguishing it will likely become a long, greasy binge.

I don’t want that to happen to you.

So in this article, I’m going to break it all down: what causes water retention, what works for getting rid of water weight and what doesn’t, and more.

Let’s get to it.

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What Causes Water Retention?

First, let’s clarify that the type of water retention we’re talking about in this article isn’t the medical condition edema.

That’s an indication that something is seriously wrong–maybe even life threateningly wrong–and requires immediate medical attention.

The type of water retention we’re talking about here threatens nothing but our vanity.

It’s the jiggly layer covering our abs, hips, and thighs that won’t seem to disappear no matter how little we eat or how much we exercise.

There are three primary causes of this type of water retention…

Elevated cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenals in response to stress and low blood sugar levels.

Almost every cell has receptors for cortisol so its effects are myriad and include influencing blood sugar and fluid retention levels, the metabolism of food, the central nervous system, and more.

Under normal conditions, cortisol doesn’t cause water retention problems. Under abnormal conditions, however, which we’ll talk about in a minute, it does.

Sodium and potassium imbalances.

Sodium is well absorbed by cells and brings water in with it.

Thus, when you eat a large amount of sodium, it can cause cells to temporarily retain water until balanced can be restored to cellular fluid levels. This is also why when you restrict sodium intake, water retention decreases.

Potassium plays a vital role in restoring this cellular fluid balance. Whereas sodium sucks water into cells, potassium pumps it out, and this is why research shows that restricting potassium intake can increase fluid retention.

Not drinking enough water.

If you don’t give your body enough fluids it causes adaptations that increase water retention.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these points.

How Cortisol Can Cause Water Retention

To learn more about how cortisol levels affect water retention, let’s review a fascinating bit of research conducted decades ago known as the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment.”

Led by Dr. Ancel Keys, its purpose was to study the physical and psychological effects of starvation and create an effective regimen for helping starved POWs resume normal eating patterns and metabolic functions.

The experiment was conducted with 36 volunteers (war protesters that chose this over shipping overseas) and started with 12 weeks of daily hard labor and a “maintenance” diet of about 3,200 calories.

Next came the 6-month “semi-starvation” phase of the investigation, which consisted of cutting calorie intake in half to about 1,500 calories while maintaining the physical labor routine.

The investigators adjusted each man’s diet along the way with the goal of producing a ~25% reduction in body weight by the end of the 6-month period (yikes).

After the semi-starvation period, there was 20 weeks of “metabolic rehabilitation,” which consisted of restricted and unrestricted increases in calorie intake.

There’s quite a bit of interesting information in the published findings of the study, but I want to zoom in on one observation in particular here.

In the beginning of the experiment, the men generally lost weight in predictable and linear fashion of about two pounds per week, every week.

After some time, though, weight loss became strangely nonlinear. Nothing would change on the scales for several weeks and, literally overnight, “bursts” of weight loss would occur, with men weighing in several pounds lighter than the day before.

What researchers discovered is they were seeing the effects of dramatic increases and decreases in water retention. In the world of bodybuilding, this is known as the “whoosh effect.”

That is, the men did lose fat in the weeks where weight didn’t change but it was offset by equal, or even greater, amounts of water retention.

Now, you’re probably wondering what triggered the “whooshes” in the prisoners.

Well, some occurred at random but scientists found that they most often followed acute increases in calorie intake.

For example, at the experiment’s halfway mark, a 2,300-calorie meal was served to celebrate. The scientists noted that many of the men woke up several times that night to pee and, the next morning, were several pounds lighter.

Now, what was going on here exactly? What was causing the men’s bodies to retain large amounts of water and why did eating large amounts of food reverse this?

Well, the primary culprit was the hormone cortisol.

Research shows that a prolonged calorie deficit dramatically raises cortisol levels. This causes quite a few unwanted effects in the body including increased water retention.

Spike your cortisol levels and you’ll also spike the amount of water your body holds and look bloated.

That being so, you’d expect a large reduction in cortisol levels to do the opposite then, right?

Well, that’s exactly what happened to the Minnesota Experiment patients. The feast that triggered the whoosh substantially lowered cortisol levels, which in turn caused the rapid expulsion of water.

This is why a “refeed day” will often produce a weight loss “whoosh” and why weight loss will often continue during a period of reverse dieting.

So, bringing this back to the topic at hand, the point is this:

If your cortisol levels are chronically elevated, you’re going to have problems with water retention.

How Sodium and Potassium Can Cause Water Retention

Sodium and potassium work together to operate a “pump” built into cells that is vital for maintaining their potential for action.

This cellular pump is always active, pushing sodium ions out and potassium ions in. It’s built to ensure cells contain relatively high amounts of potassium ions but low amounts of sodium ions.

Here’s a good video that shows how it works:

As you can see, your cells use this pump to maintain a balance of sodium, potassium, and fluid inside their walls.

Now, when you dramatically increase your intake of sodium, it throws off this intra-cellular balance.

