”I’m eating right and exercising every day and the weight isn’t coming off. Why isn’t it working?”
I get this question almost daily from frustrated dieters. There are all kinds of reasons results stall out, but this week I want to focus on a mistake I’ve seen thousands of people make over the years: they count their workout calories.
I’ve written about this subject several times before (you can read those articles here, here, and here), but since I continue to get this question in lolo support, I decided to explain it a bit more bluntly this week:
If you count your workout calories and add more food to your diet to balance out what you burned, you won’t lose weight.
I’ve even been lectured by people who tell me the calorie totals in our meal plans are “dangerously low” because they don’t take a person’s activity into account. No they do not and that’s because we want you to actually succeed. Those worried about dangerously low intake should check out the articles on the benefits of intermittent fasting for health and longevity.
As for the calories-out side of the equation, I’m going to skip over the parts where exercise calorie values from trackers are notoriously inaccurate and that people tend to drastically overestimate how much they burn during exercise and just focus on what happens to the TOTAL calories you burn each day as you stick to a fitness routine.
There is more to your day than exercise
The thing everyone forgets is that exercise will always be a tiny portion of your day. While you may increase your calorie expenditures for 30 to 60 minutes each day, that leaves another 23+ hours for your body to make adjustments to counter the calories lost. Remember, your body sees weight loss as a sign that you’re starving to death and makes adjustments to “help” you survive. Many of these adjustments are related to improved fitness. As you get more fit, your body uses less energy to move. That improved efficiency carries over to the rest of your day so you feel more energized but burn less overall. While this is frustrating for fat loss, it’s a great thing for health and longevity. Obviously the process of metabolism is necessary for survival, but it’s also harmful. Metabolism creates dangerous by-products like reactive oxidative species that can damage your cells and cause premature aging and dysfunction. Reducing your metabolic workload is one of the ways that exercise improves your longevity and prevents diseases.
But even before your body adapts with improved fitness, it quickly compensates for the extra calories burned during exercise by reducing your motion throughout the rest of the day. Studies have shown that as people and animals exercise more, they immediately move less the rest of the day. Even involuntary movements like fidgeting decreases to conserve total calories each day. These studies also show that calorie consumption does not instantly increase to compensate. This means that you can experience a net reduction on calories consumed with exercise, but only if you don’t intentionally increase your consumption first.
But what about people that are very active all day long, like construction workers? Another study that I mentioned before found that very active people had similar daily energy expenditures as sedentary people. The active people moved more, but used less energy to do so because they were more fit. The researchers were most surprised when they looked at a traditional hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania called the Hadza. They walked long distances each day and performed hard physical labor as part of their normal routine, and yet they had similar daily calorie expenditures as sedentary people in the US. They were far healthier due to the increased activity, but their calorie demands were roughly the same.
The CICO Trap (Calories In Calories Out)
I quickly wanted to touch on the realities of exercise and energy usage not to say that exercise is pointless for weight loss, but so you’ll understand how focusing on “raw calorie numbers” is misleading and can actual sabotage your results. Those calorie numbers are estimates at best and often intentionally set to display higher numbers so users of equipment like stationary bikes and treadmills will feel more accomplished. If we knew exactly what was happening in our bodies and we had perfect tools to measure the numbers, CICO could work. Since we don’t and the numbers are wildly inaccurate, following CICO is going to cause more problems than it solves.
Exercise is vital for your health and well-being, and you will drastically improve your weight loss results by combining diet and exercise. Just don’t fall into the calories in calories out trap that causes so many to give up in frustration and failure. There are variations to this trap, but perhaps this version sounds familiar:
You calculate your diet intake and calorie output to figure your daily metabolic needs.
You then start exercising and see some results on the scale so you assume you’re on the right path.
Within a few days it stops.
You start exercising more intensely or for longer periods of time (or both) and the scale gets moving again.
You start feeling hungrier during the day and more tired (and probably more irritable).
You eat extra before and/or after workouts to tamp down the hunger but you make sure to keep it less than you burned.
The scale stops again or actually starts moving up.
You get frustrated and stop completely.
Starting off wrong guarantees failure
Using your calories burned value as a license to eat more is a great way to set yourself up for failure. It may work the first few days, but your body will quickly adapt and your carefully calculated calorie tracking will actually cause you to overeat. If you do stick to your program for more than a few weeks, improved fitness (and possibly decreased weight) will make your miscalculations even more inaccurate. I use an Apple Watch to track my calories burned every day. I do find it to be useful information but I never use it to determine how many calories I should eat later. Use it as a tool to measure your trends.
Are you working out as hard as you did yesterday? Are you moving throughout the day or is it basically all during your workout? Are you moving less the rest of the day as you workout harder? Do I burn less during the same workout because I’m now more fit?
Workout calories will help you see the trends in your daily movement and fitness. Use them for that, but don’t view them as objective measurements of how much you can or should eat later.
Tips to burn fat during exercise
When it comes to exercising for weight loss, anything helps but some things work better than others. My biggest advice is don’t assume that more calories burned means more fat burned. It’s not just about what you do during your workout, but what your workout makes you do later. The wrong workouts will spike your appetite and cause you to eat more to gain back all the calories you burned (and often more). The right routine sets up your chemistry for weight loss and activates genes that increase fat burning.
1. Fasted cardio first thing in the morning. Working out first thing in the morning on an empty stomach activates fat burning genes which makes fat loss easier over time. It doesn’t need to be intense, even a nice morning walk will help.
2. Split up activity. The chemical processes in your body have a bit of lag. Eating causes your body to be in processing and storage mode for hours afterwards and exercise keeps you in a burning mode for a bit as well. Splitting up activity throughout the day is more effective at burning fat than one long workout. Once again, even frequent walks are enough.
3. Weights then cardio. Weight training is important to maintain muscle mass as you work to lose fat. Muscle mass increases your metabolic rate so you can burn more calories throughout the day. Weight training may not be that great for burning fat, but it does release hormones that mobilizes stored fat from your fat cells. If you do weight training first to mobilize stored fat, it’s easier to burn it with cardio right after.
4. HIIT. High-intensity interval training has been shown to be surprisingly effective for fat burning despite the low amount of calories burned. Short and intense workouts stimulate the release of HGH (human growth hormone) which increases muscle mass and decreases fat mass. It also improves insulin sensitivity which makes you less likely to store the fat you eat later. As for how it effects your daily calorie totals, HIIT has been shown to decrease compensatory eating later in the day as opposed to long workouts which actually increase appetite.
5. Take it outside. There are various benefits to working out outdoors. It improves your mood, helps set your circadian rhythms to improve sleep, and strengthens your microbiome with beneficial bacteria that will improve weight loss and prevent weight gain. A new study found another interesting benefit of outdoor exercise. Exposure to the blue light in sunlight shrinks fat cells just under the skin. Researchers from the University of Alberta found that blue light penetrates the skin and reaches the fat cells just below the skin. This exposure reduces the size of lipid droplets in the fat cells and causes increased release from the cells, leading to less subcutaneous fat storage. Just make sure you burn with with increased activity so it’s not stored again later. Once again, a morning walk outdoors (on an empty stomach) is your best bet to burn up that mobilized body fat. The researchers hypothesized it’s one of the reasons we gain more weight during the darker winter months.