One of the frustrating realities of weighing yourself is that weight can fluctuate — you might be up or down a few pounds even if you haven't necessarily gained or lost fat. Sometimes you will even see a temporary weight gain after exercise or eating properly for several days. So what gives?
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You could weigh more on the scale today even after you exercise because your body is retaining water to repair your muscles.
Well, in some cases, those extra pounds might be water weight, and it could mean that you're on the right track and your exercise routine is working. Here's why.
Temporary Weight Gain After Exercise
Here's the situation you might be experiencing firsthand: You weigh yourself first thing in the morning to keep yourself on track with your fitness or wellness efforts. But then after your workout, you weight yourself again. Of course, you're not expecting to lose a significant amount of weight with a single workout. But you're dismayed to see that you've actually gained 1 or 2 pounds. You may think, "I'm exercising but gaining weight." It's enough to make you want to give up.
But you shouldn't give up or feel frustrated. This is merely a temporary weight gain after your workout, and there's a reason for it. It's also important to keep in mind that it takes a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose a pound of body fat or an excess of 3,500 calories to gain a pound of body fat, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, so you're not likely to see substantial fat gain or loss in the course of a day or even a few days.
You likely already understand the importance of physical activity as part of a weight-loss effort and how it affects your overall health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that physical activity burns calories, but more importantly, it can reduce your risk of chronic disease. You should aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, plus two days of strength training to work every major muscle group.
If you're new to exercise, it's likely you'll gain a few pounds of water weight in the beginning, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This is because, when you exercise, you are causing what's called microtrauma to your muscles — in other words, working those muscles results in small tears in the muscle fiber.
When your body heals these small tears, your muscles eventually end up stronger; however, in order to heal those tears, your body needs to retain some water. This healing process will result in what's known as delayed onset muscle soreness, which you will experience in the 24 to 36 hours after exercise.
Exactly how much temporary weight gain after exercise can you expect? The University of Hawaii at Manoa states that the water retention following muscle trauma could cause a person to gain as much as 3 or 4 pounds within a few days following the workout.
That can be discouraging, especially for somebody who is putting their all into an intense exercise routine. The University of Hawaii at Manoa recommends avoiding this by easing into a fitness program gradually, which will give your body a chance to physically adapt.
Read more: How to Shed Water Weight
Water Retention Due to Nutrition
Some of the temporary weight gain after exercising might also be caused by the way that you're fueling yourself, especially if you're eating for an active lifestyle. The American Council on Exercise notes that the diet of an athlete tends to focus on carbohydrates. This macronutrient, which is the body's preferred source of energy, gets broken down into glucose. When that glucose isn't immediately needed, it gets stored in the form of glycogen in your muscles and your liver.
Read more: The Best Foods to Build Glycogen
But as the Cleveland Clinic points out, glycogen binds with water when it is stored in the body. This is especially true when you're first starting out on your fitness goals, when your muscles aren't used to being worked as hard, so they need more energy. The American Council on Exercise estimates that every gram of glycogen will hold about 2.7 grams of water. Thus, a person's weight can fluctuate approximately 3 to 5 pounds from glycogen and water weight alone.
There's no need to worry too much about this temporary weight gain — it means that you will have the energy you need for increased performance. And as your muscles become stronger and more efficient, they will require less glycogen to fuel you. The Cleveland Clinic states you can expect to lose your initial water weight anywhere from a week or month after you start your program.
The Cleveland Clinic and the University of Hawaii at Manoa estimate that it will take at least a month (maybe two) for you to see changes in body composition — that is, "real" weight fluctuations from increased muscle mass or decreased fat mass. If it helps your morale, stop paying attention to the scale and focus instead on how you feel and how your clothes fit.
It's important to remember that just because you can dismiss these minor weight fluctuations as water weight, it doesn't mean people who work out are immune to actual fat gain. The American Council on Exercise even emphasizes that some athletes eat too much because they think training gives them a pass to eat whatever they want or they overestimate their workout's caloric expenditure. If you eat more calories than you burn, you will still gain weight, even when you're exercising.
Read more: Over-Exercising & Weight Gain
Some workouts may not burn as many calories as you expect them to. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 154-pound person will burn 290 calories bicycling at a leisurely pace (less than 10 miles an hour) for one hour or 280 calories walking at a speed of 3.5 miles per hour for one hour. These workouts could potentially put you in a calorie deficit and help you lose weight if you are careful about what you eat, but they are not enough to negate overeating on a regular basis.
- Cleveland Clinic: “I Just Started Exercising — Why Am I Gaining Weight?”
- University of Hawaii at Manoa: “Exercise Program Can Result in Quick Weight Gain”
- American Council on Exercise: “Why Do I Seem to Gain Weight When I Start to Train for an Endurance Race Like a Half-Marathon”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Why Is Physical Activity Important?”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Tip the Calorie Balance”