Working Out to Eat More? I Hate to Disappoint You But…

One of the biggest misconceptions ever is this business of working out to speed up weight loss. How often have you heard or read on Facebook or Instagram…“About to get my workout on — gotta earn that _____ (dessert, birthday cake, pumpkin pie) dessert I’m having later!”

As a trainer and health coach, I hear it all the time.

Or what about this one, “Man, I killed it in the gym today and burned 16 bazillion calories.”

To quote the E-surance commercial and Beatrice’s friend, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.”

Sure, working out will speed up your metabolism and may accelerate weight loss — but it can also slow it down. Why? Because of the misconception that if a little is good, a lot must be better. Instead, do you know what happens?

You work out too much and stress your body, which responds with higher levels of cortisol because it’s under so much tension. Cortisol will hold on to weight to protect your body, because it has no idea what’s going on and there’s a possibility your body might need the weight for protection.

We’re going off on a little bit of a rabbit trail though, so let’s pull back. Why is it, if you burn 1,000 calories in the gym, you can’t go eat 1,000 calories and end up at net 0? No harm no foul.

Well, because nothing is an exact science. There’s this thing called “margin of error,” and when you’re trying to lose weight, margin of error can come back around to bite you in the butt.

Statistically speaking, the margin of error for labels on food can be as high as 30%. Meaning, that 100-calorie cookie may actually be 130 calories. There’s also a theory being batted around that for restaurant food, this percentage of margin of error may go as high as 40%. That could push your 390-calorie dessert to — gulp – 546 calories! For the average person’s 2,000 calories-a-day food plan, that one dessert alone is over 25% of the daily allotment.

So, there’s that.

“But what about the calories I burn at the gym/running/cross-fitting/dancing? I wear a heart rate monitor and/or an exercise tracker, so that has to be accurate right?” I hope you’re sitting down, because, sadly, no it is not. In fact, in an article last May by The Guardian, and without calling out any brand names by myself so as not to risk a lawsuit, the margin of error rate of a group of tested fitness trackers ranged from a low of 27.4% to a high of (and this is the part for which I hope you’re sitting down…)


Downright depressing isn’t it?

Even using the calorie counting equipment at the gym isn’t accurate. (Because let’s face it, if wearable trackers have a higher margin of error, how can equipment you don’t wear be any more accurate?)

Even we ourselves tend to overcompensate when it comes to exercise. So you take a walk for about an hour and you think you’ve probably burned 500 calories. The typical caloric level of an average person is 2000 calories, so now you’re down to 1500 calories (2000–500 you think you burned). The problem is, you’re really eating 2500 calories or more a day, and now you think you “earned” whatever 500-calorie food you want (which from our example could actually be 550–600 calories in reality). Do you see where this gets you? NOW do you understand why you’re overweight?

What’s the solution? Is there a solution?

YES. Yes, there is.

First of all, you have to get rid of the notion of that you work out to eat. Obviously from the above examples, it’s not working anyway because of the margin of error, right?

The real key to all of this is awareness and listening to your body. Did you run a marathon today? Then chances are your body needs a few more QUALITY calories, and you’re probably craving them anyway by being hungry. Did you lay around on the couch all day? Then unless you’ve had surgery requiring some extra grams of protein, you don’t need as much to eat.

Calculating your basal metabolic rate can give you a fairly broad picture of what your daily caloric needs. “Basal” means baseline, and gives you some idea of the calories you burn if you were in a coma. Remember, bodily functions such as respiration, perspiration, heart rate, and others do burn some calories! That’s the basic idea of weight maintenance — if you’re eating roughly the amount you burn for metabolism, weight stays the same.

At this point you may want to throw up your hands and say it’s not worth it. Oh, but it is! Even though it’s not 100% accurate, having an awareness of the amount of calories you’re eating on a daily basis and comparing that level with a weekly weight measurement will help you meet your goals.

Don’t forget that space between your ears either! Although the opinions differ, the weight loss game is thought to be as high as 90% mental. Exercise and movement in general will increase the feel-good endorphins in your brain and give you a feeling of well-being and empowerment. Work out to feel good about your efforts, not to earn food that will keep stoking the fire of sugar and/or food addictions. The more you feel good about yourself and avoid those behaviors, the more success you’ll see with your weight loss.

Go ahead and take that walk, go to the gym, or run that marathon if that’s what you want to do. Start at whatever point you are in your healthy journey and keep going. In the long run it can only help. Just don’t get into a compensation mode of rewarding yourself with food of any kind.

You got this!

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