Exercise out versus Calories inNow, before we begin, it’s important to note that everyone burns calories differently. Your metabolism might be higher or lower—depending on your weight (and how over or under weight you are), muscle mass, and genetic makeup. So, to start out, we’re going to look at the calories burned in an hour by a 160-pound person. Let’s say this person did an hour of hardcore aerobics. That means breathing hard and sweating for one hour, straight—no water breaks, no cool-down or warm-up during the hour—pure active motion for a full hour. That would burn about 533 calories (a 200-pound person would burn almost 25% more calories, so you can adjust for yourself in your head). Not bad, right? Except that’s only the equivalent of 4 ounces of chicken, plus a cup of broccoli and half a cup of beans. Not exactly a huge meal. A McDonald’s chicken sandwich is 535 calories. There goes all that work. Biking for an hour straight would burn 292 calories. That’s one fried egg, two pieces of toast, and half a glass of orange juice. An hour of hatha yoga only burns 183 calories. That’s about the same as you’d get in a can of beer. Even running a full marathon only burns about 2600 calories, give or take. Drink two glasses of wine every night, and you’d have used up your entire caloric deficit in just over a week. Unless you are doing some sort of extremely strenuous physical training every day, a la Michael Phelps getting ready for the Olympics, you just aren’t going to lose weight through exercise alone.
The machines are lying to youHowever, the news gets even worse. If you’re exercising at the gym, you’re probably paying attention to the calorie count on your favorite cardio machines. Too bad most of those machines are way off. By as much as 25-30%. Part of the problem is many machines just make assumptions about your weight, which can throw the scale off quite a bit. Another problem is they make assumptions about how you are using a machine. For instance, a treadmill will assume that you aren’t using the handrails—if you do, that greatly decreases the calories you burn. And, on top of that, machine manufacturers want you to feel good about what you’re doing. So they’re almost always going to round (or lie!) up the calorie count, to make the benefit of exercise appear as great as possible.
And you might be lying to yourselfThat’s not the end of it. It turns out, when exercising, most people think of calories as a monetary system. The more calories you deposit through exercise, the more you can withdraw though eating. But that doesn’t work when you’re overestimating the number of calories you are burning. And, in studies, exercisers routinely underestimate the number of calories they’re eating—by up to three times the true value. In other words, for every 100 calories you think you’re eating, you may actually be consuming 300 calories. Add in the fact that exercise acts as an appetite stimulant for most people, and you can see why exercise alone simply doesn’t lead to weight loss, for the vast majority of people.
Fill up the right wayInstead, if you have a weight-loss goal, there’s one method that’s been proven to work time and again. And that’s cutting the number of calories you consume. After working with my nutritionist Liliana Partida for years, I’m not a big believer in counting calories. Most people don’t do a great job of estimating calories in and out, and besides, it just isn’t a very sustainable way to live. Instead, I believe in focusing on filling yourself up with the right foods. That means drinking lots of water all the time, which can help decrease hunger. It means dividing your plate up the right way. If you make sure half of everything you put in your mouth is a fruit or vegetable, it’s almost impossible to get into trouble. The filling fiber in fruits and vegetables will have you feeling stuffed long before you can overeat. Especially if you keep proteins like meat to a quarter of your plate, and make sure you avoid enriched or processed grains, and stick with 100% whole grains. In fact, one study found that whole-grains are especially good for a weight-loss plan. In the study, participants who ate whole grains lost more abdominal body fat—the especially dangerous kind—than those who ate refined grains. They also saw a 38% reduction in C-reactive protein (CRP), an indicator of damaging inflammation in the body. Nothing will ever be more effective than exercise and diet combined—for your overall health in general, and for your weight-loss goals in particular. But if you decide to focus on one thing, focus on diet. Eating right takes no more time than eating wrong, and eating nutritious foods is the first key that unlocks everything else.
- Warner, Jennifer. Whole Grains Fight Belly Fat. WebMD. Published Feb 25, 2008. Accessed Nov 6, 2016.
- How Much Am I Burning?. Mayo Clinic. Published Nov 15, 2014. Accessed Nov 6, 2016.
- Wexler, Sarah. Exercise Vs. Diet: The Truth About Weight Loss. The Huffington Post. Published Apr 30, 2014. Accessed Nov 6, 2016.
- Talens, Dick. Why Counting Calories Burned By Exercise Can Sabotage Your Weight Loss. Lifehacker. Published May 6, 2015. Accessed Nov 6, 2016.
- Smith, Jessica. How (in)Accurate Are Calorie Counters At the Gym?. Shape. Accessed Nov 6, 2016.
- Ravn, Karen. Counting calories burned is not as easy as 1-2-3. LA Times. Published Jan 4, 2010. Accessed Nov 6, 2016.