Larger-than-normal amounts of sodium–and fluids–find their way into cells, which then have to “wait” for their pumps to bring things back to normal.

And you get to deal with that soft, bloated look that you hate so much while you wait. 🙂

Similarly, when you dramatically decrease potassium intake, this too causes water retention because potassium is necessary for the operation of the cellular pumps.

How Dehydration Causes Water Retention

If you don’t give your body enough water through food and drinking, it takes action to hold on to the water it is getting.

This includes releasing hormones like aldosterone and vasopressin that increase water retention through various mechanisms.

The Bottom Line on What Causes Water Retention

The majority of the people I’ve spoken and worked with that struggled the most with water retention were…

  1. In a calorie deficit. And in many cases a large deficit.
  2. Doing large amounts of exercise. And particularly large amounts of cardio, which can chronically elevate cortisol levels.
  3. Not losing weight over the last several weeks. Despite the large calorie deficit and strenuous exercise routine. (And this is because, like the subjects of the Minnesota Experiment, they were losing fat but it was obscured by increased water retention.)
  4. Not paying attention to sodium and potassium intake. When they started logging it they realized that potassium intake was generally low and sodium intake was all over the place.
  5. Not drinking enough water. You can get a fair amount of water through the food you eat but not enough.

And in terms of a solution…we’ll get to that in a minute. First, we need to take a pit stop…

Is It Water Weight or Just Fat?

Why do people hate to admit they’re just fat?

Not bloated. Not holding water. Not thick skinned.

Just fat.

Help me Dan Ariely, you’re my only hope!

Alright…full disclosure…I can be just as guilty of this as anyone. Raise your hand if you’ve come off a weekend of a wee bit too much “cheating” and told yourself you’re just waterlogged.

*Head down and hand up*

Sometimes we have to face the music though. Sometimes the wiggly layer covering our abs isn’t water–it’s just fat.

How to know the difference, though?

Well, there are two different scenarios to address here.

If you’ve seen a rapid increase in weight…

You can only eat so many calories and your body can only digest and process so much food and synthesize so much fat in a day.

As a general rule, if you have gained more than a pound in one day, or an average of a pound per day over the course of several days, you can bet that a sizable portion of it is water weight.

Sure, this won’t hold for all situations–eat 10,000 calories of 5 Guys hamburgers for a week straight and you’re going to gain a lot of fat…but who does that anyway? *cough*

If your weight has been relatively stable…

Some people say that water retention feels “squishier” than body fat.

Others say that for the abdominal region in particular, you can “test” by pulling the skin away from your body and releasing it. If the area “ripples” as the skin returns to your body, you may be dealing with excess water retention.

Others still say they notice generalized swelling or larger-than-normal fingers or ankles when they’re holding large amounts of water.

Personally I haven’t found indicators like these reliable. They’re too subjective and variable from person to person.

I think the best way to make sense of your situation is to first (approximately) determine your body fat percentage.

The effects of water retention don’t become pronounced and distinguishable from body fat until you’re around 10% (men)/20% (women) body fat and under.

That is, if you’re a guy at 15% body fat, you’re going to look puffy and undefined regardless of how much or little water you’re holding. The same goes if you’re a girl at 25%.

If, however, you’re a guy at 10% or under, or a girl at 20% or under, you’re in the range where water retention can noticeably affect what you see in the mirror.

If this is you, then you can review the criteria I gave earlier…

  • Calorie deficit.
  • A lot of exercise every week.
  • Not losing weight despite the above.
  • Large/unknown fluctuations in sodium and potassium intake.
  • Inadequate water intake.

And determine how likely it is that your jiggly bits are “soggy” and not just fatter than you want to admit.

How to Get Rid of Water Retention

Alright then…it’s time to put some rubber on the road.

If you’ve read everything up to this point then you already have a good idea about how to lose weight, but I’m going to spell it all out here.

You Probably Need to Reduce Your Sodium Intake

As you know, eating too much sodium in general promotes water retention and large fluctuations in sodium intake does as well.

Thus, by stabilizing your sodium intake at a healthy level, you can drop and stabilize water weight.

First, you want to get an idea of how much sodium you’re eating.

Check out the sodium content of the last week or so worth of food you’ve eaten using a tool like Calorie King. Don’t forget to add in guesstimates for how much salt you’ve been using as well (salt has about 2.3 grams of sodium per teaspoon).

If you’re like most people, you’re going to discover two things:

  1. You eat a lot of sodium.
  2. Your sodium intake fluctuates dramatically from day to day.

The solution is simple: eat less sodium and make this your daily norm.

In terms of how much sodium you should be eating, stick to the USDA’s recommendation of about 2.3 grams of sodium per day (and 1.5 grams for African Americans, individuals with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease and individuals ages 51 and older).

(I should note, however, that people that sweat regularly may need more sodium to offset losses through sweating. I personally eat around 3.5 to 4 grams per day.)

