Written on January 18, 2024 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Weight loss is a complicated metabolic process. If you’re attempting to lose weight, you may be trying diet and exercise. Working out is a great way to improve your overall health and decrease your weight, but sometimes you don’t see the benefits on the scale right away. You may be wondering why you’re gaining weight after working out. We’ll review some of the factors that may be contributing to this interesting process.
Several studies show that exercise alone, without calorie reduction, does not result in significant weight loss. The greatest weight loss levels are seen when exercise is combined with calorie reduction. Outcomes are better with increasing amounts and intensity of exercise. Weight loss and fat mass reduction are more pronounced in aerobic exercise compared to resistance-based training.
Research has shown that the actual amount of weight lost through exercise is less than predicted based on the amount of calories burned through exercise. Researchers suspect that this could be related to increased food intake or because less non-exercise activity is happening throughout the day.
It takes time for your body to adjust to working out. Initially, many people experience an increased appetite in response to exercise. Several hormones play a role in appetite, including ghrelin, neuropeptide Y, and orexin. Through these hormones, exercise appears to have an indirect effect on compensatory mechanisms, which increase appetite and can cause you to consume more calories.
In women and people AFAB, hormone levels can fluctuate throughout the month, which can cause water retention. The body may retain water due to exercise through a couple of mechanisms. Exercise leads to tiny tears in the muscles, which causes the body to retain water through inflammation. The body retains fluid around the areas of damage to try to heal damaged tissue. The body also releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, which cause water retention as well. Cortisol levels are increased after moderate to high-intensity exercise.
After exercise, many people choose to consume supplements to try to replenish energy stores. During exercise, the body breaks down glycogen to supply the muscles with glucose. Consuming carbohydrates after exercising helps replenish glycogen stores, but glycogen storage requires a lot of water. For each gram of glycogen stored, the body retains around 3 grams of water.  Other supplements, such as creatine, also increase total body water and can increase the number on the scale.
You’ve probably heard that muscle weighs more than fat. Is it true? The answer is both yes and no. A pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat, but because muscle is denser, a pound of muscle takes up less volume than a pound of fat. It’s common knowledge that lifting weights and doing other forms of resistance training increases muscle mass, but aerobic exercise also increases muscle mass. If you’ve noticed that the scale isn’t budging, but your pants are looser, increased muscle mass may be the reason.
Finding the time to exercise is challenging. You may have work, family responsibilities, social responsibilities, or a home to maintain. There aren’t enough hours in the day for everything that needs to get done. Many people find themselves sacrificing sleep to get their workout in. But decreasing your sleep may be working against your weight loss goals.
Studies show that routinely getting less than 6.5 hours of sleep a night is associated with increased calorie intake (between 250 and 350 kcal per day). There’s also evidence that sleep deprivation is associated with hormonal changes that can alter your body’s ability to metabolize glucose. Specifically, sleep deprivation is associated with decreased levels of leptin, a hormone associated with feeling full, and increased levels of that pesky hormone ghrelin. This is why multiple studies have shown a link between chronic sleep deprivation and increased risk of obesity and its complications. Sacrificing sleep to get your workout in may be working against your weight loss goals.
A weight-loss plateau occurs when you have previously been losing weight, but now you’re not seeing scale improvements despite maintaining the same diet and exercise regimen. Your body is extremely efficient and will begin to compensate for the lifestyle changes you are making. Weight loss cannot happen without a calorie deficit; over time, the body will adjust some of its metabolic processes to be more efficient.
In addition, your body has a basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of energy your body uses on a daily basis to maintain basic functions. As you lose weight, your energy expenditure decreases. It takes less energy to do even basic activities when there is less of you to move from place to place. Varying the intensity and types of exercise you are doing is one way to work past a weight-loss plateau.
Whether you’re just starting to take control of your health, or you’ve hit a weight-loss plateau, Everlywell is here to help. Our comprehensive Weight Care+ program gives you access to regular virtual visits with a licensed healthcare provider, lifestyle content and support, regular lab tests and supplements, and access to prescribed weight loss medications for qualified candidates. Take control of your weight loss journey with Everlywell today.
Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP is a board-certified Family Physician. Since completing her residency training in 2010, she’s been practicing full-scope family medicine in a rural setting. Dr. Foglesong Stabile’s practice includes caring for patients of all ages for preventative care as well as chronic disease management. She also provides prenatal care and delivers babies. Dr. Foglesong Stabile completed a teaching fellowship in 2020 and teaches the family medicine clerkship for one of her local medical schools. Dr. Foglesong Stabile’s favorite thing about family medicine is the variety of patients she sees in her clinical practice.