You've decided to include exercise in your weight loss plan. Congratulations! Most healthy weight loss programs include exercise. Your clothes are looser, and you feel leaner around the midsection and possibly in your thighs and hips. You may not be losing weight, but you are on your way toward achieving that weight loss goal.
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You may lose inches without losing weight. That doesn't mean you're not becoming healthier. The point of losing weight is to lose body fat. By exercising, you are likely replacing that fat with muscle. Fat takes up more space than muscle. So even if you're not losing pounds, you are still losing unhealthy fat.
Muscle Versus Fat
When you exercise, your body creates muscle. If you've started a new exercise program, or if you've upped your game, you are likely creating more muscle. So, while you are losing fat, you're not necessarily losing weight. Instead, you're doing something better for your body, according to a May 2015 study of athletic bodybuilding in the Journal of International Sports Nutrition. That's gaining muscle.
The myth has long been "muscle weighs more than fat." That's not true. A pound is a pound. One pound equals 16 ounces, no matter which way you slice it. What is true, however, is that fat takes up more room in your body than muscle.
Think of it this way. Muscle is compact and firm. Fat is not as firm. Baylor College of Medicine registered dietitian and sports dietitian RobertaAnding describes it in visual terms in an August 2018 Baylor University publication: A pound of marshmallows takes up more space than a pound of raisins. Both, however, weigh a pound.
Key to Building Muscle
Your weight loss regimen may not be helping you shed pounds right away — but it's helping you meet what is typically the goal of losing weight, and that's building lean body mass throughout your body, says Anding. As a result, you are losing inches but not weight.
You gain lean body mass by eating foods with protein, ideally spread throughout the day, Anding says. She adds that the other half of that equation is incorporating resistance training.
If you're losing inches, then you're probably working your muscles to the point of fatigue so that they get stronger. You're doing this if you're losing some of your body fat and replacing it with muscle. Because that muscle takes up less room, you're losing inches.
Read more: The 6 Rules of Gaining Muscle Mass
Losing Inches but Not Pounds
If you are losing inches but not pounds, you may be doing something that will ultimately improve your health, according to a February 2015 study in the journal Obesity — you may be building lean muscle mass.
If you're trying to lose weight without increasing your daily exercise, you risk losing some lean muscle tissue along with fat, according to the October 2014 issue of the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine. On the other hand, the May 15 Harvard Heart Letter says that building muscle while you try to lose weight helps increase your metabolism, which helps you to meet your fat loss goals.
Read more: The Best Way to Gain Lean Muscle Mass
Metabolism and Weight Loss
By gaining muscle and losing inches, you are speeding up your metabolism, according to a July 2015 Harvard Health Publishing article. While it may not help you lose weight in the short term, you are helping your body control weight gain, and potentially lose weight, in the long term.
Metabolism is simply a series of chemical reactions that create and break down energy, or the rate at which you burn calories.
Your resting metabolic rate, known as the basal metabolic rate, or BMR, is the rate at which your body expends energy or burns those calories. Genes partly determine this. The other parts of your metabolic rate, however, are decided based on your everyday activities and your daily exercise.
Focus on Health, Not Weight
You've probably always thought that taking in fewer calories was the only way to lose weight. That's why your focus is on the scale, not your slimming waistline and your inch loss, as the goal.
As your body becomes more muscular, it's going to become leaner, according to Harvard Health. That is a sign that your exercise and diet plan is taking you in the right direction.
Focusing on the scale doesn't necessarily hurt your weight loss goals, according to a study presented at the November 2018 meeting of the American Heart Association. But, the weight on your scale doesn't tell you how much muscle you've gained and how much fat you've lost. Using this body fat calculator may help you realize you are on your way to meeting your goals.
Body Composition Measures
When you lose inches but not weight, you are still changing your body composition. Measuring your waist circumference is one tool to determine if you are at risk for certain diseases.
For women, a waist size over 35 inches, and for men, a waist size over 40 inches, puts you at a higher risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The BMI, or body mass index, on the other hand, uses your height and weight to estimate your body fat. If your an athlete, or have a muscular build, however, NIH says using the BMI scale may overestimate your actual body fat percentage.
If you're losing inches, but not yet losing weight, a better measure of your long-term goal is to measure your waist-to-hip ratio or WHR. According to the August 2014 issue of the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, you want your WHR to be 0.9 or less if you're a man and 0.85 or less if you're a woman.
A study in the Dec. 1, 2015, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine showed that if you have a normal BMI, but a high WHR, you have an increased risk of dying. That risk is larger for men than for women.
Use this measure as a guide to your health, and discuss with your doctor if any weight loss measures are necessary.
Gain Muscle, Not Fat
To gain muscle and lose fat, you must pay attention to your diet as well as strength train. A study in the October 2014 issue of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes spread their protein intake out throughout the day, 1.09 to 1.41 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
The journal suggested athletes take in higher levels of protein, along with more carbohydrates, while paring back their intake of fat.
Read more: How Women Can Build Muscle Fast
Lose Weight Slowly
Your weight loss goal should not be to lose weight fast. Instead, focus on eating better and increasing your exercise. Losing weight at about 1 to 2 pounds a week, along with increasing your exercise, is a sustainable way to lose weight and make the lifestyle changes you need to keep it off, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Remember that you should always keep your health practitioner informed of your weight loss activities and always check with her before starting or changing your exercise routine.
- Baylor College of Medicine: "Muscle Doesn't Weigh More Than Fat"
- Journal of International Sports Nutrition: "A Nutrition and Conditioning Intervention for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Case Study"
- Obesity: "Weight Training, Aerobic Physical Activities, and Long-Term Waist Circumference Change in Men"
- Obesity: "The Effect of Rate of Weight Loss on Long‐Term Weight Regain In Adults With Overweight and Obesity"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Add Strength Training to Your Fitness Plan"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Does Metabolism Matter in Weight Loss?"
- National Institutes of Health National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: "Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk"
- National Health Service (UK): "Normal BMI With a Big Belly 'Deadlier Than Obesity'"
- Sports Medicine: "A Brief Review of Higher Dietary Protein Diets in Weight Loss: A Focus On Athletes"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight Loss Basics"
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Relationship Among Body Fat Percentage, Body Mass Index, and All-Cause Mortality: A Cohort Study"
- Mayo Clinic: Exercise: "When to Check With Your Doctor First"
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Normal Weight Central Obesity: Implications for Total and Cardiovascular Mortality"
- American Council on Exercise: "The Do's and Don'ts of Building Muscle"
- Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter: "Rethinking BMI for Older Adults"