You could be exercising *too* much.
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Food journal? Check. Regular workouts? Yes, indeed. Enough fiber to keep an entire army regular? You got it. I know how to lose weight. I've been writing about the topic for more than a decade. That's why it was so frustrating when I notice that the pounds were clinging to me like a codependent boyfriend, no matter how hard I tried or how hard I exercised. And according to experts, many women like me experience the same confusion over a scale that won't budge despite their best efforts.
Determined to finally make a breakthrough, I combed through research and grilled diet gurus to pinpoint little-known reasons why your efforts—and mine—haven't been showing up on the scale. Here's what I learned.
1. You don't drink enough water.
We've all heard how important H2O is when it comes to shedding pounds. It helps to suppress appetite, so you're less likely to overeat. But that's not all: When you're dehydrated, your kidneys can't function properly, so the body turns to the liver for additional support. Because the liver is working so hard, more of the fat you consume is stored, rather than burned off.
Most surprising to me, though, is that if you're upping your fiber intake but not also regularly filling up your water bottle, things tend to get a wee bit, er, backed up. "It's important to add fiber gradually and increase water intake at the same time. Otherwise, instead of helping with digestion, fiber may actually lead to constipation," notes Anna-Lisa Finger, R.D., a certified personal trainer and dietitian. Turns out, I often consume nearly double the recommended 25 grams of fiber daily. Gulp. (Related: Is it Possible to Consume Too Much Fiber?)
Just how much water should I be drinking? "About one-half your body weight in ounces every day, especially if you're exercising," says Pamela Wartian Smith, M.D., the author of Why You Can't Lose Weight. So the eight-cups-a-day rule applies only to sedentary women who weigh 128 pounds (sure as hell not me!). If you're one to consume an aggressive amount of fiber (guilty), an additional 8 to 16 ounces per day is a good idea, she adds. Just be warned: That amount of liquid—for me, a liter at each meal, minimum—requires serious effort and will turn you into a peeing machine.
2. You skimp on protein.
Several studies show that high-protein diets result in more pounds shed, at least initially. That's because protein enhances the feeling of satiety and prevents your losing muscle as you lose fat. You also have dietary thermogenesis, which is the energy you burn to process and use the food you eat, on your side. "Your body expends more energy to metabolize protein than carbs or fat," says Cari Coulter, R.D., the program director for Wellspring Weight Loss Camp in Kenosha, WI. "So higher-protein diets make you burn slightly more calories."
So how much protein do I need a day? "It depends on your weight, but most women should get 40 to 80 grams," Dr. Smith says. To accomplish that, I have Greek yogurt (18 grams) or a couple of eggs (13 grams) for breakfast, and I eat a few ounces of lean poultry (25 grams) or fish (22 grams) or a heaping helping of black beans (15 grams) or lentils (18 grams) at lunch and dinner. When I need a snack, I reach for a handful of raw almonds (6 grams). As a result, I feel fuller—sometimes so full I don't even sneak a bite of my son's ice cream (the way I used to whether I was hungry or not)—so it's easier to keep daily calories in check.
3. You sit at a desk all day.
I log a solid hour of exercise almost every day. But outside of that, my time is mostly spent sitting in front of a computer. Could this be one of the reasons why I'm working out but not losing weight?
Yep. Much to my dismay, research finds that dedicated workouts simply can't compensate for being sedentary the rest of the time. According to one University of Missouri–Columbia study, sitting for just a few hours causes your body to stop making a fat-inhibiting enzyme called lipase. Getting up and walking for just two minutes during each of those hours burns an additional 59 calories a day, according to research from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
Experts recommend setting a timer on the computer to remind you to move every hour, but what's helped me is the Fitbit One ($235, amazon.com). I keep this activity tracker clipped to my bra 24/7, and I won't go to bed until I've logged 10,000 steps a day. To accomplish that, I heed some of those recommendations we've all heard a million times ("Take the stairs instead of the elevator," "Park far away from the mall"). I even jog in place while brushing my teeth and watching TV. At first my husband and son laughed their skinny little butts off at me, but now seeing me hopping around the living room strikes them as normal. Walks are part of my family's evening routine, and "How many steps do you have now?" has become the new "Are we there yet?" I've even given Fitbits to friends and family as gifts so we can see who takes the most steps. Move-more mission: accomplished.
