5 Ways Your Workouts Might Be Making You Fat

You already know that exercise is really good at a lot of things. It's great at reducing stress, boosting your mood, helping you sleep better, keeping your heart and lungs in shape and about a hundred other things. What may surprise you is this:

Exercise is not that great at helping you lose weight. At least, the kind of exercise we typically do.

You hear over and over that diet and exercise are the best ways to lose weight and, in the larger picture, that's true for most people. But when you narrow things down to the individual level, you may find that, not only is exercise lousy at weight loss, it may sometimes contribute to weight gain without us even realizing it.

That doesn't mean you should stop exercising. It's almost a necessity these days with many of us spending hours at sedentary jobs. What it does mean is that understanding the mechanisms behind exercise and how your body responds to it can give you a leg up on getting the absolute most out of your workouts.

Below are just a few things to look out for when it comes to exercise and weight gain.

Your Workouts Don't Burn as Many Calories as You Think

Weights and Measuring Still Life
Weights and Measuring Tape Still Life. Jamie Grill/Getty Images

 You're probably familiar with the typical formula for weight loss. If you reduce the calories you're eating and increase the calories you're burning with exercise, you'll create a calorie deficit and you'll lose weight.

That sounds great and a lot of us have tried that, but what you quickly realize is that it's not that simple.

Creating that calorie deficit is harder than you think and if you're only using exercise to do that, you've probably realized that exercise alone only leads to a modest amount of weight loss.

Exercise and Weight Loss —The Real Deal

When you finish a good, hard workout, you probably feel pretty good about yourself, and you should. Every workout does amazing things for your body.

However, many find that those amazing things aren't showing up on the scale.

The good news is, there's a reason for this and it's not your fault.

In one study published in the Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, experts studied different types of workouts to determine which, if any, elicited significant weight loss. Their findings: 

"Based on the present literature, unless the overall volume of aerobic ET is very high, clinically significant weight loss is unlikely to occur."

That means we have to workout far more than the current physical activity guidelines recommend for weight loss.

The Amercian College of Sports Medicine recommends 225 to 420 minutes of exercise per week, or the equivalent of burning 2,000 calories if you want to lose weight. 

However, the studies that showed the most significant weight loss involved burning 500-700 calories a day. That translates to 3500 to 4900 calories burned each week, an amount of exercise most of us don't have the time or conditioning for.

Just to give you some context —a 150-pound person would have to walk at four miles per hour for 85 minutes to burn 500 calories.

Dealing With the Exercise Conundrum

It can be discouraging when you find out that all that hard work you're doing doesn't always translate to weight loss.

However, exercise is still important if your goal is to lose weight. Because changing how you exercise can change how quickly you lose weight.

There are certain types of workouts that work better at burning calories than others:

Exercise Can Increase Your Appetite

Hands Holding Sweets
Hands Holding Sweets. Chris Ryan/Getty Images

Another problem with working out is that it can make you eat more without realizing it. There are a variety of reasons for this, including:

  • Exercise can increase your appetite. While some studies show that intense exercise can actually suppress your appetite, eventually your body will want to replenish that lost fuel and you may end up eating more than you normally would.
  • You're rewarding yourself. We all know better, but many of us still fall for that exercise halo—you just exercised! Now you can eat whatever you want. That kind of thinking could easily wipe out all your hard work.

The Problem With Exercise

The important thing to realize about your workouts is at eating too many calories can leave you in the same place as someone who exercised even less than you.

In research published in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, the authors looked at a study involving postmenopausal women.

These women were assigned to three different exercise groups: Those who did 50 percent, 100 percent and 150 percent of the recommended amount of exercise.

The authors found that the women who did the most exercise, 150 percent, had the most compensation. In other words, they ate more than the other exercisers. In fact, in the end, the 150 percenters ended up losing the same amount of weight as the 50 percenters, simply because they ate more.

Avoiding Exercise Compensation

There are some very simple things you can do to avoid compensating for your workouts and eating more calories:

  1. Fuel upMake sure you have at least a little fuel in your body before you exercise. This can give you the energy you need for your workout and help you avoid dips in your blood sugar.
  2. Eat a healthy post-workout snack. Eating after a workout is usually recommended, just to help your body to recover. However, the last thing you want to do is undo all your hard work. Some yogurt, a banana or a small smoothie are good choices for post workout recovery. Keep in mind, this is for more intense workouts. You probably don't need anything if you, say, walked briskly for 30 minutes.
  3. Keep a food journalIf you do nothing else, this is the single best thing you can do to avoid overeating. Most of us are notoriously bad at estimating how many calories we eat, so writing it down forces you to be honest about what you're eating.

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Overtraining Can Cause Stress and Weight Gain

Sleeping Puppy
Sleeping Puppy. Purple Collar Pet Photography/Getty Images

In recent years, the fitness industry has shifted focus to more high intensity exercise. There's Crossfit, Orangetheory Fitness, Tabata Training, the 7 Minute Workout and other programs and workouts with a focus on metabolic conditioning.

The idea is to do fewer of the long, slow, so-called fat burning cardio workouts that were once popular and combine cardio and strength into a special kind of high-intensity circuit training.

There are pros and cons to this kind of training, one of them being that too much can actually contribute to weight gain. 

High-Intensity Exercise and Stress

There's a strong relationship between exercise and stress. Exercise, by its very definition, causes stress on the body. This is usually a good thing, since getting your body out of its comfort zone is how you get stronger, leaner and fitter.

Too much of this stress, however, can backfire. Your body needs adequate recovery in order to grow stronger and fitter. Without that, you're adding stress on top of stress. 

