Why Your Weight Isn’t Budging Even Though You’re Exercising

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
by Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
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Why Your Weight Isn’t Budging Even Though You’re Exercising

Are you working out endlessly only to have the number on the scale never budge — or even worse, go up?  This frustrating effect is actually quite common. Before you give up on working out, see if any of these reasons might be to blame.



Make sure your workouts fit your body goals. Take a look at bodybuilders, swimmers, distance runners and cycling sprinters, and you’ll notice their body shapes are very different. The style of your fitness training can dictate whether you’re breaking down tissue or building muscles and which muscle areas are targeted.



Fit bodies need fuel to burn. Having too strict of a diet while engaged in a heavy fitness routine can leave your body in conservation mode. To keep your engine burning, make sure your diet is loaded with high-quality, nutritious foods and balanced meals throughout the day. Try tracking your intake to make sure your daily calorie deficit is not too large.



Even top athletes struggle with this one, but taking time off is crucial. Chronic training can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body, which is known to prevent weight loss, especially around the midsection. Taking a day or several off can keep hormone levels in check.



Sleep is essential for keeping pounds off. However, struggling to fit workouts in might be detrimental to your sleep schedule. Waking up earlier than your natural wake time to fit in that morning jog or having your system revved up late from an evening basketball game can mess with your sleep rhythm. Craving sugar, constant fatigue, a cranky disposition and weight gain can all be signs that you’re not sleeping enough.



Most general fitness routines do not require a high carbohydrate intake. Filling up on high-sugar sport foods can leave you craving more. While many carbohydrate-rich foods are healthful (Think: Complex carbs), your body needs extra water to process this macronutrient, which can lead to a puffy, swollen feeling and higher number on the scale. Time your carb intake to promote high energy with your training and stick to non-processed carbs (vegetables, brown rice), protein and healthy fats outside of workouts.



Cardio machines and online calculators can overestimate how much energy you’re really burning during your workout. Eating to match these numbers can have you taking in higher than necessary calories throughout the day. Also, the more trained your body, the more efficiently your body can complete workouts so less energy is burned. Invest in a fitness tracker that uses heart rate to help accurately track your burn, switch the type of workouts you do and make sure you are challenging yourself often.



The “but I earned it” mindset can get even the most fit athlete in trouble. Sure, sweating it out at the gym gives you a little diet leniency, but it isn’t a free for all. If, after each workout, you give yourself permission to have an extra latte, cocktail and dinner roll, you might be consuming more than is needed by your body and negating all your fitness gains. Tracking your intake on MyFitnessPal can provide insight into how often you’re treating yourself with food and if it is contributing to your stalled results.

Bottom line, there are many factors that can contribute to not seeing the weight loss you desire when starting a new fitness training routine. The best approach is to assess your eating, training and goals with a professional to make sure everything is working together for a successful outcome.


Another approach is to step away from the scale. Focusing only on total body weight doesn’t tell the full story of what is happening to your body composition. Periodically test your body fat composition, which is more important than total weight, and focus on how your clothes fit and how healthy and energized you feel.

About the Author

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD

Lori, MS RD CSSD is an accomplished sports dietitian; she holds a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Certification as a Specialist in Sports Nutrition. As a current professional road cyclist and previous elite marathoner and ultra-runner, Lori knows firsthand that food can enhance or diminish performance gains. She understands the importance of balancing a quality whole food based diet with science-backed performance nutrition and strives to share this message with others. Learn more about her @HungryForResults.


38 responses to “Why Your Weight Isn’t Budging Even Though You’re Exercising”

  1. Avatar NextRightThing714 says:

    A calorie surplus leads to weight gain. Period. I don’t know why MFP sponsors this drivel.

    • Avatar stringy says:

      Our bodies are complex organisms. Ms. Nedescu never mentioned anything that negates CICO. She was merely highlighting that CICO isn’t as simple as we think. Basically, she illustrated factors that could lower your TDEE which, in turn, can lead to a calorie surplus or reduce your calorie deficit. It wouldn’t hurt to listen to the experts on this one.

