Is Exercise Making Me GAIN Weight?


I have been exercising a lot but can’t seem to lose weight. In fact exercise makes me gain weight. I feel like I’m hungry all the time. I’m afraid if I increase my exercise, I will eat even more! But then I wonder if I’m just building muscle and this is why I’m gaining weight. Either way, this is frustrating because exercise is a lot of effort and feels like it’s not worth it because I’m NOT losing weight which is my ultimate goal. What is going on here?

This one hits home for sure. I increased my exercise in the last couple of weeks and then hopped on the scale to find I gained 2 pounds! BLASPHEMY! Turns out, this is not uncommon at all. You might be surprised to know that even marathon runners sometimes GAIN weight during training. Here are 10 strategies and insights to consider to get to the bottom of this frustrating phenomenon…

1. Relax, You’re Not Becoming the Hulk Most of us are afraid of becoming this guy by putting on too much bulky muscle, when all we really want is to be a smaller version of ourselves. I consulted with licensed physical therapist, Julie Mulcahy aka @PTrunningmomof4 and she states that aerobic workouts like walking, jogging, swimming, and elliptical trainer are not likely to build muscle mass although these activities can tone your muscles. She says that only strength training with weights is likely to build muscle mass but any weight gain would take several weeks of pretty intensive weight training. If you gain weight after beginning a aerobic activity, it does not appear to be due to muscle weight.

2. Relax, You’re Not Becoming the Cookie Monster So if it’s not muscle weight, maybe exercise is increasing my appetite? For insight, I consulted with exercise expert, Dr. Kristin Schneider aka @DrKrisSchneider about whether exercise has a physiological effect on appetite. She states that research generally suggests that exercise does not alter appetite hormones and may even exert a favorable impact on hormones that are responsible for suppressing appetite. Hmmm.. so if anything, exercise should be suppressing my appetite?! She also mentioned that while exercise might not physiologically stimulate appetite, you may still be eating more, but for other reasons. Let’s dig into this…

3. Damage Assessment. The first step is to figure out the extent of the problem in terms of calories. Try this experiment: Keep a diet diary on days you exercise and days that you don’t. Make sure neither day is a vacation day or unusual in some way. How much more did you eat on your exercise days? Try also to isolate when those extra calories are being consumed. For example, it might be that you have a 300 protein shake right after your workout, which adds calories to your day. Or maybe you snack more at night on days you exercise. By isolating the sources of those calories you will be better equipped to make a plan to eliminate them.

4. Energy In, Energy Out. Also important is to get an accurate reading on how many calories you are burning from exercise. It may be less than you think. Try not to rely on the exercise machine readout unless it takes into account your weight, because it has a large margin of error. Find an online calculator that shows you calories burned for an activity adjusted by weight. Here is a good one: Compare the total number of exercise calories burned to your increase in intake on exercise vs no-exercise days. This gives you an idea of how many calories you need to pull back from your diet.

5. Hungry Like the Wolf…or not? If you believe you really are more hungry on days you exercise, track your physical hunger using the tool described in this post to get to the bottom of it. Rate your hunger upon waking (before breakfast), before lunch, before dinner, and at 9pm. What is your average hunger rating for the day on an exercise day versus a nonexercise day? You might be more hungry if your workout is causing you to delay meals. For example, you might delay lunch to 1pm on an exercise day because you walk at noon, but then have a greater tendency to overeat. Take a look at how exercise affects your meal and snack times because this may be why you are experiencing an increase in hunger.

6. I went for a walk and won a steak! Exercise can sometimes give us a sense of “doing well” for our health which can cause us to loosen up on our diet. Let’s say you go for an intense walk in the morning, break a good solid sweat, and feel nice and worn out afterwards. Fast forward to dinner and this sense of “I’ve been doing good!” can play into your meal choices. You might even say to yourself “I’ve been so good lately, I’m rewarding myself with steak and potatoes tonight!” Be careful though because it is very easy to recoup in a single meal all the calories you burned. Try to be conscious of how much you are rewarding yourself with food.

7. Fiber is Your Friend. If you really feel like you are hungrier when you exercise, I cannot recommend enough a high fiber diet (30 grams a day or more) to regulate your appetite. A high fiber diet is appetite suppressing, great for digestion, and prevents many chronic diseases, and even predicts longer life. I have one caveat. Don’t go crazy on the Fiber One brand products or any products that include inulin (chicory root) as a primary fiber source. Most of the research on the wonders of fiber is based on cereal grains (oat, wheat, barley, rye, bran, etc), not inulin. Inulin/chicory root has even been purportedly used as…are you sitting down? An appetite stimulant. AGHH! Very little research has been done on this, but it concerns me enough to suggest it might be better to get your fiber from whole grains. Another drawback of popular high fiber inulin/chicory root-based products is that they are loaded with sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other ingredients that will defeat the purpose of appetite suppression. In addition to grains: fruit, vegetables, nuts, and legumes are also great sources of fiber.

8. Fuel, fuel, fuel. Exercise makes it more important than ever that you begin to think of food as fuel. This means eating about an hour before exercise and consuming a balanced diet all the time. Junk food has a negative impact on your energy levels and performance. Consider this: you wouldn’t put garbage in your gas tank because of what it would do to your engine. Same holds true for your body. Look at how energetic Conan O’Brien looks as he fuels up!

9. Freebie snacks. If you have uncontrollable urges to snack after workouts, make sure you have a wide variety of grab-able fruit and veggies on hand. Low in calories and very refreshing, fruit and veggies will not only rehydrate but also nip the snacking urge. If you are like me and find cutting up produce an insurmountably horrible task, I recommend springing the extra few bucks and buying party platters of fruit and veggies, stick it in the fridge, and nibble on it all week. The more you can “grab and go” healthy foods, the less you will turn to unhealthy snacks.

10. Strategic Planning. Most people have certain times of the day that they snack the most. Try to time your workouts for when you are most likely to be snacking to preempt your snacking. For example, if you snack at 8pm in front of the TV, this would be a great time to hop on the treadmill and watch your show, or get out of the house and go for a walk. Even if you’ve already worked out for the day, use this time to add light activity which will suppress your appetite. (Note: The Food Network might not be the best channel to watch on the treadmill to nip the snacking urge!)

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Julie MulcahyJULY 14, 2011 AT 8:20 AM
I actually did gain weight training for a marathon. I was definitely over estimating the calorie burn of running. I am now using My Fitness Pal and entering all my daily calories along with my running time and pace. My Fitness Pal estimates the calorie burn of my run or other exercise activity. I am now more aware of not taking in more than I am burning through exercise. I have lost the 6 pounds I gained since my May 1st marathon using this app!

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