no weight loss despite exerciseBy Dr Joe

Question: Why am I gaining weight despite working out, huh?

There are the ones who hate the gym and would make it clear they do. There are the ones who love the gym and would make you jealous about their passion.

Then there are the ones for whom the word ‘exercise’ is a foreign language. Exercise? Don’t know what you are talking about, bro…

A female colleague of mine (let’s call her, Shauna – not her real name) belongs to the gym-lover group.

Shauna would love it if her elbow-greasing efforts were making a dent to her waist line. But no such luck, sister.

So, I do not blame her for continuously complaining about her inability to lose any significant amount of weight despite her best efforts at exercise. If anything, she actually gains weight with exercise.Yes, Shauna actually gains weight every now and again. Somebody call 911.

No, her weight hasn’t gone up because she gained muscle, before you ask.

What a tragedy?


Bearing in mind that I have known her for over a decade now. Shauna has not been able to shift her weight sustainably since I’ve known her. She goes to a Fat Club once a week as part of her weight management strategy. Great idea.

I’m not entirely sure what goes on there in Fat Club, though. I haven’t bothered to quiz her about the training routine in the Fat Club but she does complain of muscle soreness after her Fat Club escapades. They must be sweating it out there.

What I do know is that the feedback I get from her can be likened to “one step forward, two steps backward”. That’s just the way, her nightmarish weight situation has been for the more than 10 years I’ve known her.

Shauna has done it all. Pilates, Yoga fitness, the treadmill, the elliptical trainer, spinning in all its forms, rowing, lifting heavy weights. Shauna has done it all, but she can’t seem to move the needle on her scale. Nightmare!

As for her diet, Shauna tells me she eats from the same pot as her husband. The husband who does next to nothing as far as physical activity is concerned, seems to maintain his weight somehow. Life can be unfair…

> That’s where Shauna’s frustration gets worse. She compares herself to her husband who is more or less a couch potato.

I do not think Shauna is alone as far as this paradox is concerned. I believe a lot of people who are very keen to shed some weight hit this brick wall. They find it difficult to understand why this is.

After all we have been told, moving more is one of the pillars that underscores weight shedding. Why isn’t it working for Shauna?

If we follow the law of thermodynamics in relation to nutrition, then Shauna would expect to lose weight. Shauna expends more energy than she consumes, right?

In practical terms, Shauna should expect to lose 1 pound of weight per week if she could execute expending 500 calories more than she consumes per day. Shauna is expending energy through sheer physical activity by hitting the gym and doing her workouts diligently.

So, why is she gaining weight despite respectable amount of exercise over a period of time?


Up until the mid-20th century, exercise did not play any major role in weight management. It was just an assumption unsupported by science. So much so that some scientists were even suggesting bed rest as a solution to lose weight. Bizarre, I know.

However, Jean Mayer changed all that. Jean was a popular nutritionist. He did a lot of scientific work to bring to the fore much of what we now know as the relationship between physical activity and weight loss.

Jean experimented on rats and school children and the conclusion of much of his studies was that the more physically active you were, the less weight you carried around. His work gained so much popularity that Jean became an advisor to the World Health Organisation and the American government. Nice!

> Jean laid the foundation for the fitness industry as we know it today. Indeed, this multi-billion-dollar fitness industry should be grateful to Jean for his ground-breaking experiments.

But all is not what it seems at least not to everyone anyway. There are millions of Shaunas all over the world who find the returns from their exercise activity so minute as to be discounted.

It gets so frustrating that some people just give up altogether.

Why am I gaining weight despite working out and exercise?

A couple of reasons are responsible for this nightmare of a static weight or downright weight gain following gruelling hours at the gym. One can write a book on the reasons but we will touch on a few.

  1. Generous Self-Reward

We all do it. You spend a couple of hours in the gym or the great outdoors, you feel good about yourself and why not. You have done what you consider to be a great work out and you feel that amount of work requires some reward, right?

So, off you go to the kitchen. You grab the nearest food available and gulp it all down without giving a second thought as to how much calories you have just wolfed down.

And it isn’t just carbs by the way. All 3 macronutrients can be incriminated in this fiasco – carbs, fat and protein. They all get broken down to calories and they all count when we overcompensate with our food rewards.