      • Avatar Alec Leyendecker says:

        She mentioned “conservation mode” but failed to explain what that even means. Fueling your body properly is important to ensure that you feel good during your workouts and otherwise. But “conservation mode” doesn’t exist, at least not in the way everybody thinks it does. Two people who weigh 180 lbs and walk 1 mile will both burn about 100 calories, even if one of them isn’t properly nourished.

        • Avatar Craig says:

          Your last statement is too generalized. Amount of lean body mass changes metabolism even if 2 people weigh the same. Many different hormones will come into play also with metabolism. The HPA axis will be different and have varied outcomes between 2 people who weight the same.

    • Avatar Lori Nedescu says:

      Calorie surplus is a very general thing. Telling someone they have gained weight bc of calorie surplus doesn’t break it down into behaviors that one can change or target. Thanks.

  2. Avatar J Weston says:

    You could have picked a better photo. A non-stick thin woman looking happy about exercising, with a skinny woman staring at her like that? There’s nothing wrong with her body, using it for this particular article is not ok. Things like this make people who “aren’t in shape” afraid to go to the gym. Read the room.

    • Avatar Kyricus says:

      Perhaps she’s staring at her in admiration for getting to they gym and doing something. Perhaps she’s not staring at her at all but rather turning around to get off treadmill when the picture was taken, or turning around to check out the photo shoot.

      And who cares what other people think of you at they gym anyway. When I go to a gym and see an out of shape person working out, my only thought is, Good for you!

    • Avatar Knightly says:

      Lol what a snow flake. Stop being so insulted by life and sort yourself out.

    • Avatar Masonkenl says:

      Look again. There is a third person, another young female face to the right all three are looking in the same direction smiling. Maybe some hunk walked into the gym they are excited maybe some old dude like me, 64, just fell off the treadmill! I’m in a gym 4-5 days a week see young hotties, old wrinkly people, fat, skinny, muscle men and women and just plain people all of us are there to get healthy we laugh, sweat and workout. Get over yourself. If you are that self centered find a gym where you can hide and workout

    • Avatar Lori says:

      A little sensitive aren’t you? I don’t see the “look” you are referring to, and I’m a non-stick person too. I think they are all just looking at the photographer.

    • Avatar Nancy says:

      Not sure what this photo is supposed to depict. One should not be overly sensitive about how they look at the gym. Everyone is there for the same reason….to exercise for fitness and health. I exercise every day in the pool and visit with the same three people nearly every time I’m there. One is very overweight, one is very thin, the other is of normal weight and I am normal in weight. We all laugh and solve the word’s problems as we exercise together! We are not judgmental of each other, just there to get our exercise time in. Visiting with others helps the time pass faster and is good for your disposition. If you feel someone is judging you at the gym, move on to another piece of equipment. It will defeat your efforts if you are too overly sensitive.

    • Avatar Munchy says:

      i just checked the picture out after reading your coment, wow if that picture puts you off going to the gym, then maybe you need help with your self image, people and groups exist to help you like they helped me, that woman in the pictue is like 10 times better looking and weight less than i did when i started. Dont worry about other people cause its only the losers in life that will critisise you for trying to improve your self and situation, i say fu to them and get on with what i fell i need to do. I hope you will too. personally i find the picture inviting and well id have felt it easyer going to gym knowing someone else was there like me tryiung to improve. i say go girl.

      • Avatar UK 32 says:

        Does anyone believe your body has a set weight ISH that it wants to be? I struggle with the last 4/5Ibs. So I’m trying to not care and focus on how I feel and how my clothes fit. I have been doing Pilates for 2 months and am shocked at my body change! I started building muscle and the scales were all over the place! Also learned if I don’t eat enough, I don’t loose weight.

  3. Avatar Alec Leyendecker says:

    Conservation mode isn’t real. It’s true that if you don’t fuel your body properly then you’ll feel weak and perform worse. But your body doesn’t “hold onto calories” like some people think. That’s like saying your car holds onto fuel when the engine isn’t functioning well.

