illustration of chubby weights
Illustration by Elnora Turner
Health

Why Weight Loss Through Exercise is So Tricky

We all get excited for exercise to completely change our lives, only to be discouraged when results don't come quickly; understanding why and refocusing can help.
March 18, 2020, 6:51pm
ask-a-swole-woman-logo
Sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs? A Swole Woman is here to help you be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.

Hey,

So I will just jump right in. I am pretty weight conscious (yes, I know this is a mistake).

I recently came back from assisting with the bushfires and I was only doing cardio, and I had put on a kilo or two.

I was upset, and immediately jumped into smashing myself at the gym with the “body attack” program by Les Mils.

I generally train 6 days a week and watch my calories pretty intensely.

Anyway, I have found that I am just feeling bloated or heavy around my stomach and my legs. Even though I have been training a lot with the body attack and monitoring my calories and drinking lots of water, I am holding onto the weight. I’m frustrated and unsure what to do, is it possible to retain fluid from resistance training? Is there something I am missing here?

Looking for some advice. - RJ

I can’t count how many times I found myself in this same position. I finally got up the motivation to start working out, dragged my entire self to the gym, spent 30 precious minutes of my time using the treadmill or stationary bike and nervously doing a few moves on the weight machines, only to return to the body-weight scale at home later that night or after a few days of this routine only to discover… I had actually gained a few pounds. What was the point of all this, if it didn’t even do anything, and by “do anything” I mean make me smaller and more attractive?

According to every piece of content I’d ever seen about exercise and dieting, it was fair, and even reasonable, to expect FAST results. If there were so many programs out there that promised losing lots of pounds inside of a week, surely doing my best to go to the gym and work up a sweat—working even harder than those fat-blasting workouts seemed to ask of me—should have done even more to help me lose weight. When this not only didn’t help but seemed to make things actively worse, I inevitably would throw the whole idea in the trash and move on without exercise, since it seemed to “not do anything.”

The thing is that I was mistaken about what exercise is for—or at least, I was focused on the wrong things and expecting too much. Like many people, I felt incredible pressure to lose weight and be skinny, despite that I was already a healthy weight; if I really need to lose body fat in the interest of my health, a doctor would have told me, and I’d never gotten that advice.

Being hyper-focused on weight loss led to me really hating myself, and I developed an antagonistic, destructive relationship with my body; whereas focusing on the benefits of exercise, like getting stronger and feeling more capable and having more energy, allowed me to build a constructive relationship, eat more food, and sleep better.

I know this is not as simple as “simply focus on different things” for anyone. But we should question “weight loss” as a culturally valuable pursuit, and try to learn to see our body ideals as toxic and that all of this is part of a shitty rat race to distract us from actually taking care of ourselves and seeing the world’s problems clearly (yes, I have, in fact, read The Beauty Myth).

But even if I had, there are a handful of principles that apply here outside of that that might help you understand what’s going on.

Exercise alone is not a magic bullet for body fat loss

A lot of the hype around exercise focuses on calories burned. You see it in MyFitnessPal, in exercise apps, and on cardio machines at the gym. This leads us to see the process as simple math: if a pound is 3500 calories, and the elliptical at the gym says I burn 600 calories in 45 minutes of working out, I should be able to lose a pound in about four days, lose ten pounds in about five weeks, and lose forty pounds in five months.

Unfortunately, the accuracy of those numbers can vary wildly, particularly for cardio machines. For instance, running on a flat treadmill is not the same as running on the ground at the same speed, but the machine’s calorie counter might make you believe it’s the same. We also can’t simply burn more calories the more we work out. But more importantly, losing body fat requires an overall “caloric deficit,” meaning what we eat is part of the equation too.

It’s not uncommon for a new exercise routine to stimulate people’s appetites and cause them to move less outside of exercise, and even cause weight gain. This extremely does not mean “be severe with yourself about food as well as exercise in order to get the results you’re looking for.” It does mean you probably need some time to adapt to your new habit, and even if losing body fat were the ultimate goal (which, again, is not a decision anyone should undertake on their own because they yearn to look like Karlie Kloss), based on most people’s results, it will be ultimately discouraging to try and double-track “starting to form the habit of working out” and “losing weight.”

