Learning to separate calorie burn from exercise

May 07, 2021
7 min read


The whole reason to exercise is to lose weight and be fit, right? Well, I hate to break it to you, but exercise doesn’t help with weight loss nearly as much as you think it does. Shedding the extra pounds you have been desperately trying to lose for years requires you to create a calorie deficit with your food choices. That means by the time you go to bed at night, you should have eaten less calories from food and drink than you burned during the day.

Why should I exercise?

“Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.” - Women’s Health UK

Exercise has a multitude of benefits other than just losing weight. In fact, studies show that individuals who exercise solely for the “calorie burn,” lose interest in their fitness routine and eventually quit compared to others who exercise in a way that they enjoy.

Exercise can reduce stress, which can, in turn, lower the desire to stress-eat. It can help boost your metabolism, which is how readily your body uses and burns calories throughout the day. Fitness and becoming more active can increase your desire to take care of yourself better and make healthy food choices.

Exercise is not “all for nothing,” as far as calories go. Exercise can help create a calorie deficit, but people believe that to be much more of a weight loss factor than it is. For example, a person who has a sedentary desk job and works out religiously every day for an hour burns 300 calories. Because they do not move much during the rest of the day, they only burned 300 extra calories. That same person may then reward themselves after a day of exercise with a 300-calorie treat, which negates their exercise.

Hunger is a tool our bodies are equipped with and a way that your body protects itself from losing weight. Your body is amazing at maintaining the status quo!

If you still are set on doing exercise mainly for weight loss, the best form of exercise is strength training and to build muscle mass. Muscle mass uses more calories to maintain than fat. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is more effective than low intensity walking for fat loss because it raises your heart rate for a period, and then lowers it during recovery before another heart rate ramp up. 

Any form of movement that you enjoy is what you are aiming for. If you hate walking on the treadmill for hours on end, then don’t do it. It won’t help you that much as far as weight loss goes, and you will probably bore yourself into quitting. If you enjoy yoga, tai chi, hiking or weight lifting, then do those! It's all about finding what brings you joy and staying active and consistent for the enjoyment of your life, not just to lose weight.

Healthy living is not a diet

Now that you have found a form of movement that brings you a sense of fulfillment, let's shift to calories. Remember, they are different sides of the same wellness coin.

Talking about eating is always a sensitive subject for people. Most people know what eating properly looks like. Proteins, healthy fats, carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and less sugar. Giving suggestions can make people a little defensive. I often hear, “I really don’t think I eat that much!”

Most people want a written plan of what they should and shouldn’t eat, and how much of those things they need to eat. However, food doesn’t work like that. Like walking on the treadmill, eating your prescription food plan may last a week or two before you would be sick of eating apples and eventually turn to eating the foods you actually enjoy.

In my experience, people are caught up in the details they have heard their whole life of what “good” and “bad” food looks like. There is no such thing. All food has calories and that is what you want to make sure is in balance. As mentioned before, the only sure way to lose weight is to create a calorie deficit. 

Think about the way you eat during the day. Most people eat in a way that goes something like this: they eat either a tiny or non-existent breakfast, a small lunch, and then by the time dinner comes around, they are tired and stressed from the workday. They are overly hungry and eat serving sizes of dinner that are way too big, followed by snacking until it is time for bed. If most people shifted their biggest meals to earlier in the day, they would be more energized for work, feel better and have less temptations to eat all the things that have been waiting for them at home all day. They would even have more energy to get to the gym for a workout! Hopefully you will be so satisfied from the food choices you made earlier in the day that you won’t need that big dinner. Most of your energy is used in the morning and afternoon and that is what you need to have the energy for.

Remember there is no such thing as “bad” food. Do you love cookies and just can’t get through the day without eating one? Have it for breakfast or lunch. Seriously. Then when you get home, you won’t be so ruled by your sugar cravings that you have two or three of them. 

Wellness and being healthy is not something that happens overnight. Fitness is always a work in progress that takes time and consistency to achieve. Consistency doesn’t mean never messing up, it means never giving up.

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