If you’ve increased your activity level in the hopes of dropping a few pounds, only to find the scale stubbornly stuck, you’re not the first. You might even be among those who frustratingly find they’ve gained weight despite doubling down on their workouts.
“I find this to be very common among both experienced and inexperienced exercisers,” says Jackie Dikos, R.D., a sport nutritionist in Indianapolis who has twice qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials. This phenomenon happens for a few main reasons, all of which can be easily addressed.
Cause #1: Overestimating Caloric Burn
Dikos says one of the most common reasons for lack of weight loss is not understanding how many calories workouts burn. The standard figure of 100 calories burned per mile of running or walking might sound like a lot. But when you consider that 20 miles a week means burning roughly 2,000 additional calories, and that losing a pound of fat requires burning 3,500 calories, frustration over a lack of quick results becomes understandable.
For people who work out a lot on machines with calories-burned readings, Dikos urges caution. “Limit placing emphasis on the calorie-expenditure reading available on workout equipment,” she says, because these often overstate calories burned. This Harvard Medical School table shows the number of calories burned in 30 minutes when doing a wide range of activities.
Cause #2: Food Choices
Related to overestimating caloric burn, Dikos says, is that many people reward themselves with food after a workout. Even if you do have an accurate sense of how many calories you burned, the deficit you created can be undone and then some if you follow most workouts with a dessert, mocha, or other treat. “I encourage redefining the meaning of reward,” Dikos says.
Sport nutritionist Vishal Patel agrees. “People think they can eat whatever they want,” he says. “Just because you exercise 30 to 60 minutes a few days week doesn’t mean you can indulge in empty calories. The recommended 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week is only to help prevent the occurrence of some chronic diseases. It’s important to eat a well-balanced diet, containing nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, lean protein, vegetables, and fruits.”
Another factor is portion sizes, says Patel. Many restaurants present diners with far larger portions than most people would make on their own. At home, Patel says, the portion sizes stated on food labels can be misleading or confusing. The Food and Drug Administration will unveil clearer labeling guidelines in 2015. Until then, “use tools like MyPlate to get a general depiction of how balanced your meals should be,” Patel says. “It’s never a bad idea to measure out quantities before cooking.”
Cause #3: Drink Choices
The average American adult gets 13% of his or her calories from added sugar, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this year, with one-third of those added-sugar calories coming from beverages. That includes sport drinks that many people think they need to drink during and after every workout.
“You only need to supplement with a drink other than water if you are exercising for more than an hour, or if you are exercising in high temps or at altitude,” says Patel. “Water will suffice for low to moderate exercise intensities. Drink towards thirst; do not force consumption. It is more important to replenish lost nutrients post exercise, with a protein-based drink, depending on activity duration/intensity, and an electrolyte replacement such as Nuun.”
Cause #4: Dehydration
Dikos says proper hydration and electrolyte balance are often overlooked as contributors toward a lack of weight loss. “People may not realize they are turning to food as a means to replace lost fluids and electrolytes,” she says.
Be sure to stay hydrated, including with electrolyte-containing beverages, during workouts when you’ll be sweating a lot. After such workouts, Dikos says, “refuel with electrolyte-rich options such as vegetable soup or cottage cheese, or add a pinch of salt to a smoothie.”
Dikos says that post-workout cravings for salty foods are a sign to address fluid or electrolyte replacement. “Always consider urine color as a guide to support proper hydration,” she recommends, with the goal being to have clear urine as often as possible.