That cheese and biscuit you treated yourself with, those 3 protein bars, that chilled ice cream or brownie – they all add up. They don’t help your course in any way.

The gains of your 90-minute work out in the gym can be wiped out with something as flimsy as 2 cup cakes or 2 muffins that you eat afterwards post work out.

Got doubts? Well, watch your eating habits after work outs going forward and you will see this happening to you again and again.

It is very easily done by anyone who does regular exercise unless they are aware of this pitfall and make a conscious effort not to fall in it.


2. Over Reliance on Calorie Counting

I am not a big fan of calorie counting. One reason being it can be a tedious exercise (no pun intended). Calorie counting is good up to a point. You should have a fair understanding of the type of foods you are eating and the calorie density of those foods.

For me that’s as good as calorie counting gets.

You don’t have to be a calorie nerd. The problem is that a lot of people see themselves as calorie geeks and carry that belief through and through. What they don’t know is that their calorie counts are wide off the mark by as much as 30%.

I am referring to their estimation of both calorie intake and calorie output.

For instance, I read somewhere that cleaning your house for 90 minutes or walking briskly for 60 minutes will burn off 695 calories. Really? You must be having a laugh!

You will be lucky to burn off 2 servings of cooked pasta (small shells – 4.1 oz) with that level of physical activity and 2 servings of the small shells cooked pasta provides you with 363 calories.

> There is a lot of overestimation of calorie output when it comes to exercise, just as it is very common to underestimate calories consumed. It works both ways.

Digital readings on your exercise machines aren’t that great either. If you thought the readings you saw on the treadmill are accurate, you will be in for a surprise.

The American Council on Exercise tells us that the digital reading on your machine may be far from the truth by as much as 25%.

Your elliptical trainer, your treadmill, your bike, all of these machines give calorie-burn readings that will excite you and make you feel good when you are done sweating. Hmm, don’t punch the air just yet to congratulate yourself. Take those readings with a pinch of salt.

It all depends on the algorithmic programming that has gone into the machine software. Accuracy is directly proportional to the expense on the machine but that does not mean the more expensive ones are 100% accurate. Far from it.

> I don’t want to sound conspiratorial but it is possible that the exercise machines have been programmed to overestimate calorie burn to make us feel good about how much work we have put in which in turn encourages us to do more exercise tomorrow and the next.

With all of that calorie misrepresentation going on, the energy gap (difference between calories consumed and calorie burned) widens in favour of energy storage.

Is it any surprise, Shauna can’t seem to make any gains losing weight despite her best efforts?

3. The Wrong Refreshments

It happens to all of us and indeed it is natural that after a sweaty affair in the gym that is, you will want some refreshment. After all, sweating means loss of salt and water from the body.

It is only natural to feel thirsty.

What do most people go for?

You guessed it – sweetened beverages which are conveniently sold in gyms stores or some other nearby sports shop.

It’s not your fault though. These foods are usually advertised as “healthy” after-work out snacks by food manufacturers. It’s very easy for the uninitiated to fall for these claims.

The problem is these sweetened beverages are loaded with calories, empty calories in fact. Consuming these sugar loaded beverages will certainly make you consume more calories than you have just burned. Not a smart move.

That smoothie beverage below has the same amount of sugar in it as you will find in 4 Tesco muffins (if Tesco’s sugar nutritional information is correct). You wouldn’t think that, would you?

innocent smoothie calories


Your safest bet is to make your own smoothies at home ready for use after your workout. Beyond that, drink fresh water infused with lemon. At least you know what you are getting. Little things like these matter a whole lot in terms of weight gain when you exercise.

See this article on the basics of weight loss that you must not ignore. Get those things right first.

4. Evolutionary Programming

This is related to the first point of generous self-reward. Energy output is directly proportional to energy intake in real terms unless you intervene with will power.

It is expected that if you exercise more, you are going to eat more. Most times this compensatory mechanism is beyond your control.

> Exercise stimulates ghrelin hormone. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone. Exercise makes you hungry. Fact!

I’m sure you have noticed this already. When you have done a serious workout, you do feel really hungry. Sometimes intense hunger is going to make you to reach for a doughnut rather than a spinach or cabbage salad.

