Gaining Weight When You Start Exercising

Don't give up!

standing on the scale
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If you've ever started an exercise program to lose weight only to find your weight actually going up, you're not alone. 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.

Are You Really Gaining Fat?

Your first step is to determine if what you're gaining is fat, muscle, or water.

Muscle is more dense than fat, but it takes up less space. That means if you gain muscle, your scale weight may go up even as you're slimming down. It's normal for you to lose inches, even if you're not losing weight.

Another culprit is water retention. 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.

Either way, the scale can't tell you any of this, which is why it isn't always the best way to measure progress. One option is to forget the scale, at least for a little while, and get your body fat tested. You can do with a home body fat scale, or by a trainer at your gym. But if these aren't options, take measurements at different areas of the body on a regular basis.

If you're losing inches, you're on the right track. There are plenty of ways to track your weight loss progress.

5 Reasons You May Be Gaining Weight

If you've measured yourself in different ways and realized you really are going in the wrong direction, take some time to go through the following possibilities—you may need to make some small changes in your diet to see better results.

1. Eating Too Many Calories

It may seem obvious, but people sometimes eat more after starting an exercise program to compensate for burning those extra calories. You may think you're eating a healthy, lower-calorie diet but, unless you're keeping a food diary, you don't know how many calories you're really eating.

Most people are surprised when they start keeping a journal and begin adding up the calories. It almost always turns out to be more than they thought. Keep a food diary for at least a week or use an app or online tracking site like MyFitnessPal or FitWatch to get a sense of what and how much you're eating.

If it's too much, you can make changes in your diet to reduce your calories. Try to avoid the mindset that says you can eat whatever you want since you're doing all this great exercise. To lose weight, you still need to monitor your calories.

2. Not Eating Enough Calories

It may seem counterintuitive, but eating too few calories can actually stall your efforts to lose fat. As Cathy Leman, a registered dietitian and creator of NutriFit! says, "...if there is a severe restriction in calories, the body may counteract this reduction by slowing down its metabolism." Be sure you're eating enough calories to sustain your body, especially if you've increased your activity.

3. Not Giving Your Body Time to Respond

Just because you start exercising doesn't always mean your body will respond to that immediately. As Cathy Leman puts it, "...in some instances the body needs to sort of 'recalibrate' itself. Increased activity and new eating habits, such as taking in more or fewer calories require the body to make adjustments."

Give yourself several weeks, even months to allow your body to respond to what you're doing. You didn't gain weight overnight, and you definitely won't lose it overnight either. You have to exercise and reduce calories most of the time to really see significant changes.

That means, weight loss isn't always a linear process. Sometimes you'll lose and then something happens, a sickness or injury, that changes your plans and sets you back a bit. That's normal and something you have to build into your plan.

4. Rule out Any Medical Conditions

If you really believe you're eating less and exercise more, creating the calorie deficit you need to lose weight, now is the time to check with your doctor. Have your thyroid checked and talk to your doctor about any medications you're taking that could affect your body's ability to lose weight. While not everyone has thyroid problems, they can cause weight gain and weight loss to be more challenging.

Keep in mind that age can also be a factor in slow weight loss. It's unfortunate that getting older means it's that much harder to lose weight as your metabolism changes. It's nothing you're doing wrong, just one more thing to pay attention to.

5. You're Gaining Muscle Faster Than You're Losing Fat

If it seems that you're getting bigger after you've started a weight training routine, it may be because you aren't losing body fat as fast as you're building muscle—a common problem.

Genetics can play a role; some people put on muscle more easily than others. If that's the case for you, don't stop training. Instead, you might simply adjust your program to make sure you're getting enough cardio exercise to promote weight loss and focus your strength training workouts on muscular endurance by keeping the reps between 12 to 16.

Whatever is the cause of your weight gain, don't give up on exercise. It's often a temporary situation that will correct itself if you just keep going and, if it doesn't, don't give up all that great exercise time you've collected.

Consider hiring a trainer or meeting with a dietitian to help you tweak your workouts and diet.  Sometimes, all you need are a few different changes.