Here are some good rules of thumb for keeping your sodium intake under control:

  • Be wary of canned or pre-packaged foods.

They’re often loaded with sodium as a preservative.

  • The same goes for deli meat.

And for the same reason. 🙂

  • Reduce your use of table salt and certain seasonings.

Use salt sparingly and if needed, use a potassium-based salt substitute.

Watch out for mixed seasonings as well, like chili or pizza seasoning. They can contain quite a bit of sodium.

  • Watch out for sauces and salad dressings.

Many are very high in sodium.

  • Cheese can be a problem too.

For example, just one once of American cheese has nearly 500 milligrams of sodium.

While it might be annoying to plan/track yet another thing in your diet, don’t worry–you don’t have to track sodium intake forever.

Instead, you want to plan/track at first to see what works and what doesn’t and then just use common sense in maintaining good habits going forward.

Yes, that means your sodium intake is going to fluctuate some and occasionally spike with “cheat meals” and such, and that’s fine.

So long as your intake is stably in the right range most of the time, and you go back to normal right after occasional spikes, you’ll be fine.

And Raise Your Potassium Intake

Insufficient potassium intake is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in Western diets. The Institute of Medicine recommends 4.7 grams of potassium per day and, as of 2010, the average American intake was 2.64 grams per day.

The best sources of potassium are the types of foods many people avoid–fruits and vegetables–and hence the widespread problem.

This mineral imbalance contributes to water retention, but it’s a lot worse than that.

A study conducted by scientists from the Center for Disease Control and Harvard University found that people with the highest ratio of sodium to potassium were twice as likely to die of a heart attack and had a 50% higher risk of death from any cause than people with the lowest ratio.

The bottom line is people with diets very high in sodium and very low in potassium are playing with fire.

So pay attention to your sodium and potassium intake. Your life quite may literally, one day, depend on it.

How to Get Your Cortisol–and Water Retention–Under Control

Water retention is particularly common among dieters and the culprit is often chronically elevated cortisol levels.

There are simple things you can do to bring this hormone back to where you want it and shed the water…

Cut back on the exercise.

In my experience working with thousands of people, overtraining is far more common than under-training.

People are willing to work incredibly hard to reach their goals and figure the more they exercise, the faster they’ll get there.

Unfortunately, that’s only true up to a point.

Yes, training 5 hours per week is more effective than 1 hour, but 10 hours per week is not necessarily more effective than 5.

The reason for this is simple: intense exercise puts a lot of stress on your body and it needs time to rest and recover

This isn’t just muscular stress, either. The nervous system is also heavily involved and, if you try to demand too much of it, eventually it just can’t keep up.

So, here’s the long story short:

If you’re in a calorie deficit and you’re doing more than 4 to 6 hours of weightlifting and 1 to 2 hours of moderate-to-high-intensity cardio per week, you’re probably doing too much.

And if you’re doing that and also dealing with issues like water retention and general fatigue, I can basically guarantee that you’re doing too much.

If that’s you…or if it’s not quite you but you suspect your cortisol levels are too high…here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Do a deload week in the gym. Taking a short break from heavy lifting can be surprisingly restorative.
  2. Do no cardio for the week. No, this isn’t going to make you fat.
  3. Increase your calorie intake by 5 to 10%. Do this by increasing your carb intake. And no, this won’t make you fat either.
  4. Make sure you get enough sleep. Shoot for 7 to 8 hours per night.

Make sure you’re not in too severe of a calorie deficit.

The worst way to lose weight is to simply starve yourself and do a ton of cardio.

You can be aggressive with your calorie deficit and do well but not reckless.

That’s why I generally recommend a deficit of 20 to 25% for maximizing fat loss and minimizing muscle loss while also managing metabolic adaptation.

If you don’t know how to do this–how to approximate the amount of energy you’re burning every day and how much you should be eating–check out this article.

Chill out.

You can reduce cortisol levels by simply taking some time each day to relax, take a nap, listen to some good music, drink some tea, do some deep breathing, and so forth.

Whatever calms you is worthwhile.

I share 10 scientifically proven ways to relax and lower cortisol here. Check ’em out and put them to good use!

Get more sleep.

High-quality sleep is getting scarcer and scarcer these days thanks to ever-increasing obesity rates, work hours, TV watching, video game playing, and other distractions that keep us up at night.

Well, when your body is asleep, it might look inactive, but that’s far from the case.

It’s very busy repairing tissue and producing hormones—functions that are especially important if you’re subjecting your body to increased lev­els of stress every day through dieting and exercising.

Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, you don’t get as much sleep as you should.

I’m not going to point fingers here–I’m often just as guilty as the rest of us–but if you’re dealing with cortisol issues, it’s time to spend more time with Morpheus.

Eat a Bunch of Food

Yeah, you read that correctly.

Remember what triggered the rapid weight loss with the starved subjects of the Minnesota Experiment?

Large increases in calories. Or, in fitness parlance, “cheat meals.”

