Q:I have been beating myself up at the gym and eating what I think are the right foods for several years now and cannot lose any weight. Over time, I have even gained a little. Can you shed some perspective on what factors might be affecting my inability to lose weight despite my best efforts?


There are many different factors that can affect the body’s ability to lose weight. Because there are so many… and I want you all to read the whole answer….I will break the answer up into several weeks. In month 8 of the program, I have a long series that breaks down plateaus, but I want to get to your question before then so you can start addressing some potential roadblocks now.

Over-Exercising – When you over-exercise, your body can do one of 3 things:

  1. Burn lots of calories to help you lose weight – When you first start exercising, your body is in a “happy,” fat burning zone. People usually lose the most weight within the first few months of an exercise program as the body is not “conditioned.” When the body becomes accustomed to all of the exercise, it becomes efficient. When your body is efficient, it burns less and less calories doing the same activity even though your treadmill or heart rate monitor tell you otherwise.
  2. Increase your body’s cortisol production – Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone. When you exercise, your cortisol levels elevate. Now, this is a good thing if you exercise regularly but not in excess. When you exercise regularly, cortisol levels go up temporarily in response to the exercise and return to normal afterwards. If you exercise rigorously for many hours per day most days of the week, your body can see this as a state of CHRONIC STRESS. This causes cortisol levels to stay constantly elevated, leading to the storage of BELLY FAT. Excess cortisol causes the body increase belly fat.
  3. Hold onto body fat – When you put your body through hours of exercise every day, you are giving it the message that it needs to CONSERVE ENERGY in the form of body fat. When your body expects that it will be pushed to its limits every day, it can go into storage mode in preparation for the expenditure of energy during repeated, strenuous exercise.

So, what do you do if this is you? Well, it is important to move the body every day and mix up the exercise you are doing for maximum results. If you are exercising for multiple hours per day almost every day, try cutting back to 1 hour per day and focusing a little more on your food. Often when people over-exercise, hunger levels go really high and cause them to eat all of the calories they burned during the exercise. Cutting back on the exercise will allow your hunger levels to decrease and can give you better perspective to evaluate your weight loss program.

Over-exercising is both a physical and mental habit to break. If you have an emotional attachment to the exercise and fear that you will gain weight, cut back slowly to allow both your body and mind to adjust.

Don’t worry that you will gain weight from cutting back on exercise. By cutting back a little bit, you may see some of the following interesting things happen:

  • Decreased hunger, so better presence of mind when making rational food decisions
  • Belly fat decrease due to decreased cortisol
  • Increased energy to put into your workouts, so better calorie burn in the time that you do spend exercising.

Often when people exercise vigorously, they develop an increased appetite that causes them to eat more as a result. In this part of the answer, I am going to break down TWO THINGS that can happen regarding exercise calories and food. Although completely opposite phenomena, these are both common reasons for weight loss plateaus when you are doing “all the right things” with exercise.

  1. Eating your exercise calories – When you exercise vigorously and your appetite increases, it is natural to want to eat more. This is great when you are on maintenance, but not necessarily if you are trying to lose. First, you really have no idea how many calories you are burning (reference last Friday’s answer) due to the body’s conditioning over time.

    Even though your food logging program or heart rate monitor may tell you what it thinks you should have burned, that can be off by hundreds of calories. If you “eat your exercise calories,” you can end up eating more than you burned and not have a deficit. Unless you are exercising vigorously for more than an hour, let your exercise calories be a deficit that helps with your weight loss. This is often an issue with moderate exercisers who think they burn more than they do.

  2. Under-Eating – This is the opposite of #1 but equally as prevalent. When you are exercising for several hours per day, your body NEEDS fuel to AVOID STARVATION MODE. If you do not replenish some of what you burned, your METABOLISM WITH SLOW DOWN in response.

    A good rule is this: At absolute minimum, your body needs 1200 calories that are devoted to body functions. This of course varies greatly from person to person, but almost everyone experiences metabolic decline under 1200. If you are exercising a lot, track your calories and make sure that your body is getting at least 1200 calories after exercise. For example, if you eat 1400 and burn 400, you need to eat 200 extra to make sure your body gets the minimum 1200.