The Mistake of Exercising to Burn Calories
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Sometimes the work you put into diet and exercise just doesn’t seem to get the job done.
It’s not a good feeling when…
❌ The scale hasn’t budged in a while.
❌ Stubborn fat won’t stop being stubborn.
❌ You still can’t button your favorite jeans.
A common reflex is to exercise more often so you can burn more calories.
That doesn’t work.
It’s not that exercise literally won’t help you burn ANY calories. But if that’s the driving motivation behind your workouts, you’ll do more harm than good.
Is Easier Better?
I can’t imagine trying to do everything perfectly “right” with diet and exercise.
Even if I only followed the tips I see on Instagram, there are countless (and often conflicting) ideas about the most effective ways to lose weight.
It’s exhausting (and confusing).
As a trainer, it’s easy for me to spot the things that are just marketing nonsense. But for most people, it’s a lot more difficult to sift through that dumpster fire of misinformation.
A lot of things that are supposed to make weight loss “easier” only complicate the matter.
A perfect example is any device that tracks how many calories you burn in a workout, whether it’s built-in on a treadmill or a feature on your watch.
The technology just isn’t accurate and the estimates you get may be way off.
That means if you try to use that information to help you in any way — from deciding whether to have a slice of cake to choosing the type of exercise to do — it’ll mess with your results and you’ll have a more difficult time losing weight.
Easier is only better if it actually works… calorie trackers don’t.
But even if they DID work and were 100% accurate, exercising to burn calories would still be a mistake for another reason.
The Truth About Exercise & Calories
There’s a good chance you DO need to burn more calories if you want to lose weight (that’s the case for most people who come to us struggling with weight loss).
The problem is that if you use exercise to do it, you might not burn more calories at all — or at least not near as many as you think.
Your body resists change.
Let’s say you burn 400 calories working out. Your body will then do everything in its power to slow down and hang onto as many extra calories as it can to make up the difference throughout the rest of the day.
In other words, a significant chunk of those 400 calories won’t be anything “extra” on top of what you would have burned if you hadn’t exercised.
And the more intense your workout is, the more your body will adapt to cancel out those burned calories later (as shown in this study).
That’s just one reason why doing super tough workouts regularly isn’t ideal (read “7 Things Fit Pros Do That You Should NOT” for another reason).
I recommend a different strategy.
A Better Way to Burn Calories
If you try to add a ton of exercise to your routine so you burn more calories, you’ll have 2 problems:
1. As I said above, it won’t be as effective as you’d want.
2. You’ll likely get sick of it and quit (or get hurt) before you see any results.
Fortunately, there’s a simple alternative that solves both of those problems:
It doesn’t literally have to be walking though.
It could be any type of low intensity activity you want (e.g. mowing the lawn, rearranging your living room, strip Twister 🤣); walking just happens to be a method most people find easy to fit into their day on a regular basis.
An undemanding activity won’t cause your body to react and adapt as strongly (problem 1 solved), and you can do it as often as you’d like (barring ridiculous extremes) without it taking a toll on your overall well-being (problem 2 solved).
In fact, it’ll help you feel BETTER.
That particular combination of benefits means the calories you burn while doing it will add up more throughout the day.
Exercise Isn't the Enemy
In case you misunderstood, exercise is still an important part of a weight loss plan (see “7 Key Strategies on Exercising for Weight Loss”). It’s only when you constantly view it as a means to burn calories that it becomes a problem.
Every time you have some kind of treat, you think about how much extra exercise you have to do to burn it off, like you have to “earn” it.
That’s no way to live.
Exercise should be a source of freedom.
😊 It can help you tone up and give you confidence in your body.
😊 It gives you more energy so you aren’t too drained for your family at the end of the day.
😊 It even contributes to helping you stay full on a diet to make weight loss more achievable.
It will also burn SOME calories…
It just doesn’t matter exactly how much.
As long as you’re losing weight at a decent rate (see “How Quickly Should I Lose Weight?”), and aren’t having to starve yourself to do it, you’re on the right track.
If you AREN’T losing weight like you want, or if you feel like you have to eat next to nothing to make any progress at all, trying to find ways to burn more calories still might not be the solution.
The best way to know for sure what to do is to meet with us on video chat for a free 45-minute strategy session. Click here to find a time that works for you.
Tracking how many calories you burn in a workout is extremely inaccurate. Even if it were accurate, your body can offset those burned calories by subconsciously slowing you down the rest of the day (the more intense the exercise, the more likely your body is to compensate).
Instead of exercising more (2-3x per week is plenty), focus on staying active through NON-exercise activity (as often as possible), by doing things like going for walks. It has the added benefits of helping you manage your hunger, improving your overall health, and actually burning extra calories — it just doesn’t matter exactly how many.
If you aren’t losing weight like you want and feel like diet and exercise aren’t working, we’d love to help you on a free 45-minute strategy session call. Click here to find a time that works for you.