Updated: Feb 7
We’ve all heard the weight loss advice “Eat Less, Move More.”
The trouble with this statement is that it's a gross oversimplification of what is truly required for lasting weight loss and it ignores several important facts. In this article I'll take you through three of those facts and what you can to differently to improve your results.
FACT: Exercise Increases Hunger
Physical activity stimulates the appetite leading a person to eat more food, not less.
Wait a minute? Exercise makes us hungrier?
Yep. And naturally so. The body likes to maintain a stable weight, so when we use extra energy by exercising it's normal for the body to crave more food to compensate for what you used and recover lost glycogen stores.
Especially when someone is just getting started with a new routine, sharp increases in hunger may feel difficult to manage. It's possible to overreact to hunger by eating more than we need, especially if we're not in the habit of following those signals on a day-to-day basis.
This type of compensatory eating, where someone feels like a bottomless pit after exercising, makes it difficult for to feel satiated even after consuming a large amount of food. If you've ever known someone who gained weight while training for a marathon (despite the fact that they took up running to lose weight) you know what I mean.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Start Small and Build
Start with for 150 Minutes of Moderate Intensity Physical Activity Each Week
If you're new or returning to fitness, consider starting with reasonable physical activity goals and allow your body time to adapt, rather than try to over-exercise your way to weight loss.
Many people are eager to lose weight and don't quite know yet how much exercise they can tolerate. They may join a challenge or program that emphasizes hard workouts to lose weight faster, only to find that they push themselves further than what they're ready for.
A 20-25 minute brisk walk that helps you stay active throughout the day, thereby expending even more energy, will be far more effective for long-term weight loss than a handful of grueling workouts that leave you flat on your back for days where you're not expending much energy at all.
As a general recommendation, 2 days of strength training and 2 days of cardio for a total of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise is a great place for many start.
As your body adapts to the new routine and your strength and endurance increase you'll be able to workout harder, if you choose, without diminishing returns from over training. An incremental approach that allows for steady progress makes it easier to adjust your food intake to fuel those workouts without excessive weight gain.
FACT: Exercise Doesn't Burn as Many Calories as You Think
Calorie burn estimates are flawed at best and they don't account for net energy utilization.
"My FitBit says I burned 489 calories. Time to eat!"
By some estimates the numbers reported on cardio machines and fitness watches can be off by as much 10 to 20% or more. While heart rate monitoring systems such as MyZone have a pretty good track record for accuracy, cardio machines and wearables have a larger margin of error. There's no way to reliably account for individual differences in body composition, workout efficiency, fitness level, and frame size.
Calorie burn estimates also fail to account for the amount of energy you would have used at rest anyway. This also includes moments where your intensity level falls off during the workout, but the machine keeps pushing you forward with it's own momentum. The treadmill is adding up calories while you're just along for the ride.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Forget the Burn and Focus on Getting Stronger
Regular exercise, especially resistance training, will naturally shift your body composition to favor more muscle and less fat.
If you do it right, and stick with it, your body will respond to physical activity in ways that show up both on and off the scale.
Exercise brings many other heath benefits including reducing the risk of disease, improving stress response, and boosting mental and emotional well-being. So don't get hung up on the calories. Focus on the enjoyment of doing it and work toward deeper goals like improved sport performance, becoming more flexible or mobile, or maintaining your measure of physical strength as you age.
FACT: It's Easy To Over Fuel
You likely don't need as many calories post-workout as you think.
What do I mean by that? Remember, your body is burning calories all the time, even as you sit there reading this. Adding in exercise increases your total energy expenditure, but if you eat through all of the calories that the treadmill says you burned you'd likely end up in an energy surplus, not a deficit. The result? Weight gain.
Let's say I burn 65 calories an hour just sitting here writing this post. And let's say I burn an estimated 450 calories in that same hour by running 4 miles. I would have burned 385 calories more during exercise than at rest. For the moment, I'm in a 385 calorie deficit (not 450).
Following my workout I drink a post-run recovery drink that was advertised as optimal for refueling. What I didn't notice was that the drink packs a whopping 380 calories per bottle.
Now I've essentially eaten through that 385 calorie deficit.
Dinner time rolls around and I as I dish up a second helping of my healthy meal I tell myself, "Hey, I worked out today, and I'm going to workout tomorrow. I need this. I'm sure I'll burn it off." I sit down to the meal, check my phone a couple of times, respond to some interruptions from the kids, and ruminate about everything I have to do before bed tonight, all while I continue to put bite after bite in my mouth, not noticing that my hunger was satisfied half the plate ago.
The result? Taking in more energy from food than I needed. Despite moving more, I'm in an energy surplus and gaining weight.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Notice Your Appetite and Workout Recovery Patterns
Self-monitor your energy and recovery and adapt your training and fueling accordingly.
Whether your goal is running, weight training, or general fitness, it's important to eat enough to support that goal. Nothing's worse than heading into a workout under-fueled and unable to complete it, let alone perform at a high level.
For the everyday athlete who works out a few times each week, 4 or possibly 5 meals each day is enough, provided that 3 main meals include some form of complex carbohydrate and protein. The exact amounts will depend on your weight, intensity of exercise, and length of workout. A sports nutrition specialist can help you calculate exact numbers if needed. I recommend working with a specialist when you have high level athletic goals.
Be Hungry Before You Eat
If you're a mere mortal like me, the simplest approach is to get in touch with the physical sensations of hunger and fullness in your body and use that to guide your eating. Practice waiting until you notice clear, stomach centered hunger signals, rather than your brain saying "time to eat!"
Eat Without Distractions
As you eat, slow down. Put the fork down between bites, sip water, and practice being in the moment rather than pulled away by your thoughts. Notice how hunger gradually transitions to fullness. Stop eating when your hunger has been satisfied.
Monitor Your Energy Levels
If you're eating enough and not over-training you'll notice sustained energy most of the time, steady improvement in strength and fitness gains, and restful sleep. If you're eating too little and training too hard your body will let you know.
Signs of over-training and poor recovery including crashing, fatigue, restless sleep, anxiety, and declining workout performance or immunity. If you experience any of these symptoms it's a good idea to check with your Doctor and consider backing off on your training regimen, increasing rest, and upping both the quantity and quality of your nutrition.
Trying to make the process go faster is both counterproductive and avoidable. You'll get much better results in the long run if you look for a healthy balance between exercising for enjoyment and performance gains, and following a sensible eating plan to fuel your goals.
Ready to begin your own at-home workout program? Grab a copy of my free guide, Get Started with At-Home Fitness for a step-by-step approach to begin your fitness journey today.
Thanks for reading!