How Your Body Responds to Stress

When you're stressed, whether it's from exercise or just life, your body responds in a very primal way. It releases high levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, that has a number of negative effects on the body, including increased appetite and increased fat deposition, particularly around the belly.

Avoiding Overtraining

Overtraining can be caused by too much exercise, but you can also compound the problem with other stressors like work, family, and just life in general.

The real key to avoiding overtraining is to manage stress in all areas of your life—easier said than done for many of us. But doing that can be simpler than you think.

When it comes to exercise, balancing your workouts is the best way to avoid extra stress and weight gain. 

  • Have a variety of workoutsToo much high-intensity exercise only leads to problems. Balance out your workouts with a mix of different cardio workouts, strength workouts and mind-body exercise like yoga or Pilates.
  • Start simpleWe often bite off more than we can chew when starting an exercise program and it's easy to do that. We want to make up for lost time. A better way is to ease into high-intensity training and let your body get used to working harder.
  • Spread out your HIIT workouts. The ACSM recommends that if you're doing more than one HIIT each week, spread them out so your body gets some rest. Your recovery workouts can be things like walking, steady state cardio or strength training.
  • Take rest days. If you're planning a HIIT workout, take a rest day the day before or do a light workout so your body is rested and ready for higher intensity exercise.
  • Listen to your body.  Overtraining can cause you to feel tired, unmotivated, depressed and restless. Pay attention to how you feel. If your performance is worse than usual, that may be a sign you should take a day or so off. 

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Your Workouts May Hide Secret Calories

Woman Checking Calories
Woman Checking Calories. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Counting calories is one of more popular ways to lose weight, which makes sense. Figuring out what you're eating and what you're burning is all part of the weight loss equation.

However, there are some pitfalls we don't consider when counting calories.

  • Calorie counts aren't always accurate: Cardio machines like treadmills and ellipticals use different formulas and algorithms to come up with those calories counts and the accuracy often depends on the quality of the machine and how long it's been around. For example, treadmills have been around the longest and, therefore, have been validated on more subjects than, say, elliptical trainers, which could be off by as much as 20 or 30 percent. And, these machines don't factor in things that affect calorie burn such as body composition, metabolism, body type and fitness level.
  • Active calories vs. total calories: Here's something else we don't factor in when calculating exercise calories: The number of calories burned if you weren't exercising. This may seem nitpicky, but that really is part of your overall calorie expenditure. So, if you would normally sit instead of workout, you have to subtract the number of calories you would've burned doing that. Say you burned 300 calories working out and you would've burned 70 calories otherwise. That means you really burned 230 calories. Those sneaky calories can add up over time, leaving you frustrated that you're not seeing greater results.

That doesn't mean you have to become a calorie control freak—that kind of obsessing would make us all crazy. What it does mean is that counting calories is a messy business and if you're relying on those numbers to lose weight, the more information you have, the more accurate you can be.

The best way to use those numbers is to get a sense of calories burned for different workouts. If you burn 300 calories running on the treadmill at a certain pace, you have a baseline to work from. Having a number to work with can give you a sense of which workouts give you the most.

Your Workouts Eventually Stop Working

Frustrated Woman on Exercise Ball
Frustrated Woman on Exercise Ball. Sheer Photo, Inc/Getty Images

Something else we don't think about is this: The more you workout, the better you get at it and, consequently, the fewer calories you burn. There are some specific ways this can affect your calorie burn:

  • You get more efficient. When you first start an activity, you burn more calories because your body isn't used to it. Over time, your body gets better at the movement and becomes more efficient, so you expend less energy.
  • Your body adapts to what you're doing. Adaptation is something we like in the fitness world because it means your body changed to meet the new demands placed on it. But, once your body adapts, there's a risk you'll hit a plateau.
  • You lose weight. Here's the strange side of losing weight: The more weight you lose, the harder it is to lose weight. After weight loss, your body needs fewer calories to survive but many of us don't adjust the calories we're eating to take that into account. Not only do you have to adjust your eating, you have to work harder at your workouts just to burn the same number of calories you were burning before you lost weight.

Avoiding the Workout Plateau

Fortunately, this is an easy fix, it just takes a little work and some planning.

  • Change your workouts. The obvious fix here is to change your workouts on a regular basis. Some ideas:
    • Change the intensity. If you always do a steady state workout on the same machine, try interval training or even mix it up with different machines, as in this Cardio Medley Workout. If you're strength training, lift heavier weights for fewer reps or try just changing the order of your exercises.
    • Change your frequency. Try adding another day of exercise or split your workouts and do them throughout the day. This can help you get a little more afterburn.
    • Change the time. Try shorter, more intense workouts or add a longer, slower workout from time to time. Challenge your body's different energy systems (e.g., the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems) so you're always doing something different.
  • Try new activities. It's great to stick with things you like, but it pays to try new things, too. Even just once a week, trying a new machine, a class or an activity can rejuvenate your workouts and stave off boredom. Give yourself a goal to try one new thing every month. Even if you only do it once, you never know what you're going to fall in love with.
  • Pay attention to your diet As mentioned above, many of us don't adjust our calories after losing weight. This is why it's so important to keep a food journal. As you lose weight, you need to adjust those calories so you keep the deficit going.


Hunter GR, Byrne NM, Sirikul B, et al. Resistance training conserves fat-free mass and resting energy expenditure following weight loss. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008;16(5):1045-1051. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.38.

Swift DL, Johannsen NM, Lavie CJ, Earnest CP, Church TS. The Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Weight Loss and Maintenance. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. 2014;56(4):441-447. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2013.09.012.

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