You are going to need a lot of will power to overcome that urge to go for an unhealthier food option. Even if you succeeded in doing that today and tomorrow, what are the chances that the will power will continue to protect you in the weeks and months to come every time you exercise.

We are programmed to make unhealthier food choices when post-workout ghrelin strikes again and again. Will power is the only tool you have to override that evolutionary programming.

And will power is NOT an infinite resource!

Will power as a behavioural weapon does get used up over time.

Can you begin to see how easy it is to fall into the trap of static weight or gaining weight despite working out or exercising?

Gortmaker and Sonneville from the Harvard School of Public Health examined this feature in 538 school pupils over an 18-month period.

They found out that exercise actually widens the energy gap in favour of energy intake. When the children in their study exercised more, they ate more. They actually ate more than they expended by as much as 100 calories.

What’s more? Studies in children have also demonstrated that when we up our physical activity, we compensate by slowing down our level of physical activity during our non-exercise time. It’s just natural.

Kids who ran around a lot during the day at school times tend to become sedentary in the evening after school. Similarly, the school kids who were less active during school hours are more physically active in the evenings.

> If you are sore following a workout, you are less likely to use that muscle if you look at it from the adult perspective.

We have been programmed to move as little as we can by evolution it seems. Only will power can override that programming.

5. More Muscles

I have included this point here for completeness. This is not a negative but a positive in terms of weight gain. This applies to people who are making real progress but are not beeing encouraged by their scales. Fear not…you are on the right track, sister.

It is clear that muscle does weigh exactly the same as fat. That is say, 2 pounds of muscle will weigh the same as 2 pounds of fat.

But muscle is more compact. Therefore, if you compare muscle and fat by volume, muscle is going to weigh more. A cup of muscle is going to be heavier than a cup of fat, if you get my drift.

Hence when you build muscle faster than you lose fat, you are going to weigh more. This principle only applies to people who have been exercising for months not days and are noticeably making real gains.

And we aren’t talking about cardio here. Cardio doesn’t build muscle at least not significantly anyway. We are talking about people who have consistently been doing weight training.

If you are new to fitness, it is expected that you could gain up to 2 pounds of muscle with consistent weight training in a month. That figure will improve as time goes on.

But unless you are doing everything right, it is not a good idea to assume your weight increase is due to muscle building especially when you are new to the game.

The idea that you have built muscle might give you a nice warm and fuzzy feeling but it’s probably not true. It takes time to build muscle and that only happens when you are ticking all the weight training boxes in the medium to long term.


6. Basal Metabolic Rate Shut Down

Nature hates losing. Your body isn’t stupid. Your body can clearly recognises the fact that you are trying to lose weight and it will try to inhibit any further losses in any way it can.

> Did you know that 60% of your energy burn every day comes from your basal metabolic rate?

This is the calorie you burn for just being alive. Even if you did nothing, all the metabolic processes that go on behind the scenes to keep you alive require energy to keep going.

That energy requirement means you burn about two-thirds of your daily energy needs through this mechanism.

Problem is when your body senses unusual high activity from getting physical, it recognises what you are trying to do.

> Being a smart alec, your body slows down the energy expenditure by slowing down your basal metabolic rate to conserve energy. It’s a primal survival instinct.

The net result is you have to exercise or work out twice as much to burn the same number of calories you burnt previously.

The way forward

Looking at what you have just read you might think this piece is all about exercise bashing or you may reach a conclusion that exercise is bad for you.

No, far from it.

Exercise is great for you and it has immense benefits. Don’t just use it as the ‘be all and end all’ for your weight loss journey.

Exercise makes you hugely insulin sensitive, thereby helping you fight and prevent type 2 diabetes, helps you manage high blood pressure, helps you prevent heart disease and even strokes, helps you fight inflammatory conditions like arthritis, helps you fight aging, improves your mood.

The list of benefits is long but when it comes to weight loss, use exercise as a supportive tool that will assist your nutritional adjustments. If you don’t fix nutrition, it doesn’t matter how much exercise you do, you are not going to get very far with your weight management.

You’ve probably heard it before – “You cannot outrun a bad diet”.

Simple but true.

Talking about nutritional adjustment for sustainable weight loss, see suggested reading below:

Suggested further reading:
How to eat Carbs and NOT store them as Fat