Obviously exercise can and does cause people’s bodies to change—changes just in body composition, or the amount of body fat versus lean muscle mass, without any weight actually lost can make a huge difference in one's appearance. But for me, this happened on a scale of months and years, and only with periods where I was eating substantially more than I ever had in order to help me rebuild muscle I’d lost through years of aggressive dieting. But I’m also far happier now, some 25 pounds heavier than I was at my smallest. In the darkest time of my disordered eating, I wouldn’t have believed that was even possible.

You mention you’ve been watching your calories, but that’s not always a magic bullet, either.

Weight loss should happen pretty slowly, and it’s possible to be too extreme

It may surprise many to learn that various junk publications or products pushing diets or programs that promise you will “lose ten pounds in five days!” do not reflect healthy weight loss, let alone a healthy lifestyle. The book Renaissance Woman, from the nutrition and athletic coaching company Renaissance Periodization, has useful information here along with an example:

“Current data suggests that the most productive middle ground for a caloric deficit is one that results in losses of somewhere between 0.5% and 1.0% of bodyweight per week. This means that for a woman that weighs 150lbs, a very good start for a weekly weight loss goal is somewhere between 0.75lbs and 1.5lbs. It doesn’t sound like much, but a 12 week diet at this rate (even with a middle value of around 1lb per week) will lead to a bodyweight of around 138lbs.”

You will notice, this is a much slower weight than many diet products market in their ads or testimonials. Everyone wants fast results, but “fast” does not mean “healthy” or “sustainable.” There are also a number of negative health effects that go along with trying to lose weight too quickly for too long, including losing muscle mass and screwing up your metabolism and hormones such that your body goes into “starvation mode” and tries to retain its energy (which is how people dieting for a very long time, even ones who are overweight, can continue to eat a very meager amount of calories and not lose more weight, or even gain weight).

If you actually need to lose weight, there is a right way to do it that a doctor or dietitian can help you with that should never involve starving yourself. While caloric deficits across exercise and food are what produces body fat loss, that never means “the more exercise and the less food eaten, the more body fat loss happens.”

Exercise can cause some biological changes that seem like “weight gain”

Exercise, and particularly lifting heavy weights like I love to do and wish more people would do, builds muscles by tearing them up so bodies rebuild them stronger than before with the fuel we give them (food, water, rest). In the short term, muscles respond by holding onto more glycogen (muscle fuel), which also helps them hold more water, in anticipation of the next time you work out. This is a good and biologically necessary thing. But it does mean that, as with the above, it might be several weeks before you adapt.

For this reason, scales are a particularly misleading indicator of progress early on, and it’s better to try and stay focused on how you feel, and how you’re actually doing in the gym (lifting heavier weights? Running faster and farther? But mainly, lifting heavier weights?). When I first started weight training, I found that trying to focus on that constructive cycle of eating and resting so my workouts went well allowed my focus on my appearance to start to fade into the background.

Our bodies can fluctuate a lot month in and month out, particularly for people with hormonal profiles that go along with a menstrual cycle

This is a more minor point, but water retention and bloating are real and normal side effects of the hormones that go along with menstruating, and can make several pounds of difference across a month. Renaissance Woman and many other resources that counsel athletes on body fat loss in the interest of health and capability advocate for using body weight as one of many data points—“progress pictures,” for instance, which can be triggering for some, can be another useful data point and help show changes where scales don’t. Another data point is how you feel overall!

But any given day’s body weight can be affected by how much water you drank that day, how much salt or carbs you ate, and even how much stress you’re under. For this reason, it’s better to consider body weight again as a data point across weeks and months, per Renaissance Woman, not day to day, if that’s a problem you’re facing.

As a more detailed guide for managing body composition and building muscle, I found Renaissance Woman an extremely useful guide if you’re interested in learning more of the ins and outs here from a source that is focused on health and function, not aesthetics; I can’t recommend it enough, but also can’t recommend enough consulting a doctor or dietitian about your concerns, because they know all this as well as “far more than I do”; all I can do here is provide some scientific reassurance as a fellow woman that all of this is tough and tricky, and reassure you that you deserve far more support and far less personal shame and guilt than you seem you be putting on yourself.

I also want to reassure you that you’re much more than, and there is way more to life than, your body weight. It’s a complex thing, not the best measurement of health, and the more we all dispassionately think of it as a data point, the better for literally everyone. You fucking fought the bush fires!! Absolute climate change hero! You deserve to feel proud of what your body can do. Like anything, it’s not an easy journey for any of us, but I hope you can find a way to that feeling.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Emailswole.woman@vice.com .