    • Avatar Colton McBryer says:

      Yep, but your body will start cannibalizing itself after, generally, 72 hours of not having a fuel source because, while you will be in ketosis at that point, your brain still requires a splash of glucose which needs to come from converted protein at that point. Cars won’t convert their pistons into usable gasoline so that they can continue to look for more gasoline.

      • Avatar Just Plain Don says:

        Actually the brain does quite well when using ketones as fuel:

        “The fat-fueled brain: unnatural or advantageous?”

    • Avatar Nick Fergadis Giannakopoulos says:

      You just contradicted your own argument.

    • Avatar Cristina Amelia Bailey says:

      Absolutely correct! You know science.

  4. Avatar Nick says:

    I have a question about “conservation mode”. When you talk about ensuring “your daily calorie deficit is not too large”, how large is too large? And what would you expect to see if somebody’s deficit was too large? I’ve been tracking macros all year, exercising 6x/week, but I’m gaining weight and wondering if this might be a thing for me.

    • Avatar Dynia Goodwin says:

      Typically a 2000 calorie diet is the “norm” but you can determine your own needs by going to a dietitian nutritionist or do a metabolic test. In order to lose weight, you should create a caloric deficit, either by way of dieting or exercising. Either way, healthy weight loss looks like a deficit of anywhere between 250-1000 calories. This will lead to a safe weight loss of 1-2 pounds per WEEK. If your deficit is too large, your body will think that you’re in “conservation mode”, I.e., think that you’re starving. So it’ll go into survival mode and begin to break down your muscle instead of fat, to create more fat, so that you can “survive” your deficit. 1 pound of fat is the same weight as 1 pound of muscle, but you can clearly see that you’re not getting more bulky or losing weight: too large of a deficit.

      • Avatar Paul says:

        I’m doing a little research on diets. I’ve heard of this idea about going into caloric deficit without changing overall metabolic rate. Do you have any references for this? Preferably clinical research or at least something with a reference to clinical research. Quite frankly, I’ve never found such research and its making me think this is a fairy story.

  5. Avatar Lori says:

    Maybe everyone’s different and the conservation mode is real to some people. It is certainly real to me. Ten years ago (at age 52), I started a regiment to loose 30 pounds. I started out following the MFP suggestion on adding back in the exercise calories and steadily lost approximately 2 pounds a week (burning 300-400 calories a day). Once I had lost 10 pounds, I listened to non-believers of the conservation mode and stopped adding in the the exercise calories. My weight lost dropped to about 1 pound a week with the same amount of exercise. When I started adding back in the exercise calories, I again started loosing 2 pounds a week and reached my goal with no problem except for a 2-3 week plateau during the last 5 pounds.

    Now ten years later (and at 62 years of age), I’ve gradually added back the 30 pounds. Again, I didn’t listen to MFP, and did not add in the 200-400 calories of exercise. Weight loss during the first month was minimal. I went back to adding in the calories, and within the first week, the weight started dropping. I’m a believer in conservation mode. I also believe other factors affect conservation mode, e.g., I believe it is more of a factor for women of child bearing age than males and older women, I believe it is more of a factor the more overweight you are.

    • Avatar luvalf says:

      How would one go about using the MFP suggestions? I’m very interested, but new to the term.

      • Avatar Lori says:

        If you register with My Fitness Pal and login in your personal info (weight, normal activity level, etc.), MFP tells you how many calories you should eat a day. You add to the daily calorie count any calories expended in a physical activity. For example, my daily calorie count is 1200. But if I walk 3 miles in an hour (230 calories expended based on my current weight), according to MFP, I should add that 230 caloriesto my daily calories for total calories allowed of 1430. Of course, I pay attention to the type of calories that make up my daily calorie intake. In other words, I watch the percentage of fat, sugar, carbs, and protein to ensure I’m not eating a bunch of empty calories. I also find that looking at calorie intake on a weekly basis also helps if I have a day where I was unable to exercise but exceeded recommended calories. In other words, if I don’t exercise one day, but ate 1500 calories that day, I will deduct the 300 calories from another day that week. I find that by not getting into a strict routine, but rather mixing it up during the week, I avoid plateaus (or seems that way to me) without any negative effect on weight loss. However, I am not a doctor or even a nutritionist so I could be totally wrong about all this. It simply is what works for me and what makes me able to stick with it long term. Good luck to you.