I mentioned earlier that this was due to a reduction in cortisol levels, so let’s take a closer look at how this actually works.

The key is a hormone called leptin, which is produced by fat cells, and which regulates many things in the body such as hunger, metabolic rate, appetite, libido, and more.

  • When you’re in a calorie deficit, your leptin levels drop, and this triggers a cascade of unwanted side effects like a reduction in metabolic rate, increased appetite, and even depression.

It also causes cortisol levels to rise.

  • On the other hand, when you give your body more energy (calories) than it needs, leptin levels are boosted, which can then reverse–to varying degrees–some of the negative effects given above (including the elevation in cortisol levels).

So…sometimes the “secret” dropping water weight is simply indulging in some tasty food.

That said, I don’t recommend eating just anything. If you want to get the most anti-bloat bang for your calories, you want to do a “refeed day.” Click here to learn how it works.

Drink Enough Water

The Institute of Medicine recommends that we get about a gallon of water per day, and while we do get a fair amount from food, this requires drinking at least a few liters of water every day.

Personally I drink about 1 to 1.5 gallons per day because I lose a fair amount of water through my daily exercise and living in Florida (sweating).

In terms of what type of water is best to drink, research shows that tap water is becoming more and more contaminated with all kinds of pollutants–bacteria, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, and various types of poisonous chemicals.

Bottled water isn’t much better, either. It’s exorbitantly expensive and research shows that it’s often chock full of chemicals too.

One study examined 18 different bottled waters from 13 different companies and found over 24,000 chemicals present including endocrine disruptors.

Martin Wagner, a scientist at Goethe University Frankfurt’s Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology and author of the study, had this to say:

“Bottled water had a higher contamination of chemicals than glass bottles. There are many compounds in bottled water that we don’t want to have there. Part is leaching from the plastic bottles, lids or contamination of the well.”

This is why I recommend you invest in an effective water filtration device such as the ZeroWater pitcher or iSpring reverse osmosis system, and why I myself stick to filtered water.

Keep in mind that what you want to achieve with water filtration is very low levels of dissolved solids in the water, as measured in “parts per million.” The closer to 0, the better. (Tap water generally tests at anywhere from 200 to 700 PPM of dissolved solids.)

You can measure the levels of dissolved solids in your water using an electronic water tester like this one. It’s what I use to keep an eye on my water quality so I know when filters need to be changed.

Do Natural Diuretics Work?

There are many foods and naturally occurring substances that supposedly have diuretic effects, including…

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Celery
  • Onion
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Hawthorn
  • Parsley
  • Watermelon
  • And more…

Well, like the bogus “fat burning food” pitch, the idea of magically dropping large amount of water weight by making slight changes to our diets and supplement regimens sounds great…but it doesn’t work like that.

The reason for this is simple: while there are natural substances that exert mild diuretic effects, they don’t address the cause of the water retention and thus can’t resolve the issue.

For example, caffeine and alcohol posses slight diuretic effects but they’re so slight that the amount of liquid you consume to get the molecules can offset it.

Similarly, research shows that hawthorn and parsley are natural diuretics but their effects are mild and temporary.

The reality is if you’re struggling with water retention, fixing it is going to require lifestyle changes and not pills and powders.

The only situation where I would recommend turning to natural diuretics is if you’re very lean and have a competition or photo shoot or some other one-day affair that requires you look as dry and defined as possible.

That’s why many fitness competitors restrict carbohydrate intake leading up to a show, often restrict sodium intake several days before going on stage, and add several natural diuretics to their regimen. (Well, let’s be real–most competitors use diuretic drugs and other compounds to increase hardness as well, which are much more effective than anything you can buy on Amazon).

The Bottom Line on Water Retention

Water retention throws many a dieter for a loop.

It makes people think that energy balance is a hoax….that calorie counting doesn’t work…that their metabolisms are “broken” or hormones are screwed…and all kinds of other voodoo nonsense.

Desperate for a change, many of these people then set off to find silver bullet fixes and turn to fad dieting, silly or even dangerous supplements, and grueling exercise routines.

And when all that fails, desperation often turns into despair and they just give up.

Well, that vicious cycle can be completely avoided by applying what I lay out in this article. I hope you’ve found it helpful.

What’s your take on water retention? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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Why the Scale Goes Up When You Start a New Workout Plan

By Chalene Johnson
Probably the most common question I get when I release a new exercise program is, “Help! I’m gaining weight! Am I doing something wrong?” This is a common phenomenon with any new exercise program, such as Turbo Kick, Turbo Jam, Hip Hop Hustle, or others! It’s especially common (and temporary) with intense strength training programs like ChaLEAN Extreme or Tony Horton’s P90X.
The motivation to start a new exercise program is almost always to lose weight. However, what most personal trainers know–and most at-home exercisers do not–is that a new exercise program often can cause an immediate (and temporary) increase on the scale. (Notice I didn’t say weight gain! I’ll explain.) This common increase in the scale is also the reason why perhaps millions of people start and then quickly quit their resolution to get fit.