4. Your numbers are off.
I've always considered myself a math whiz, so I assumed I had the whole calories-in, calories-out formula down. Yet I was consistently working out but not losing weight. WTF?
Here's how I determined how many calories I should eat a day: I got my basal metabolic rate (BMR, or the number of calories I need to maintain my weight) using an online calculator, and I entered "moderate" for my activity level, because I exercise regularly. That gave me about 2,400 calories a day. Then I added whatever calories I burn during my workouts (usually about 500), according to my heart-rate monitor. That meant I could eat almost 3,000 calories a day without gaining a pound (or nearly 2,500 a day to lose a pound a week). Sure, it seemed high, but I had used a calculator. It had to be right!
Not so fast, Coulter says. "The BMR calculator already factors in the calories you burn with your workouts, so you shouldn't add them in again," she explains. Math club membership revoked! All this time I had thought my daily needs were 500 calories higher than they really were. No wonder I'd been maintaining instead of losing.
5. You work out regularly.
I know, I know. How can an exercise routine make you gain? For starters, people tend to eat more when they work out, either because they feel they've "earned it," or because they're overestimating how much they've burned—or both. "This is especially true in the early stages of a fitness program, when your body is getting used to the decrease in calories consumed and the increase in calories burned," Finger says. (Read: You're freaking hungry.)
But here's the real shocker: Working out can make you retain water. "To ensure that you don't get dehydrated, the plasma in your bloodstream will store an extra 2 to 4 pounds of water," explains Michele S. Olson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama. "You'll always carry that extra water unless you become inactive; it's not fat or muscle, but simply superhydration. It's a good thing." It's also a good thing to keep chugging H2O, which can, counterintuitively, help minimize additional water retention. So I'll take Olson's advice and stay active, well-hydrated...and off the scale.
6. You're a stress case.
I'm a lot like the lab rats—and humans—who turn to comfort food and pack on pounds when they're under duress. "The stress hormone cortisol triggers the fight-or-flight response, which is an appetite stimulant," Dr. Smith says. "In addition, it steps up the production of a certain brain chemical, neuropeptide Y, which increases cravings for carbohydrates." So there's actual science to support why you want to eat all the bread when you're super-stressed.
Even when I don't give in to cravings, stress can stall my slim-down. "Too much cortisol slows metabolism," Dr. Smith says. "Even worse, excessive stress causes fat to be stored in the abdominal area, where weight is harder to lose."
Luckily, a lot of the things I'm doing to whittle my middle should also ease my angst. "Exercise reduces stress," Dr. Smith notes. "Balanced, nutritious meals can repair the damage that stress does to the body, and a social support network also helps." So my team of Fitbit-wearing friends and fam is helping me beat belly bloat in more ways than one.
Get Weight-Loss Results
It's been three months since I embarked on this adventure, and I've lost 12 pounds—a solid pound a week. I've increased my water and protein intake, I move more throughout the day, and I'm trying to stress less. But one of the best things I've done has been—go figure—not weighing myself, at least for a little while, as Olson suggested.
I was tempted in the beginning, but I stuck to my scale embargo for a month. Now I weigh in weekly, but the fluctuations don't bother me. After all, "Body weight can fluctuate by up to 5 pounds on any given day, so the amount you shed can easily get lost," Dr. Smith explained.
At the end of the day, I know I'm creating a daily calorie deficit—no matter what the scale says. Plus, I've found other ways to measure my progress (shout-out to the non-scale victories!). I feel enlightened—in more ways than one.
Beyond the Numbers
When the scale bums you out, here are three other ways to gauge your progress.
- How do your clothes fit? Try on the same pair of jeans and shirt every six to eight weeks.
- How do you feel? You should have more energy, sleep better, and feel less stressed.
- How much can you do? Keep a workout log and track how much weight you can lift and how many miles you can walk or run.