Can Exercise Lead to Weight Gain?

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Lots of men and women start new exercise regimens amped about the weight they’re going to lose. They’ve got high hopes! Big goals! However, after one week of hard work, they step on the scale and see the dial has inched upward. Huh?!

According to exercise physiologist Richard Weil, M.Ed., CDE, Director of Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Weight Loss Program, this is an all-too common gripe among his patients. “Often you have fluid retention that first week as you break down muscle fibers,” he explains. “This is not real weight gain, but it’s still frustrating and makes a lot of people nervous.”

You shouldn’t always take the numbers on your scale as a true indicator of how you’re doing on a weight-loss program, says Weil, because there are some reasons you might see your daily or weekly weight creep up when you start a new fitness regimen. Here’s what’s really happening.

You’re Exercising More, so You’re (Unknowingly) Eating More

Whenever you start a new exercise program, you’re burning more calories—and your body takes note. You might not notice, however, that you’re reaching for extra snacks or creating larger meals as a result of a larger calorie deficit. “People tend to overestimate how many calories they burn versus how many calories they’re consuming,” Weil says.

To put this in perspective, the average meal or energy bar will cost you around 250 calories. If you’re a 155-pound person, it’ll take you 30 full minutes playing soccer or bicycling to burn that off again. Often, that additional snack will negate the effects of your workout—so be mindful of extra eats, or swap for healthy lower-calorie options, like an apple, banana or hard-boiled egg.

You’re Relying on Calorie Estimates

It’s a great idea to use your Fitbit tracker to help track your calorie burn trends. The food you’re eating may not always be perfectly measured and accounted. “In reality, it’s hard to measure calorie expenditure—even with sophisticated equipment,” says Weil. “You may actually be burning a few more, or a few less.” Use those numbers as guidance, rather than gospel, says Weil.

Your Fitbit tracker can help you identify a baseline for calorie consumption to stay at your current weight. Without making any changes to your diet, watch your intake for about a week. From there, if your goal is to lose weight, trying eating 500 calories less each day than your typical daily number. That can help you drop about one pound in a week—which is a healthy, realistic weight-loss goal.

You’re Weighing Yourself Too Often

Exercise and eating plans for weight-loss can be put together to fit a myriad of lifestyles, but if you’re looking to lose or maintain your weight, Weil says that “at the end of the day, it’s what the scale shows.” So, it is important to keep tabs. However, Weil also notes that the scale can creep up three, four, or even five pounds overnight. (Yikes—that could certainly cause major panic!) “Weight fluctuates,” he says. “Even week-to-week your numbers may seem sketchy. If you had a lot of sodium or carbs the day before, you can be up a pound or two due to water retention—but in reality, you’ve lost weight.”

If seeing a jump overnight bugs you, Weil suggests adjusting your habits. Switching to weekly or even monthly weigh-ins to check progress is okay. “If you’re losing one or two pounds a week, you should see results in that timeframe,” he says. “Some can get on the scale, not get crazy and track their patterns, but some can’t. It’s most important to focus on your behavior everyday, not the scale, because of how random daily readings can be.”

If frequent weigh-ins are beginning to affect your mood everyday, scale back (excuse the pun). Focus on eating whole foods and sticking with your exercise regimen—then check back in on the first of the month.


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