The temporary weight gain explained:

When someone starts a new exercise program, they often experience muscle soreness. The more intense and “unfamiliar” the program, the more intense the muscle soreness. This soreness is most prevalent 24 to 48 hours after each workout. In the first few weeks of a new program, soreness is the body trying to “protect and defend” the effected or targeted tissue. Exercise physiologists refer to this as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
This type of soreness is thought to be caused by tissue breakdown or microscopic tears in muscle tissue. When this happens, the body protects the tissue. The muscle becomes inflamed and slightly swollen due to fluid retention. This temporary retention of fluid can result in a 3- to 4-pound weight gain within a few weeks of a new program. Keep in mind that muscle soreness is not necessarily a reflection of how hard you worked. In fact, some people feel no signs of muscle soreness, yet will experience the muscle protection mechanisms of water retention and slight swelling.
Most people are motivated enough to put up with this temporary muscle soreness. Yet, many, especially those who really need immediate weight loss to keep them motivated, become discouraged and quit!
When I worked with a group of 70 test participants during the development stages of ChaLEAN Extreme, this happened. Who was the most upset and discouraged? You guessed it… the women! I’m happy to report absolutely for every single woman (and man) in our group, the weight increase was temporary and never lasted more than two weeks before they started to see a major drop in the scale. However, these people had the advantage of working with someone who was able to explain to them why this was happening and assure them the weight would come off if they stuck to the nutrition plan and stayed true to the program.
If you follow a multi-phase exercise plan, such as ChaLEAN Extreme, keep in mind that when you start each phase, your body will be “in shock” again. Don’t be surprised or discouraged if you experience a temporary gain on the scale the first week of each phase.
My own personal example of this is running 10Ks. I don’t do it very often, maybe once or twice a year. Even though I run on a regular basis, when you run a race, you push much harder. It’s natural for me to be insanely sore the next day. It’s also very common for me to see the scale jump 4 pounds the next day from forcing fluids post race and the resulting DOMS. Even though I know the cause of it, it’s still a bummer. We’re all human and hard work should mean results. Hard work equals results, but our bodies are amazing machines and they know how to protect us from hurting ourselves. Soreness forces you to give those muscles a break. Ultimately you will lose the weight and you will change your metabolism in the process.
The key is understanding that this is a normal and temporary and stick with the program!

When to be concerned:

If you experience a significant weight gain (exceeding 5 pounds) that does not begin to decrease rapidly after the second week, guess what it is? I’ll give you one hint… you put it in your mouth and chew it. You know it! Your food (or calorie-laden beverages). News flash, friends… exercise doesn’t make you gain weight. Consuming more food than you burn makes you gain weight!
So if after two weeks you are not losing weight and have gained weight that’s not coming off, it’s time to take a close and honest look at your food intake. Start using SparkPeople’s Nutrition Tracker regularly, and be honest.

Moral of the story:

Be patient young grass hopper. You’ll be lean and mean in no time!
To read more of my blogs, . And be sure to read my first guest blog post on SparkPeople, The True Story behind the Turbo Jam Workouts.
Editor’s note: SparkPeople has partnered with Powder Blue Productions and Chalene Johnson to co-promote each other’s products and services.
(Photo courtesy of Chalene Johnson)
Have you ever experienced weight gain when starting a new workout program? Did it come off after a few weeks?

That spike in cortisol caused by exercise promotes the production of glucose by the liver for ready-to-use energy, the breakdown of muscle protein into amino acids that are then converted to glucose for energy, and the secretion of glucose into the bloodstream for ready-to-use energy, Chag explains. All good things during a workout! But “chronically elevated levels of cortisol can lead to chronically elevated blood pressure, which can then lead to fluid retention,” she adds. When your body’s hanging on to extra water, it can make you feel and look heavier, or bloated.

But—duh—what you eat before or during a run has an even bigger role on how you feel throughout it. “When you’re running, blood is diverted away from the gut and into the working muscles,” explains Natalie Rizzo, R.D., author of The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide for Every Runner. “If you eat a large meal shortly before a run, chances are the food is going to sit undigested in your stomach and cause distress.” The same can happen if you eat fatty foods, because they take a long time to digest, or sugary drinks and high-fiber foods, which can both cause bloating and gas when consumed too close to a run.

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New runners are especially susceptible to a distended stomach, says Rizzo. “The stomach is a muscle and needs to be trained in how to handle the up and down motion of running,” she says. Longer distance or more experienced runners aren’t immune, though. “People who haven’t figured out their sports nutrition yet will probably have issues, and those who rely on a lot of sports products may have some bloating until their body gets used to the products.”

To avoid that puffed up feeling during or after a run, nailing your fuel strategy is key. “Don’t overload yourself with fatty foods, fiber, or sugary drinks before a run. Simple carbs like fruit or starches are considered easy to digest pre-run fuel,” says Rizzo. “Listen to your stomach and pay attention to certain foods that may not agree with it. And, most importantly, stay hydrated throughout the day!”

