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You Started Exercising – So Why are You Gaining Weight?

There are many reasons for why the scale may be moving temporarily in the ‘wrong’ direction, and only one of them has to do with fat gain.

We’re nearing the end of January, and many people are now a month into their New Year’s resolutions. Year after year, one of the most popular resolutions for North Americans is to ‘lose weight’. And maybe you’re one of them! 

So you think you’re on track. You’ve started exercising regularly, hitting the gym 3-4 times a week, and staying committed and consistent. Perhaps you’re even working with a personal trainer, getting your 10 000 steps a day, sleeping well, and sticking to your diet plan. So when you step on the scale a couple weeks later, you’re disheartened to find that not only have you not lost weight, you’ve actually gained a couple pounds! What gives?

First of all: take a deep breath. As I tell many clients, friends, and family who have faced this exact issue, the worst thing you can do is stop.  There are many reasons for why the scale may be moving temporarily in the ‘wrong’ direction, and only one of them has to do with fat gain. So read on, my fit and fabulous friend, and let me put your mind at ease

You’re eating more–and you might not even realise it.

Let’s get the not-so-nice answer out of the way. Since you’re now exercising more regularly, your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) has increased, and as consequence, your caloric needs have also increased, and so it’s very possible that you are eating more than you were before starting your new exercise program and are now exceeding your body’s caloric needs. This can be very discouraging–I get it! But don’t worry–you don’t have to starve yourself in order to see results. 

A calorie-restricted diet may seem like the answer, but I urge you to please exercise caution! While it is sometimes appropriate to restrict calories, please consult your physician, dietician, or other healthcare professional before embarking on such a course of action (or on any new diet plan). 

I would recommend that you get a Resting Metabolic Rate Test done, which will provide an accurate baseline for calorie intake, reducing the risk of undernutrition or overconsumption. You can also get a skinfold test or BIA body composition analysis (ask your personal trainer!). These tests can help to tell you if the weight you’re losing is from muscle, fat, or water. If the test tells you that, yes, indeed, you are gaining fat and not muscle or water, I would recommend changing not your caloric input, but the composition and type of food that you’re eating. Are you eating a lot of sugary and high-fat foods? Try introducing more protein into your diet, especially if you’re strength training. It is very difficult for your body to turn dietary protein into body fat and your muscles need protein in order to grow, so if you’re hungry, consider reaching for a Greek yoghurt or protein bar and forgo the muffin (for now!).

You’re retaining water

This might surprise you! What does exercise have to do with water retention? Every time you do weight training, and even some forms of cardio, your muscles sustain damage in the form of micro-tears. And in order to heal those micro-tears (and make your muscles stronger!), your muscles need to retain water, thus potentially leading to the couple pounds of weight gain that you see on the scale. Give it a couple weeks–as your muscles become accustomed to your new exercise regimen, they’ll likely retain less water, and you should see your weight stabilise–and you’ll probably feel less sore!

There are many other reasons for why you may be retaining water that could be related to your new lifestyle. Inflammation also causes water retention, which happens when you first start exercising, but that should decrease over time (exercise actually reduces inflammation in the long run!). Glycogen storage, as well, is increased by exercise and can also lead to temporary water retention in your muscles. Eating carbohydrates post-exercise have also been shown to produce a temporary water retention effect. That being said, don’t completely avoid carbs after working out, especially if you’re sweating, as electrolytes and carbohydrates have been shown to help with hydration levels.  If the water retention doesn’t resolve itself in a couple of weeks and if you’re experiencing other symptoms such as swelling in the feet and hands, please speak to your primary care physician

You’re gaining muscle

Congratulations on your newbie gains! At the beginning of a new strength training or weight lifting program, and especially if you’re a new lifter, some individuals will gain muscle quite quickly and will be able to put on a couple of pounds of lean mass in just a couple of weeks. As I recommend above, consider getting a BIA body composition analysis (many gyms offer them for a flat fee) every couple of months to track your progress and get a more accurate picture of your body composition. Infofit offers Resting Metabolic Rate Tests, and Sub Max VO2 Tests, that will give you an accurate picture of where you are at.

Remember, weight is only part of the picture! The scale won’t always show what’s really going on inside. Take note of how you feel–your energy levels, your mood, the quality of your sleep, etc. These metrics may be more helpful in tracking your progress and the beneficial effects of your exercise program.

And seek guidance! If you’re new to strength training or exercise in general, a personal trainer (courtesy of Infofit) will help guide you safely and effectively towards your goals. 

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

​​Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.