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Why Do You Gain Weight From Exercise?

by Dr. Jason Barker May 26, 2016

Why Do You Gain Weight From Exercise?

Clearly, one of the main reasons people exercise is to lose weight. Combined with a healthy diet, this can often do the trick.

Of course, there are many exceptions to this general rule. For instance, if a person has a low-functioning thyroid, eats the wrong ratios of food nutrients (too many carbohydrates, not enough protein), has insomnia (that’s right – inadequate sleep will help you gain fat!), or several other metabolic issues, they may have a difficult time losing weight despite exercising.

But aside from these things, sometimes a person will still gain weight around their midsections and thighs, despite being on the right exercise and diet track.

Or, they lose weight all over their body, except these key areas.

So, why does this happen?

Well, this can be due to a hormonal ‘glitch’, so to speak.  The glitch happens when we manufacture too much of the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, produced by the adrenal glands. It’s often referred to as a “stress” hormone – that’s because it’s usually produced in situations where the body is under stress. Stresses that cause cortisol to be released in higher than normal amounts include high intensity or long duration exercise, insomnia, injury, pain and mental emotional stress. It’s also our body’s natural anti-inflammatory – it keeps the immune system in check when we’re sick or injured; it can actually prevent the immune system from doing it’s job (this is part of why endurance athletes can get sick more often – high cortisol levels allow for more infections…but that’s another story…)

But back to the weight gain issue.  Overtime, chronically elevated cortisol will have a few effects on your body. Remember, it rises from stress. When your brain perceives stress, it also prepares your body to get ready to deal. Cortisol achieves this by flooding your bloodstream with glucose, or blood sugar (this is the energy you need for fight or flight), and it also signals the body to store energy, as fat – in case you need it for later (remember the body is trying to survive here – and in the old days survival often meant running really far away from something and you might be without your food stash for a while).

So how does exercise cause this?  Well, when you add high intensity exercise, day after day, along with poor sleep, skipping rest days, allowing for poor recovery (not cooling down and gobbling to many carbohydrates) and just basically not handling stress overall, you wind up with cortisol levels that push against what you’re trying to achieve with exercise.

Yep, you’re burning plenty of calories and getting in shape, but behind the scenes your body is putting more sugar in your blood stream (which raises insulin, which it then stores sugar as fat in your belly and hips).

This isn’t a mythical scenario. I see it quite often in people who basically, drive their bodies and lifestyle way too hard.

So how do we keep this from happening?  You’ve got do some things to keep your cortisol levels in check. Basically, it involves preventing the stress response in the first place. Yes, some stress is good for you and cortisol is necessary for life, but I’m talking about doing things to keep it from going into constant overdrive.

Steps to Reduce Cortisol

  • Gear it down. If you’re working out like crazy and gaining weight around your belly, you’re in stress mode. That’s right, I said do less exercise, at a lower intensity. Exercise is a stressor on the body. And of course it’s great for you. But if you put too much stress around it, it becomes a stressor. Going to hard, too long, and too intense and not allowing adequate rest will cause a chronic cortisol elevation, and possibly lead to weight gain.  If it isn’t the race of your life coming up, then gear it down. Slowing down will allow your body to compensate for the exercise your doing, while not being in stress mode that actually robs you of the benefits of exercise.
  • Cool down. Give yourself a proper recovery. Have a recovery meal with some protein, fat and carbohydrates – don’t eat just carbs post exercise that spikes your blood sugar, ramping up the cortisol.
  • Sleep. This falls under recovery! Earlier we said that poor sleep causes weight gain. Why is that? It’s because when you don’t sleep, it’s a stressor on the body and cortisol levels again raise when they shouldn’t be.
  • Eat!  When we skip a meal, or limit calories – guess what? Cortisol is released – one of its main jobs is to release glucose from the liver to help maintain normal blood glucose levels. So when you skip a meal, you’re actually bumping cortisol and helping your body to become even more efficient at holding onto weight. In some people, this is a push between calories burned and the general metabolic uptick from it, and release of cortisol that sabotages the weight loss by encouraging fat cells to be more active.
  • Cortisol Manager. Cortisol Manager is a natural medicine we use to help lower cortisol at night. In athletes, I’ll have them take one about 30 minutes before a workout, and immediately after, and again at bedtime. Cortisol Manager works to lower cortisol naturally, and keep it at decent levels. Remember, this is a very fine line. We want cortisol around, as it’s our natural anti-inflammatory, which helps you recover. But this is why we want you to do less intense workouts that don’t set an inflammatory fire in your body while you’re trying to lose that belly fat.

The take home message is this – chronic stress, in the form of too much/too intense exercise, coupled with common lifestyle and dietary stressors, will put weight on your belly and thighs despite the fact you’re exercising. Reducing intensity and altering lifestyle stressors will allow for healthier hormone balance and soon enough you’ll start to see the fat come off those areas.  

Dr. Jason Barker
Dr. Jason Barker


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