Ashley Mateo Ashley Mateo is a writer, editor, and UESCA-certified running coach who has contributed to Runner’s World, Bicycling, Women’s Health, Health, Shape, Self, and more.

Avoid unnecessary weight gain by watching out for these six mistakes runners often make.

It’s a common runner phenomenon: You start ramping up mileage for your next big race and the scale starts creeping up. Huh? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? The term for this is “train gain,” and it doesn’t just strike newbies. “It can happen to anyone at any point in their running career,” says Indianapolis-based sports dietitian Jackie Dikos.

Here’s the good news: It’s not always body fat. The extra couple of pounds could be more muscle the body puts on as it becomes stronger. Registered dietitian Kate Davis, owner of RDKate Sports Nutrition in Naperville, Ill., explains, “Your performance on your runs can clue you in on if the weight is extra fat or muscle,” she says. (Translation: If you’re slowing down, it’s probably not healthy muscle.) In any case, unwanted pounds can be overcome by sidestepping these six mistakes runners often make while training.

You’re skimping on sleep.
Early morning runs might cut into your shut-eye sessions, leaving you fatigued during the day. On top of that, you might be stressing your body out with a crazy hard training plan you weren’t quite ready for. In response, the body often craves extra calories as a quick source of energy, explains Dikos.

Beat gain: In terms of sleep, look at your habits. That may be something as simple as turning the TV o one hour earlier so you can make up the time lost in the morning. If your training is leaving your body exhausted, it’s important to examine your regimen and make adjustments as necessary. For example, are there down weeks built into your training plan where you back off the mileage—or is every week adding distance and intensity?

You’re too focused on calories.
Have you heard the idea that running burns 100 calories per mile? While that’s generally true (though it differs for everyone), Dikos does not have her athletes count calories—even those who are looking to lose weight. Calculating cals can be a good way to learn what foods have more than others, but after that it can actually lead to weight gain. Thinking of meals as purely a numbers game ensures you will become out of touch with your body.

Beat gain: Let your internal hunger cues be your guide. Dikos suggests paying attention to signs of fullness, like pressure in your stomach or less enjoyment from your meal, and stopping accordingly.

You weigh yourself before a long run.
Though it can be a shock—how’d you gain two pounds overnight?—it’s totally normal to see a jump in the scale at this time. When you’ve been eating more carbs, your muscles store carbs (glycogen) and water along with it, so it’s likely water weight.

Beat gain: The key is to resist feeling frustrated and throwing in the towel. (I’m gaining weight like crazy, there’s no going back now!) Don’t overreact. You may sweat out a lot of that on your run or pee out the extra water. “Isn’t it better to be hydrated and fueled for long endurance workouts?” asks Davis. If it causes too much strife, don’t step on the scale next time.

You’re too strict.
“Many athletes I work with see food as good or bad,” says Dikos. “They try to eat low-cal foods as much as possible to lose weight.” The problem: In an effort to avoid, say, pasta, you might restrict yourself too much, which can cause you to snap and scarf down a sleeve of cookies.

Beat gain: All foods fit into a healthy runner’s diet, so ditch the labels. Focus on what your body craves for fuel, including healthy carbs, protein and fat. Having that balance will help you resist binges later on.

You’re rewarding yourself with food.
You just ran 10 miles, so you should have a doughnut and pancakes with breakfast, right? While it may have taken you an hour and a half to run, you can easily replenish those calories burned in 5 minutes with junk food.

Beat gain: After a long run, focus on getting good nutrition to replenish glycogen stores and stimulate muscle recovery, advises Davis. Examples: Eat an apple and nut butter, a protein-packed smoothie or a whole-wheat tortilla with black beans and avocado. At lunch or dinner, enjoy a side order of fries or an ice cream cone, because if there was ever a time to do it, it’s on a high-mileage day. Just be careful you’re not making it a free-for-all and the mentality doesn’t bleed into your next 10 meals.

You’re eating and drinking too much during the run.
“There is so much emphasis on keeping yourself fueled during runs that some runners take in too many calories in the form of gels, sports drinks, sport beans and other products,” says Davis. For example, 12 ounces of Gatorade packs 80 calories, while one energy gel contains 100 calories. Add that to a before- and after-workout snack, and things add up.

Beat gain: If you have a snack before your workout, you don’t need any more fuel unless you’re running longer than 75 minutes. Water is usually enough for shorter times and distances. On long runs, Davis recommends aiming for 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise.

9 Healthy Foods That Can Cause Weight Gain
5 Afternoon Habits For Healthy Weight Loss

Water Retention after a Long Run

by Misty
(Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

Does anyone else experience extreme water retention after a long run or a race? I have ran 7 half marathons in the past 3 years and I have noticed that I bloat up really badly after the race (gain 3-4 lbs of water).

