Is your exercise regime making you fatter?

Is your exercise regime making you fatter?

It seems logical at this time of year that people are more critical of their body shape than any other. With “summer” and holidays kicking in, people want to look good in less clothes.

Yet there can be a lot of frustration that, having decided you want your body to look different, and despite a huge amount of effort, your body is just not towing the line.

Maybe you’ve been working out hard for a good few months but are frustrated with the lack of visible change in your physique.

Is your exercise/activity regime actually making you fatter?

Well no, not exactly.

We know that exercise is critical for long term weight maintenance (Pavlou 1989) – so those that exercise whilst focussing on nutritional intake tend to keep weight off, compared to those who just diet.

Exercise supports your health in a number of ways including reducing visceral fat, increasing energy usage in the hours after exercise (to a certain extent) & preserving muscle mass.

There are also the benefits that you just can’t see – fellow coach David Poole has put out some awesome posts on this recently on Custom Fitness UK’s Facebook page, spelling out the psychological benefits of regular exercise on the CF Facebook page.

So why aren’t you getting visible results?

I’ll look at 4 areas with you:

  1. Your training intensity
  2. Unrealistic expectations
  3. The majority of your day
  4. Overcompensation
  1. Training intensity

Put simply this is the amount of effort that you put into your chosen activity. Just turning up to do an activity does not tick this box!

Let’s look at an example:

“the same person doing a moderate weight lifting circuit will burn 78 calories in 20 minutes of moderate effort, or 138 calories in 20 minutes of vigorous weight lifting[1]”.

If we multiply this up to an hour’s worth of activity, your energy expenditure can vary by 180kcal (or more!) by virtue of the effort you put in[2].

This relates to the second in a series of 3 videos I’ve posted on my Facebook page recently about what you need to achieve results. In this video I talk about the need to “Do the work”.

Be realistic about a sustainable level for you to exercise at and realise that what is a challenge for you may not be for someone else, and vice versa.

  1. Unrealistic expectations

Accepting what it is realistic for you to do in the short and medium term has a direct bearing on your long-term results.

If the results you “want to achieve” require you to work out 6 times a week and really nail your nutrition BUT you can only manage 2-3 times a week and stop for a take-away on the way home and enjoy several glasses of vino along the way….it’s just not going to happen!

That series of videos I mentioned on my page above…the first one was on the need for patience. Think about where you are now – how long has it taken to develop and evolve? Transformations do not happen overnight….at least not long-lasting, non-photoshopped, still healthy and feeling great transformations.

  1. The majority of your day

This is a subject I’ve written about previously but just as a quick review – if you work out an hour a day, 6 days a week this accounts for only 5% of your waking week. How much you move during that 95% of the week is hugely relevant!

We refer to the energy use in non-exercise activity as NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). It’s interesting to note that NEAT can be 352kcal/day less in obese than lean people[3].

Walking contributes to the majority of daily NEAT – every day walking – stairs, walks moving around the house, garden etc. Even fidgeting can affect your energy expenditure (usage) through the day!

NEAT Energy expenditure

Activity Energy expenditure [kcal/hr avg]
Resting 77
Sitting motionless 80
Sitting fidgeting 118
Standing motionless 88
Standing while fidgeting 148
Walking @ 1mph 197
Walking @ 2mph 235
Walking @ 3mph 304

So doing your chosen exercise does not give you a ticket to ride for the rest of the day. Similarly though, if you train so hard that you don’t wish to move for the rest of the day, you have to question whether you are optimising your activity levels overall.

Pedometers and accelerometers (e.g. Fitbit & other similar devices) help increase physical activity in a large number of studies. Accelerometers also increase physical activity and can be a way to ensure you’re not compensating for planned exercising by reducing NEAT.

That’s right – if you reduce your movement through the rest of your day because your body is compensating for the energy you’ve used in training, it will affect your body composition and results.

Making sure you move a little in every hour is a great way to avoid this pitfall. Set an alarm (use your phone or computer), get up, move around, go up and down the stairs – put the radio on and have a bit of a dance around!

Here’s an illustration of how doing that can help:

Time period Walking time per hour and effect on energy expenditure
1 min/hour 2 min/hour 5 min/hour
1 hour 3 kcal 7.4 kcal 16.5 kcal
8 hours 24 kcal 59.2 kcal 132 kcal
1 week 120 kcal 296 kcal 660 kcal
1 month 480 kcal 1,184 kcal 2,640 kcal

It’s accumulated activity over 24 hours that counts, not just time in the gym.

  1. Overcompensation

I mentioned above that doing physical activity does not give you a ticket to ride for the rest of the day. Similarly, your activity does not necessarily ‘entitle’ you to eat more, earn you a cake/chocolate/gingerbread-cinnamon-carrot-cake-latte with extra cream etc…

If the amount you are eating over the whole day & week does not fit with your overall goals, you will not see results.

Points (1) and (3) are once again relevant here because if you are (a) not working out as intensely as you think you are and/or (b) are not moving enough for the rest of the day, then you may well be compromising your results, especially if you subconsciously eat to compensate for the activity you have done.

This can be a real surprise!

How much you need to eat obviously depends on what your goals are but also on what your total energy usage is over the whole day (see points above). Plus, your journey so far can have a huge bearing on the base amount of calories your body actually needs.

What can you do?

This may all make sense but you may still be thinking “what does that mean for me?” or “what should I do about it?” – why not get in touch for a chat and we can listen to where you are, where you’d like to get to and discuss exactly how we can support you.

Lisa is a Female Health Coach offering health, fitness & wellbeing coaching at Custom Fitness, LN3 4PH.  Further information on her services can be found at and


[2] Please bear in mind that any numbers like these depend on various factors including your weight and activity and so should only ever be treated as estimates.

[3] Weightology by James Krieger

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