I've Been Kicking Ass for 3 Weeks Now...and I'VE GAINED WEIGHT. What Gives?
So, so many of us have started a new workout program this month. Hey, New Years!
Studies show that by now- actually by about a week ago- most of us have given up on our resolutions.
Which is okay! While I enjoy the spirit of resolutions, if they aren’t something we actually *want* to do, there’s no staying power.
I’d argue, though, that many of us do want to experience some sort of physical transformation. “Get in shape” is super vague and, therefore, tough to stick out. But if I offered something more specific – more energy, an easier time getting up and down off the floor to play with kids, less painful joints, and a more peaceful relationship with food and our bodies – most of us would jump on that.
We’re in the process of upgrading our lifestyle here, right? So…if this is something we’re planning to do forever…why do so many of us give up after a few days?
Despite what it may have sounded like, that wasn’t a question meant to shame anyone. I’ve been there (see the 3 days I thought I’d train for a figure competition…and the 2 weeks (better! Ha) I decided I wasn’t getting any younger so I should diet to get a 6-pack…and the I-don’t-even-know-if-I-ever-took-it-seriously idea to run a half marathon with a friend, a thing for which I never started training…oops).
If we’ve never taken a deep dive into why we want what we say we want, our goals are gonna remain surface-level aesthetics, almost always. And that has almost never produced lasting change…because our vices of choice (pizza) always yield a greater immediate pleasure (hello, cheese) than the immediate pain (shame) of staying the same (this size/body fat percentage/whatever measurement you use). Because our minds are tricky like that: rationally, we see the long-term consequences of “giving in” (eating pizza every night won’t help us fuel our bodies or lose weight), but in any given moment the short-term gains feel better (eating pizza just tonight will be dope; I’ll eat a salad tomorrow).
Nailing down the real reasons for our goals will help us sort out this dissonance- promise. Knowing that what I’m trying to do is feel more energetic, and certain foods make me feel bloated and tired, will help me to avoid those foods (dairy, nightshades, gluten, whichever potential allergen) to choose not the pizza (full of all 3, coincidentally) but a turkey burger instead. It doesn’t feel like deprivation (“I’m trying to get skinny, so I can’t have pizza” is a sad, sad statement.) but a benefit (because, “I’m trying to not feel like a beached whale every time I eat something I enjoy and would rather find something that I can enjoy and feel normal afterwards” is a much more fun mission). Hence, the exercise here: getting to the nitty gritty.
Another reason many of us give up is that we’re working out, we’re eating well, we’re feeling good, and we step on the scale after a week or so of our new routine, and…dun dun duuuuuun: we’ve gained weight.
This is enough to make anyone wanna give up. Because, I mean, seriously, we all know it’s gonna take time; we don’t need to write 1200 words on how the weight didn’t come on overnight so it won’t come off that way. But, hellooooo, there should be *some* progress after 10 days! And there’s not! ….right?
There’s a sticky answer here, which is my most-used and also most-hated: it depends.
There are a few reasons the weight on the scale could be going up, despite moving more and eating higher quality food. And they’re very real, first and foremost, and, secondly, ultra-common. As in, I see this almost every day with my in-person clients (and have every day for 7y) (and experienced it about 2309532598 times myself).
First, quite simply, it could be our new exercise program. Our muscles are, hopefully obviously, more active when we start exercising. The main source of fuel for our muscles to work is a molecule called glycogen, which is a complex sugar molecule that breaks down to glucose. Other tissues use other sources of energy, but glycogen must be bound to water as part of the breakdown process. Also, if we aren’t used to activity (or even if we are, but are progressing by adding more weight or more reps – which is what we should be doing to ensure progress ;) ), we damage our muscles. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, as muscles grow from the creation of micro-tears and rebuilding (this is also why protein is important). The healing of these micro-tears creates an inflammatory response. So, between the glycogen stores increasing and the inflammatory healing response, many of us often initially gain water weight (1-3lbs, on average) within the first few weeks of beginning a new exercise program. Not to fear! Totally normal, although discouraging. But, doesn’t mean our program isn’t working, and, once our muscles are used to the increased demand and become more efficient, it disappears.
Second, it could be the *type* of exercise we’re doing. We’ve realized by now that although cardio has its place, if we’re after actual body change and looking ripped/toned, we need to pick up some weights. So, the first point above is reinforced. But also, throughout several studies done in recent years comparing the effects of different exercise on the female metabolism, it has been found over and over again that combining cardio and weight training simultaneously (rather than doing them in a traditional body-part split separate way: low-intensity weight training first followed by cardio) produces far better results. Those results include all the things we want: improvements in strength, endurance, flexibility, fat loss, and muscle gain. While both protocols produce these results, intermixing the two modalities seems to yield more fat loss and muscle gain. So, could be gaining more muscle than we ever have = slight weight gain (both due to more muscle mass and water).
Finally, our appetites play a huge role here. I, for one, notice when I increase my activity, my appetite naturally goes up. Which is a good thing! Our bodies are looking out for our survival, and increased energetic demands require increased energetic supply, in theory. The trouble comes when, instead of understanding this and fueling properly with more protein and/or veggies, we take the “eat more due to exercise more” cue as “eat whatever, because you just worked out.” Which, of course, is what our bodies are telling us, but to produce the results we want, there are optimal foods. J Take an inventory of your workout and appetite – no judgment! – and assess where you are. Have you been eating more at the expense of quality because you’ve been ravenous? Exercise is also a stress to the system (a good one, but a stressor nonetheless), so weight gain could be due to that alone, but are you coping with this increased stress through food?
This is normal! SO normal. Where we get into trouble is, this happens, and, instead of keeping in mind these 3+ reasons and staying the course, navigating through the murk, we either say f it and give up, or we try to “exercise off” the weight, thereby increasing our appetite even further, binging, and feeling ashamed about it and bringing on the need to pay exercise penance…repeat ad nauseum.
I’ve got plenty!
But the first is to key in and pinpoint what’s happening. If there’s no issue with appetite and random binges, it’s probably just #s 1&2, so stick it out for a few more days.
If, like most of us, there is an issue with appetite, then that’s where our mindset work on peace with food comes in. We’ve talked about it here and here, but, summary, is essentially the same, just a little more work: stay the course. Add protein and veggies, evaluate how that feels, maybe add a few carbs or fat, evaluate, repeat.
There’s no deadline on this goal: it’s all a process. What most of us are actually after is being a version of ourselves that’s a little better than the current model. And for that to happen, all that’s needed is small steps full of change. Which take a shitload of courage, certainly, but are doable, especially when we keep in mind that most of our goals really are about how we feel.
Feeling good >>> looking good >>>>>>>> mental food/scale/fitness prison.
Cut yourself some slack, for abandoning the plan you wrote on Jan 1 or falling off the “clean eating” wagon again or not even knowing why you wanted to start in the first place, because, it happens, dude. We get to live in these bodies for the rest of our lives! Pick back up, this time with a little more knowledge to be a little better.
Here's to exiting resolution mode and entering rest-of-our-lives season.