        ETA: Also, don’t become a slave to the scale. Weigh yourself only once a week. I went down a whole pant size but yet when I checked my weight found that I had only lost two pounds. Likely caused by water weight or muscle built up from adding exercise. Go by how your body looks and clothes fit and not by the scale.

  6. Avatar The One Where I Say says:

    I wonder about “conservation mode” I guess formally known as “starvation mode”. If this is real how are so many people able to lose weight doing what’s called “dry fasting” or “water fasting”?

    • Avatar jason says:

      i do intermittent fasting in a 18/6 window and while i can’t lift and perform my strength training as well as i did when i had carb filled breakfast i have lost 12 pounds of body weight in 3 weeks. So I believe that based on new science the starvation/conservation mode is now a overrated deterrent to weight loss.

  7. Avatar Tamim Al-Shallah says:

    Great points you’ve made here. However, I disagree with point 5 “A HIGH-CARB DIET”.
    A better suited title would be refined carbs or added sugar, simply saying “carb” is too much of a generalization when we have fiber & complex carbs under that big umbrella which are health promoting.
    By using such general title, it only adds more fear of carbs into people & reinforces further the idea that carbs are the devil, but then again big difference between fiber & added sugar … both are carbs.
    Personally, I eat mostly a whole-food plant-based diet (with occasional vegan processed food) with at least 300-400 grs of carbs per day (60-80 grs of fiber) when I am cutting & I have no issue burning fat.

  8. Avatar Paulo Neves says:

    Perhaps you are gaining muscle mass and so your body weight can even go higher, but you are getting healthier. This is why a simple body scale is not enough.

    • Avatar Jaimie Pogany says:

      YES! My scale has only gone down 1.5lbs in 4 weeks, but my measuring tape reveals a loss of 8 inches.

  9. Avatar David Rosenblum says:

    this article is trash

  10. Avatar Shaun Wilton says:

    Has the author actually delved into any of the science? Ok so they say hi carb diet is potentially a reason… lots of studies point to weight loss even with high carb and even high simple carb diets . Over estimating calorie burn yip I agree there perhaps people could look at how much they underestimate food intake . The equation is simple and there is lots of science to back it up.. if your over eating and not burning it off you put on weight. Create a calorie deficit ( which is for ever changing ) then you will lose weight.

  11. Hi Lori, thanks for sharing this useful blog. Its very important to know that anything you are doing to loose weight is going in right way or not. The above mentioned points helps many to figure out their mistakes easily. After then you can easily fix it to gain your fitness goal.

  12. Avatar Carleen Alves-Crespo says:

    Conditions that cause insulin resistance (PCOS, for example) as well as low thyroid levels can also contribute. Good to check with a doctor.

  13. Avatar DN says:

    Lori I liked your article and your points are scientifically proven in nutrition world , thank you for your points well said

  14. Avatar scarymemo says:

    I agree with NRT714. Getting in tremendous lean shape is 99% diet, and I don’t mean this keto bs, which is nothing more than Atkins redux. It’s cico, and those calories have to be as clean as possible. If you’re taking in 1200-1800 calories, there’s not much room for throw-away calories. Exercise is an extremely important part of this, so that you look terrific when the fat coat comes off. If you’re stuck at a certain weight with belly fat then you simply have to cut out a few more calories. And the older you get, the cleaner your diet has to be because your energy-in has to be less. And keep a journal of all your caloric intake and exercises.

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