Have you been faithfully sticking to an exercise regimen fuelled by your weight loss goals, only to find that you’re actually gaining weight? While your instinct may be to feel disheartened, there may be a very good reason behind it – muscle gain!
Weight vs Fat
The important thing to note is that weight and fat are not the same. By toning up and getting stronger you may end up weighing a little more while looking and feeling much healthier. Of course, it’s all too easy to hop on the scale and mark your ‘progress’ by watching your weight drop, but if you’re losing muscle and water weight, this isn’t a cause for celebration.
The weight of our bodies is made up of muscle, ligaments, bones, organs, fat and water. To be healthy, you really don’t want to be losing bone mass, muscle mass or too much water. Instead, focusing on losing a little fat may help support overall good health.
The Weight of Muscle
It takes consistent exercise and good dietary habits to start burning off excess fat stores. In contrast, we lose water weight rapidly and muscle mass more easily than fat. Sudden drops in weight after beginning an exercise regimen are usually, therefore, an indication of lost muscle and water, while more linear, steady weight loss suggests healthy, sustainable fat loss.
The trouble is, any losses in fat may be counteracted (weight-wise) by enhanced muscle growth, meaning that many people experience an initial drop in weight followed by little, if any, change on the scale, or even a steady increase. This is because the main storage form of fuel in the muscles is glycogen, and each gram of glucose (which is converted to glycogen) requires about three grams of water for storage. With the average person storing more than 1000 grams of glycogen, strong, healthy muscles can make up a significant amount of body weight.
Low Carb Diets
People who go on an intensely low carbohydrate diet do initially lose a lot of weight as this depletes glycogen stores and leads to associated water loss. The problem here, however, is that we need that muscle to stay healthy and to continue exercising. Once the initial euphoria of weight loss wears off, it is actually harder to maintain that trajectory because less muscle mass means we burn energy more slowly and are more likely to gain unhealthy weight. A low carb diet may also adversely affect mood and energy, further complicating healthy habits.
Healthy and Sustainable Fat Loss
To achieve healthy and sustainable fat loss it is essential to properly fuel muscles and to encourage the body to burn off fat stores for energy. This may not, however, translate to weight loss, at least in the short-term. Focus instead on listening to your body and enjoying the feeling of improved muscle strength, mobility and performance.
Mix up some aerobic and non-aerobic exercise that you enjoy – lift light weights, swim, cycle, join a local hiking group, or just play soccer with the kids at the weekend. When you start seeing food as good fuel and develop confidence in your ability to cycle to work, run a mile, clamber up a mountain or even just climb a few sets of stairs, this will feel so much better than checking the scale every morning.