Overcompensation means many workout efforts result in weight gain, not loss.
It’s 1997. I’m 300 pounds. Every day I push my mom’s coffee table out of the way, press Play on the VHS player, and sweat (buckets) to the oldies.
It would be years before feeling well or caring for myself even showed up on my goal-dar. 1 I wasn’t exercising to get stronger, feel better, or live longer. I was 17, I was fat, and I wanted to be skinny. Because I watched commercial television, I understood that lurching around the living room wearing a headband would make me lose weight.
Whether I was Sweatin’ to the Oldies (thanks, Ma!) or doing a hundred sit-ups (thanks, Dad!), exercising – even intensely – never got me thin. Daily, hour-long aerobics sessions didn’t make me lose even one clothing size. In fact, the harder I exercised specifically to lose weight, the tighter my clothes got. Sure, I felt better, but since that wasn’t the point, I barely noticed.
I lost over 150 pounds a decade ago, and have since become a personal trainer. I work mainly with overweight women, because that’s what I used to be, and that’s who I identify with. In seven years of training these women, I’ve had to accept that exercise alone does not equal weight loss. In fact, exercise undertaken alone specifically to lose weight is likely to lead to weight gain.
“That’s not fair, Coffey,” you say. “If all other factors remain the same, adding exercise should result in weight loss!” Yes, and all women should get equal pay for equal work and everyone on the planet should have the right to die with dignity, but that just ain’t how things pan out.
If all other factors remained the same then getting more active would result in weight loss, but they don’t.
I’ve worked with many women who’ve gained weight after beginning an exercise program specifically to lose weight. About half of them interpreted that weight gain as evidence of what they believed to be their own inherent wrongness (“See!? I’m so screwed up, even working out makes me fat!”).
Of course, it’s not the exercise that made them gain weight. What made them gain was overcompensatory eating, often in the form of “recovery” drinks and things marketed as “healthy” post-workout snacks.
We’re a nation of consumers, and we’re all playing a role. Lots of people just starting with exercise buy special workout clothes and stock up on sugary sports drinks and protein bars because we’ve been programmed to associate these props with exercise. So, many of us sweat for an hour, and then eat back every ounce of energy we just worked off in an effort to “recover.” And later in the afternoon we slather an apple in peanut butter, because we read in a magazine that that’s “ healthier” than eating an apple alone. 2
The other half of women who gain weight after beginning an exercise regimen specifically to lose weight imagine that that weight gain is muscle. These folks are unaware of how much time, work and dedication it takes to build muscle (because why the hell would you know how hard it is unless you’d done it?). Again, I blame the media, specifically women’s “health” mags, for bombarding us with gross, often misleading generalizations: “Gaining?! It Might be Muscle!” Sadly, honest headlines like “Dedicated Bodybuilders Can Expect to Gain up to Two Pounds of Muscle Per Month! Go Ahead, Ladies – Perfect Your Heavy Olympic Lifts!” aren’t as likely to sell magazines, so we won’t see those anytime soon.
When clients can’t button their pants after two weeks of light strength training, it has little or nothing to do with new muscle acquisition. Again, overcompensatory eating is to blame. My heart breaks when I think of all the women who’ve begun strength training programs, gained weight, assumed that weight gain was muscle, and so decided that anything that might result in muscle-building just wasn’t for them.
Some of the hardest moments I’ve had as a trainer were with these clients. My heart still aches when I think back on all the clients who stopped working with me in the early days because they gained weight when they started exercising. If only I knew back then what I know now.
I was a young trainer who knew that exercise was critical to good health. I was afraid to do anything but encourage these clients to keep exercising, so I didn’t bring up the food conversation. I also never told them “The three pounds you gained last week wasn’t muscle.” At best, that might have minimized the hard work they’d been doing. At worst, it might have kicked up shame. At least, that was my fear.
I’ve spent most of the last decade getting clear on some important and often overlooked facts about wellness as it relates to women and obesity. First, exercise alone yields all kinds of amazing results, but weight loss isn’t one of them. Even the American College of Sports Medicine admits that exercise is an ineffective weight loss tool. Second, our ability to get and stay well (and to enjoy the process) depends a lot on where and how we get our information about wellness (popular media tends to be a pretty weak source). And third, it’s the responsbility of fitness professionals like me to shift the conversation about weight, wellness and behavior away from nickle-and-dime, waste-of-time crap (like calorie-counting), and on to the stuff that actually matters, like how to develop and act from a place of true self-regard, and care.
I’m gonna start a gang of healthy, happy fitness professionals that have histories of addiction, morbid obesity, and self-sabotage. Like me, all members will have gotten fit and healthy and maintained it for many years. We’re gonna write books together, crash conferences, and map out REAL, effective strategies for getting well against all odds.
If you’re one of these professionals, please email me. I’ve got big plans, and we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Meanwhile, let’s all work on internalizing that healthy, sustainable, enjoyable weight loss is the result of a care-based lifestyle, and the foundation of that lifestyle has to be eating nourishing food that we relate to in a healthy way. Healthy, sustainable weight loss does not result from making a single change; not even if that change is to start doing something great, like exercising.