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Workout Weight Gain

Q. I started exercising and have gained five pounds! My BMI is still within the healthy limits (barely). But I’d like to lose—not add—more weight! Why is exercise making me heavier instead of lighter? What am I doing wrong?

A. Not all exercise is the same. So without knowing what type of exercise you’re doing, how much and how often—and for how long you’ve been doing it—it’s hard to speculate as to why you might be gaining weight.

Are you going to yoga class seven days a week? Are you doing 50 crunches every morning (and nothing else)? Are you walking on the treadmill for 20 minutes, but only twice a week? While each of these approaches may improve your fitness level, they don’t add up to a large enough calorie burn to significantly affect your body weight. The type of exercise and how much of it you do makes all the difference when it comes to shedding pounds.


Generally, the fitness recipe for weight loss is to increase the amount of cardio you do in order to burn a significant amount of calories per session. Theoretically (assuming you don’t eat more than usual), if you burn 3,500 calories, you will lose one pound of fat.

Muscle-conditioning activities tend not to burn many calories. You do burn extra calories from these workouts—it just might not be enough to see a difference in a short amount of time.

Consider this: You burn about one calorie per minute sitting. Exercises where you stretch or target specific muscles such as when doing ab work or pushups, for example, burn around two or four calories a minute. But walking, running or dancing can burn from five to 10-plus calories per minute.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re burning lots of calories because you feel a burn and you’re breaking a sweat. You might be huffing and puffing because the room is hot and not because you are metabolizing lots of energy.

Moves that generate specific muscle fatigue (your arms quiver, your abs burn, your legs shake) may feel tough, but they still may not burn that many calories overall. For example, walking briskly—where you don’t feel a burn, but your heart rate increases because many muscles work in unison over an extended period of time—uses  up more energy than 100 crunches. That’s why you’ll decrease more fat in your belly from walking than from doing ab work, which may feel more difficult.

So, yoga, Pilates, lifting weights and other types of body conditioning workouts tend not to be calorific enough to make a big dent in fat stores. A 30-minute stretch and ab workout might burn around 60 calories, while a 30-minute walk might burn 150 calories, and a (higher intensity) 30-minute step class might burn about 250 calories.


In theory, to lose 10 pounds of fat (or burn 35,000 calories) by working out four days a week for 30 minutes, it would take:

  • About 145 weeks (or almost 3 years) from yoga and ab workouts;
  • Some 58 weeks (about a little more than one year) from short, moderate-intensity walks;
  • Or 35 weeks (about eight months) from higher-intensity cardio such as a step workout.

Of course, eating slightly less while adding in the extra calorie burn from any of these workouts—or lengthening each exercise session—can speed up the weight loss.

While there is not yet a specific recommendation for exactly how much exercise results in weight loss, general recommendations are to include from 30 to 90 minutes of moderate to high intensity activity into your day, on most days of the week.


Cutting calories from what you eat each day is easier than burning up extra calories through exercise: You can easily shave 500 to 1,000 calories off a day’s meals but cutting out soda, fried foods and sweets that you might normally eat. But burning this many calories from working out takes a lot more work—about one to two hours of exercise per day, depending on the type and intensity. That’s why people seem to feel that diets work better than exercise when it comes to weight loss—they work faster.

You’re not the first to feel like you are gaining weight from working out. Assuming that you are doing longer, calorie-intensive workouts more frequently, there may be other explanations:

Some people eat more when they start to exercise. There doesn’t seem to be evidence that your body actually gets hungrier, especially with lower intensity or shorter workouts. But there may be a psychological disinhibition: “Hey, I worked out, I can have that extra serving, or maybe even dessert.” Also, some research suggests that women may become less active when they add exercise to their day. This, too, may be some sort of psychological compensation: “I worked out, I can sit on my butt for the rest of the day.”

Sometimes, as people get fitter, their bodies become more efficient, especially at utilizing carbs better. So you develop the ability to store more glycogen, or carbs, in your muscles. Those molecules contain added water, which means that you MIGHT increase your water weight as you get fitter. This isn’t likely to make a huge difference on the scale, though.

Some people assume that they gain muscle and this makes them heavier, too. Unless you are lifting heavy weights and eating more, it’s unlikely that you’re gaining muscle weight. Even then, it might take six months to gain a couple of pounds.

Keep in mind, too, that body weight fluctuates by as much as three to five pounds daily. And you might even be shaping up more than you realize if your clothes are getting loser, despite what the scale says. (You can decrease body fat—helping your look slimmer—without losing much weight.)

Do you have a fitness or weight-loss question for Martica? Send e-mail to experts@microsoft.com. Please include Ask Martica in the subject line. Each of our experts responds to one question each week and the responses are posted on Mondays on MSN Health. We regret that we cannot provide a personalized response to every submission.
Martica is a Manhattan-based exercise physiologist and nutritionist and an award-winning fitness instructor. She has written for a variety of publications including Self , Health , Prevention , The New York Times and others. Martica is the author of seven books, including her latest, – Cross-Training for Dummies . (Read her full bio.)

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