Needless to say, no one dedicates time, effort, and sweat to a workout routine that causes weight gain, right? Of course not. However, the surprising part is just how common this really is for many individuals. In this article, we will discuss the common misconceptions around exercise that lead to these mistakes to ensure that our hard work is paying off.

So this brings us to the first question, of how could I possibly be working out regularly and gaining weight? Seems counterintuitive, but is particularly common in women (although possible in men, too). The short answer to this question is: hormones. Essentially, through engaging regularly in certain types of exercises, we are sending our hormones specific messages, and these messages can be received to either help or hinder our weight management efforts.

Our hormones are an intricate and fascinating cascade, with interconnecting pathways and much overlap. The primary hormone I want to focus on for purposes of weight loss resistance (the phenomenon of exercising and eating what you consider a healthy diet yet being unable to lose weight, or even gaining) is called cortisol.

The Link Between Cortisol, Adrenal Fatigue, and Exercise

The term adrenal fatigue has been all the rage recently, and for good reason. Our adrenal glands are two small glands located atop our kidneys, and hold the massive responsibility of producing and releasing our stress hormones, the primary one being cortisol. In the natural human state (think back to cavemen days), our stress hormones kicked in under circumstances of acute stress, such as the classic running-from-the-tiger example. But now, think of our modern world! Many of us spend each and every day in a chronic state of stress, whether this stems from work, family, money, or (most likely) some combination of multiple stressors.

Another key point to consider when talking about stress, is that we commonly only associate stress with the mental/emotional components (interpersonal relationships, work, illness or death of a loved one, etc). These are absolutely very real and impactful, but they are not the only stressors we face. Other sources seen as equally stressful to the body are physical and environmental stressors, such as over-exposure to toxins and chemicals, an injury or surgery, and a major source….over-exercise. 

If we are amidst a period of stress, or in the past have undergone a long period of stress (think college, not sleeping or eating well, having a new baby and similarly not sleeping, or an emotional or physical trauma), we might be experiencing cortisol imbalance, and possibly some degree of adrenal fatigue. Consider the following symptoms:

  • Foggy brain and inability to concentrate
  • Slow recovery time from illness
  • Extreme PMS
  • Mid-afternoon energy crash
  • Difficulty getting going in the morning after a full nights’ sleep
  • Feeling fatigued much of the day
  • Low sex drive
  • Increased irritability and/or depression
  • Excessively craving sugary and salty foods

I think we’re hard pressed to find someone nowadays who doesn’t suffer from many of these symptoms! Adrenal fatigue can be in the beginning stages or more advanced, but either way plays a major role in what type of exercise our body needs, and how we physically respond to certain types of exercise.

What type of exercise will act as a stressor on the body?

While this can vary person to person (for example genetics, metabolism, activity level and diet), in general long distance, medium-high intensity long-duration cardio workouts can be particularly stressful on the human body. Think about the cortisol reaction mentioned earlier of running from the tiger. In this instance, our adrenal glands release a boost of cortisol to allow us to react. Cortisol is a fat storage hormone (storing for the famine), and interestingly enough stores fat especially around our mid-section, giving us that attractive muffin-top look. So, if we are constantly and exclusively engaging in this type of exercise, we are prompting an unnatural, chronic release of excess cortisol, which can actually cause weight gain or prohibit weight loss.

Here are some common exercise mistakes that can lead to weight gain:

  • Heading directly for the treadmill or elliptical upon entering the gym, and never venturing into the weights section.
  • Coming out of your workout feeling fatigued, as opposed to energized.
  • Not paying attention to our stress level and adjusting our workouts accordingly.
  • Focusing only on long-distance, high intensity cardio (think boot camp and long runs).
  • Doing the same exercise routine and never switching things up.
  • Thinking practices like gentle yoga, walking, or meditation are not exercise.

The take-home message is this: our body craves and needs a different workout routine at different points in time. If we are stressed or recovering from a period of extreme stress (even if this was years ago but we never really allowed ourselves to rest), engaging in high intensity, stressful exercise will elicit a hormonal response that inhibits weight loss or causes weight gain. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to scrap your runs or boot camp classes entirely, if you really love them. It does mean; however, that you need to pay close attention to your bodies signs and signals. Do you feel really fatigued afterwards? Lethargic and craving sugar throughout the day with little motivation to exercise? If so, take a break from these types of stressful workouts for a while and replace them with the following suggestions, or, at the very least, reduce their frequency and incorporate more restorative practices.

Exercise alternatives:

  • Try HIIT (high intensity interval training) instead of long distance cardio.
  • Try a yin or restorative yoga class, or do a video in the comfort of your home.
  • Take a walk or hike outside, or go for a leisurely bike ride.
  • Enroll in a dance class, have fun!
  • Weight train.
  • Daily deep breathing and/or meditation are an excellent and important practice alongside any exercise routine.

Over-exercising is an epidemic in western society, as we are so often pushing ourselves to our physical and emotional limits. With the information gained in this article, try and allow yourself a bit of peace and relaxation…you might be surprised at how this positively effects your weight loss efforts.



*Disclaimer: This info is not intended to be a substitute for the medical advice of a licensed physician. Please consult with your doctor in any matters relating to your health.

Rachel Fiske, NC, CPT-NASM Rachel Fiske is a Holistic Nutrition Consultant and graduated from Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition in Berkeley, California, and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Rachel works with clients individually via skype, focusing on issues of weight management, GI problems, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and more via a whole foods diet and lifestyle changes. Consultations include diet journal analysis, individualized menu planning, and herbal/supplementation protocols.