Ask the Expert: Why Do You Gain Weight When You Start Working Out?
The Short Answer
Right off the bat, it’s important to note that this doesn’t happen to everyone, so this isn’t a preemptive excuse not to exercise! However, if you do happen to gain a few pounds when starting a new program, odds are that it’s not fat, but rather temporary water weight due to inflammation. Give it some time and it will pass.
That said, it might be a few other things, all of them fixable, so let’s run through the list and see if we can find a match.
The Long Answer
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. On the upside, your body heals these little tears, making the fibers tougher than they originally were. That’s how you become stronger and fitter. It’s part of a process called adaptation.
To make these repairs, your body uses its standard healing process, including the inflammation phase—something that’s become a dirty word in our modern world. When you incur injury, including microtrauma, your body releases various substances generally known as 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 on that the area swells up, or inflames.
The fluid required for inflammatory response obviously weighs something—and that might show up on the 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.
Another less-likely reason you’re gaining weight is that you’re building muscle faster than you’re shedding fat. The general consensus in the fitness community is that the most weight someone new to fitness will gain in muscle is about 2 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. Indeed, their legs were getting bigger, but only because increased muscle under adipose tissue was pushing out the fat and making it appear to increase. Again, 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, sexy pair of gams.
But what if something actually is going wrong?
There are a couple situations in which you might actually be putting on fat. The first one would be that you’re not following a proper diet. Yes, exercise burns calories, but it also increases release of ghrelin, a hormone that promotes hunger. So if you’re not paying attention, you’ll probably eat more.
Even if you are eating at a deficit, poor food choices can cause all kinds of issues, usually centered on hormonal imbalances that cause your body to hold onto fat. Every one of Beachbody’s programs comes with some sort of nutrition guide that should alleviate this issue. Don’t be afraid to read the white book that came with your DVDs.
Finally, there’s the issue of excess stress. Exercise is a good thing, but it also puts your body under stress. By itself, that’s great. It’s part of that adaptation I mentioned earlier. If done right with the proper nutritional support, rest, and recovery, it toughens you up, fortifying your body against further stress.
However, when you just pile exercise on top of a bunch of other 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 standard alcoholic drinks a night on a regular basis, smoke, sleep less than 7–8 hours a night, eat a junk-filled Standard American Diet or an overly restricted low-calorie diet, and attempt one of our graduate programs when you’re 100 pounds overweight with a history of knee issues, exercise will tax your body just like all the bad habits on that list. In terms of weight gain, this can manifest in a few ways. First, that inflammation we discussed earlier won’t have the chance to give way to later phases of healing. When this happens, it can become chronic and systemic. Second, you’ll promote the release of the stress hormone cortisol that, in turn, can promote fat accumulation—particularly around the abdomen.
I’m not telling you not to exercise. Just the opposite, in fact. However, fitness is a holistic issue. If your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, or get healthier, you might want to take a closer look at your sleep, dietary, and other lifestyle habits. Sparta wasn’t built in a day. If you’re looking for 300-esque abs, it’s going to take a little time (or some expensive CGI), so start with a program you can do and that will keep you motivated instead of burning you out.
Don’t give up. 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.