Why Gaining Weight From Exercise Is Not A Sign Of Failure

Photographed by Andi Elloway.
When you start any new fitness program or routine, it's easy to get attached to your #gains. To most of the fitness world, "gains" usually refers to the muscle that your body gains from a workout routine. Gains are seen as an easy, measurable way to track your fitness progress. Then there's the other kind of "gain," weight gain, which people view as a sign that your workout isn't, well, working. But that couldn't be further from the truth.
As we’ve said before, weight is not a good indicator of health. The size of a person’s body doesn’t say anything about their lifestyle, including what they eat, whether or not they smoke, and of course, if they exercise — and those are very important things that can impact your health. It’s completely normal for a person’s weight to change, and it can fluctuate between five and 10 pounds from day to day. But even knowing this, lots of people feel discouraged when they start an exercise program and see the numbers on the scale going up, when they expect them to go down.
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From a fitness perspective, especially, weight isn’t "indicative of anything behind the scenes," explains Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CSCS, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. You’ve probably heard the whole "muscle weighs more than fat" line before. Another way to think about it is that a pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat. Regardless, when you're putting on muscle, it's only natural that your body is going to change. "So, if you’re building muscle, the number on the scale may not change — or it may even increase," Rumsey says.
On top of that, there are lots of acute physiological changes that take place in your body when you exercise, which can contribute to increased fluctuations. "Exercising puts stress on your muscle fibers, and your body retains water in order to help recovery," Rumsey says.
You might also be consuming more calories when you’re more active — and that’s a good thing. During exercise, your body uses your stores of calories as a source of fuel. When you’re using more calories, your appetite will increase in response. "This usually depends on the type and amount of exercise you are doing," Rumsey says. "High-intensity, longer duration exercise will typically increase your appetite more than shorter bouts of lower-intensity exercise." Listening to your body and checking in with your hunger cues are two good ways to ensure you’re eating enough to properly fuel your body for recovery, she adds.
Ultimately, just because you’re gaining weight from an exercise program doesn’t mean that you should abandon it altogether or even tweak your program. There are so many different health reasons to exercise besides losing or maintaining weight. To name a few, exercise reduces anxiety, improves sleep, and increases your energy, Rumsey says. It also lowers your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol, she adds.
It’s easy to get swept up in metrics when you’re starting a new exercise program — whether that’s how much you weigh, how many macros you’re "allowed to" eat, how many times a week you work out, or how fast you can run a mile. Shifting your attention away from all of that and to your internal cues takes practice, but is worth it. Not sure how to do that? Start by simply checking in with yourself after a workout, and taking note of how your body feels, Rumsey suggests. Those are the real gains worth noting.
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