I use gels, and electrolyte replacement drinks during the race and drink lots of water, it also does not matter if it is a cool or hot day, happens to me regardless of weather.
What could be causing this?
It doesn’t happen to me on shorter runs; in fact I lose water and am lighter after a short run. I just ran a half on Sunday and today is Wednesday and I’m just finally getting back to normal.

Answer by Anissa:
Thanks for your question regarding water retention after your long runs and races.
I personally understand how frustrating this is, many times after a long run I have come home feeling puffy and bloated as well.
After all of that hard work, it’s discouraging to see the scale go up a few pounds rather than go down.
This type of weight gain is fairly common after long runs.
There are varying schools of thought on why this happens. If your body is sweating too much and you have consumed too many sports drinks before or after exercising, it can lead to fluid retention.
Sports drinks contain a lot of sugar and sodium, which is where the fluid retention comes in. Fluid retention results in a temporary weight gain until your body is able to shed it.
The best defense against fluid retention is to consume more water; however this rule can’t really be applied to long distance runs and races.
Your body needs that healthy balance of hydration and electrolytes during long runs to avoid more serious problems such as over-hydration (hyponatremia) from consuming too much water.
While the temporary weight gain you and many others experience after long runs or distance races is certainly annoying, take heart and know that it is just that: temporary.
Also consider that you may just be taking in too much. Experiment during your long runs with consuming less (a good gulp of water every 15 minutes is a good baseline).
Best wishes,

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4 Reasons Working Out Could Cause You to Gain Weight


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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.

Add some variety to your workout routine with Openfit’s Rough Around the Edges program. Try it for free today!

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.


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Photo Credit Chase Jarvis

Exercise has innumerable health benefits, but losing weight may not be among them. A provocative new study shows that a substantial number of people who take up an exercise regimen wind up heavier afterward than they were at the start, with the weight gain due mostly to extra fat, not muscle.

But the study also finds, for the first time, that one simple strategy may improve people’s odds of actually dropping pounds with exercise.

As we all know, the fundamentals of weight loss should be simple. Burn more calories on any given day than you consume and, over time, you will lose weight. Theoretically, we can achieve that desirable condition by reducing the number of calories that we take in through dieting or by increasing the number of calories that we incinerate through exercise.

But in reality, most people do not achieve or sustain weight loss, no matter what method they try.

Exercise is particularly problematic in this regard. A recent review of studies related to exercise and weight control found that in most of the studies, people lost barely a third as many pounds as would have been expected, given how many calories they were burning during workouts. Many studies also report enormous variations in how people’s waistlines respond to the same exercise program, with some people dropping pounds and others gaining fat.

Scientists have had little understanding, however, of why exercise helps some people but not others to shed pounds or whether there might be early indications of how people will respond to an exercise routine.

So for the new study, which was published last month in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, scientists at Arizona State University in Phoenix recruited 81 healthy but sedentary adult women. All of the women were overweight, based on their body mass index, but some were significantly heavier than others. None had exercised regularly in the past year.

The women were told that they would be joining a fitness study and would exercise in order to improve their aerobic endurance. The scientists asked the women not to change their eating habits in any way.

Each of the volunteers visited the physiology lab at the start of the study and the scientists determined their weight, B.M.I., percentage of body fat, current endurance level, and others measures of health and fitness.

Then each woman began a supervised exercise program designed to be vigorous but manageable by most people, said Glenn Gaesser, a professor of nutrition and health promotion at Arizona State and senior author of the study. The women walked on treadmills at the laboratory three times per week for 30 minutes at a pace that represented about 80 percent of their maximum endurance.

They continued the program for 12 weeks, with the scientists repeating the original fitness and other tests every month during that time.

At the end of 12 weeks, the women were all significantly more aerobically fit than they had been at the start. But many were fatter. Almost 70 percent of the women had added at least some fat mass during the program, and several had gained as much as 10 pounds, most of which was from fat, not added muscle.

A few of the women, though, had lost that much fat or more, and quite a few had remained at the same weight as at the start of the regimen.

At this point, the researchers returned to the data from the first day of the study, to determine whether any obvious differences existed between the women who subsequently gained or lost weight. “Some past studies of dieting had indicated that women who weigh more at the beginning” of a weight-loss program “tend to lose more weight during the program,” Dr. Gaesser said.

But the researchers found no correlation in this case between a woman’s weight at the start and end of the study. In fact, the scientists found no connection between any of the original parameters of health and fitness and the women’s responses to the exercise program.

But looking deeper into their data, they discovered one interesting indicator: Those women who were losing weight after four weeks of exercise tended to continue to lose weight, while the others did not.

“What that means in practical terms is that someone who wants to lose weight with exercise” should step on the bathroom scale after a month, Dr. Gaesser said. If at that point your weight remains stubbornly unchanged or has increased, “look closely at your diet and other activities,” he said.

While this study didn’t track the women’s eating and movement habits away from the lab, it is likely that those who gained weight began eating more and moving less when they weren’t on the treadmills, “probably without meaning to,” Dr. Gaesser said.

