Ask Stew: Gaining Weight While Trying to Lose Weight

Lt. Colin Charpentier leads the way as the 10th Headquarters and Special Troops Battalion sets off on its 5K Family Fun Run fundraiser in support of Army Emergency Relief. (Photo Credit: Spc. Liane Schmersahl)
Lt. Colin Charpentier leads the way as the 10th Headquarters and Special Troops Battalion sets off on its 5K Family Fun Run fundraiser in support of Army Emergency Relief. (Photo Credit: Spc. Liane Schmersahl)

Have you ever started a workout program with the intention of getting into better shape again, firming up the body, and attempting to lose some weight, but you were stunned that after a month, you did not lose weight — you actually gained weight? Don't worry, there is an explanation for it.

Here is an email from a military spouse with a similar experience during the beginning of her fitness program:

"Stew — I just started to work out again — other than walking a few days a week. It has been a month of consistent lifting, stretching, calisthenics, and cardio workouts. Sometimes even twice in one day! What gives? I have gained five pounds. I do not have that much to lose — maybe 10 pounds (now 15!!). What can I do? Signed — Getting Discouraged."

I understand — this happens so do not feel bad, you are not wasting your time. There are many reasons why your new fitness plan may be producing different results at first.

Body Changes — If you are adding a resistance program (calisthenics, weighted exercise) there will be tearing down and building up of muscle. At first, this micro tearing of the muscle fiber causes water retention during the healing process, which can result in some weight gain.

Gaining Muscle — You could be experiencing muscle growth, which in turn will help you be stronger, increase bone density, and soon help you burn more fat — even at rest.

As you begin your new fitness program your muscles start to grow, especially if you are starting at the beginner level with little-to-no muscle in your arms, legs, butt, and core. You may also feel an increase in muscle firmness during the process.

Muscle takes up less space than fat, so you may see an increase is weight but a decrease in inches elsewhere through the body (waist, hips, upper arms and other places where fat is stored). The process of adding muscle takes time — typically 1-2 months.

Retaining Water and Glycogen — Your muscles (and liver) will start to store more glycogen (fuel) and water during the transition from no activity to an active lifestyle at first. As you get into better condition your muscles will not need to same level of fuel for the same level of workout previously. Once this occurs (could be 4-6 weeks) your water retention will decrease and the weight will also follow in a downward trend as well.

Unchanged Eating Habits — Many people start an exercise program but do not change their diet at the same time. In fact, I have recommended that people build the habit of fitness first; the body’s natural desire for healthier foods will follow. It may be time to consider adding a food plan to help you eat leaner and more healthier foods. I recommend that people make a food diary. Write everything down that you eat and drink. Be sure to note sugar calories, other carbohydrates, protein and fat sources as well.

Stress — Working out is a great stress reliever. However, it could be adding more physical stress to your emotional stress and not properly helping you battle it. De-stress by taking a walk and focusing on deep breathing. Try box breathing: four seconds inhale — four seconds hold — four seconds exhale — four seconds hold — repeat four times during your walk or as a cool-down exercise after your walk.

You can also try stretching at the end of the day, or eating a good meal with lean protein, antioxidants (fruit /vegetables), and omega-3 fats (olives, almonds) to help with the effects of stress. Then get a good night’s sleep. Sleep is our number one recovery tool. Use it!

Finally, be patient. You did not get out of shape and overweight overnight, and you will not get in shape and reaching your weight loss goals overnight either. Remember, getting in better shape is a journey — be ready to be in it for the long hall. You can do it!

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