Of course, the study was fairly short-term. It also did not involve men, although some past studies indicate that men, like women, frequently add fat mass after starting to exercise.

Still, the results, while sobering in some respects, also provide encouragement. By deploying a bathroom scale and discipline, along with exercise, you may well lose weight, Dr. Gaesser said.

Even more important, the women in the study were much fitter after four months of exercise, and Dr. Gaesser said “fitness matters far more for health than how much you weigh.”

Photo by Grady Reese/Getty Images

There are few things more discouraging than putting your time in at the gym and still not seeing results. If a trimmer, tighter core is what you’re after, the reality is that it takes more than showing up. In fact, you may unknowingly be getting in your own way of flat-ab success. Read on to I.D. some common mistakes that can stall your progress and find out what you can do to get on track toward ditching stubborn belly fat once and for all.

(Discover how you can target every inch of your body—including those hard-to-tone zones—with Prevention’s Flat Belly Barre!)

Mistake: You’re not refueling with protein
People who consumed a post-exercise protein drink gained more fat-burning muscle mass and lost 50% more body fat than those who didn’t refuel after working out, reports a study in the journal Fitness Management. The first 30 minutes after exercise are crucial because that’s when your muscles are especially receptive to amino acids, the building blocks of protein, says study author Wayne Westcott, PhD. Aim for 20 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbs. Try: 6 ounces of plain nonfat Greek yogurt with ¼ cup granola, ¼ cup blueberries, and ½ cup sliced strawberries. (For more ideas, check out these 10 post-workout smoothies.)

Mistake: You always do cardio first
Fat loss takes more than burning calories during a single workout—it requires building metabolism-boosting muscle. But many of us hit the cardio machines first, and have lost our steam by the team we hit the weights (if we pick them up at all.) “Instead, hit the weights first,” says Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance University International. “When you have more energy, you’ll be able to lift heavier weights and get more muscle-building benefits, which will help you burn fat everywhere, including your belly.”

Mistake: You take a break between sets

Photo by Photo Alto/Odilon Dimier/Getty IMages

If you’re kicking back between sets, you’re missing out on a major belly-fat frying opportunity. “Even though weight training is anaerobic, if you string 4 to 6 exercises together without any breaks between each one, you create an aerobic benefit so your heart rate goes up and you burn more calories than you would if you rest between sets,” Tumminello says. Plus, it creates a bigger afterburn, so you’ll continue burning calories for several hours after your workout.

Mistake: Your weights are too light
To get more fat-burning muscle, you need to keep challenging your muscles by lifting heavier weights, says Rachel Cosgrove, author of The Female Body Breakthrough. If you’ve been working out regularly, increase your weight by roughly 10% for a few moves each workout. For example, if you do 8 exercises, choose 2 exercises and increase those weights while the others stay the same (if you’ve been using 10-pound weights, go up to 12). The following week, choose 2 more exercises and increase the weight for those. Continue this process until you’ve upped the weight for all 8 moves. Then start again, going up 10% more for 2 more exercises at a time. Note: if upping the weight ever compromises your form, go back to the previous load until you’re strong enough to do all reps with good form.

Mistake: You routinely go full-throttle

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If you exercise at a high intensity every workout, you may be overtraining, says Cosgrove. In addition to putting you at risk of injury, it can stall your progress. If you don’t give your body ample time to recover between exercise sessions (such as doing back-to-back strength-training workouts), your muscles are in a constant state of being broken down and aren’t getting the opportunity to repair, which is how you gain fat-torching muscle mass, she adds. Your body also perceives excess exercise as a stressor, which can boost levels of stress hormones and cause you to store rather than shed belly fat.

Mistake: You rely only on your workout to blast belly fat
Even if you’re a religious gym-goer, it may not be enough to fight middle-age spread. Research shows that people who meet the recommended 150 minutes per week of physical activity are still at increased risk of obesity if they spend the majority of their day sitting. The good news? Research also shows that people who report higher levels of non-exercise activity (such as taking extra trips to the water fountain or doing chores around the house rather than watching TV) have smaller waists than those who are more inactive. (Here are 25 ways to sneak in 10 minutes of exercise.)

Mistake: You’re still not doing intervals regularly
Interval training—alternating between high-intensity bursts of movement and a moderate pace—has been shown to amp your metabolism for up to 24 hours post-workout. Australian researchers found that when women performed a 20-minute interval training workout 3 times per week, they shed nearly 6 pounds more over 12 weeks compared to those who exercised for 40 minutes three times per week at a steady pace. Aim for 15 to 25 minutes of interval training 3 to 4 days per week. If you’re new to intervals or have a lot of weight to lose, start with walking or stationary cycling, which are easier on your joints. (New to intervals? This video will get you started.)

MORE: The 25 Worst Diet Tips Ever

Paige Fowler Paige Fowler is a health writer living in Chicago.

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