Why Calories Burned from Exercise Don’t Make You Fit

Calories burned from exercise don’t make you fit. They don’t make you thinner or happier. Especially after 50 movement and physical activity is important. However, the decades of conditioning you’ve had for counting calories in vs. calories out could backfire on your desire to be fit.

Do you need to exercise to get fit? Yes of course! For health and wellness, mentally, cognitively, and physically you need it. It’s not optional. If you want to thrive you need it. Never before has exercise been more important. Our contemporary lives make it necessary.

Yet, never before midlife have you potentially had more reason to flip the emphasis you place on exercise to something other than piling up minutes, miles, or counting calories.

Strength, stamina, muscular and lean legs and arms that we all undeniably envy don’t come from calorie counting. Not from what you take in and not from what you burn.

Why don’t calories burned from exercise matter? For several reasons:

1) Its hard to accurately count calories burned from exercise.

It’s impossibly inaccurate to predict simply based on your weight and your speed how many calories you burned.

Two women who weigh the same could both be exercising at 4.5 mph. For one that’s jogging and for the other that’s only a mildly paced walk. Are they exercising at the same intensity? No. You can imagine they’re breathing differently, right?

They are using different amounts of oxygen. Calorie burning is about use of oxygen. It’s a simple equation. For every 1 liter of oxygen consumed 5 kcals are burned. That’s only simple if we can measure it though.

Unless we actually put in you in a lab hook you up so we can measure the amount of oxygen in the air you breath in minus the air you expel we really can’t predict how much oxygen you’re consuming. Trust me, there is nothing simply about that, or comfortable.

In fact, as you dream about yourself svelte and sleek and fit, you actually drool and expel mucous into the mask as you sweat uncomfortably like a pig. Welcome to my lab. For years I taught undergraduate students how to perform this test. Recently to begin my “fittest year” I sat on the bike behind the mask – something I hadn’t done for a couple decades. It wasn’t pretty.

Fitness trackers aren’t great for everything

A prediction is pretty inaccurate. Fitness trackers get highest points for Heart Rate accuracy (But unless you know where it should be? That is not helpful! Psstt: It’s not based on your age!!!)

Fitness trackers fail pretty miserably for the most popular exercise: walking, and for those with greater body mass. Seven trackers tested (including FitBit Surge and Apple Watch) were off anywhere from 27% to 93%. So if you’ve got that tracker to tell you how many calories you’re burning so you can lose weight? It’s false information.

Might it help motivate you and see you did more in your week 4 than you could in your week 1? Yes. That’s an appropriate use. But if you are at all tempted to think calories out can be used to adjust calories in, you’re heading the wrong way. Make a u-turn.

2) Hormones, not calories determine fat burn and fat storage.

Say you’re exercising “hard” every day or just long every day. You’re potentially increasing your cortisol levels. A body under stress holds on to fat – in spite of a calorie deficit – and will not lose weight.

You may be logging lots of calories burned on your tracker but it has no way of measuring your hormone balance. You could be driving yourself into fat storage rather than fat burning if you’re increasing cortisol.

All exercise is stress. We’re made for some stress. It’s necessary for life. But fitness is about finding your goldilocks of stress, from all sources and managing that together with exercise. If you’re stress hormone levels are out of balance (too high when they should be low, too low when they should be high) you’re probably frustrated. Exercise isn’t working as you think it should.

That said, exercises that relax you, (not necessarily the same exercise that someone else will find relaxing) and support optimal cortisol levels can increase fitness by first enhancing your wellness and hormone balance. Yoga, a hike outdoors, digging in your garden… might be the jam for you. Though not notorious on the calories burned from exercise charts they may be your ticket for fitness.

3) Tracking Calories Burned and Consumed Gives a False “Freedom”

Measure calories burned from exercise and calories consumed from food and you’re in control, right? Not so fast.

Actually, this feels more like a jail. It’s as if you put yourself between these two eat less and exercise more parameters and you’ll be free. The truth is you’re bound to obsessive counting, tracking, measuring and … exhaustion. You never truly relax.

In 35 years of experience where I’ve worked with adults both through a university exercise clinic and in private settings where I oversaw over 250,000 personal training sessions in 6 years, the common theme for customers who sought and achieved weight loss, was fear.

They feared regaining the weight. Every shift of the needle by a pound or two pounds sent them to caloric restriction and exercise increase. The mythological destination of weight loss, the when-I-get-here-I’ll-be-happy NEVER happened.

Further, those who continued to eat less and exercise more often ended up with some chronic fatigue, weight regain, or return to habits that put weight on in the first place. The body will do everything it can to signal you to eat more if you’re starving it.

Starving it, that is of micronutrients. Your body’s cravings are a sign of micronutrient deficiency. When you start exercising more… you deplete micronutrients further. When you eat less, you have fewer micronutrients coming in.

That’s no conditions for fitness improvement. 

Why We Count

We do like control. So counting seems a very intuitive way to control what’s happening. Unfortunately, it’s a formula that just doesn’t work. Particularly for women with hormones wildly up and down.

Your hormones work thanks to micronutrients. You need to balance that, count the goodness going in, being absorbed and digested, along with finding an exercise and rest ratio that improves you doesn’t break you down.

Tracking calories alone (in or out) completely ignores the state of sleep deprivation, stress, or recovery your body is in. There’s no telling how ready you are for exercise or how well you’ve fueled your body to adapt positively.

There are numbers that matter. But you’re unique and no estimate at this point in time is very accurate for measuring energy expenditure (calories burned). The bigger message: knowing that still doesn’t give you the results you want.

If you’re stressed you can exercise all day and eat next to nothing (totally the WRONG approach but the one you learned years ago) and you will not improve fitness. You might just increase fatness and fatigue.

Replace your calorie counting with an emphasis on quality. Quality calories. Quality exercise. Do less exercise and eat more food. Quality matters oh, so much more than actual numbers – which are nearly impossible to know anyway.

If you can’t completely stop – or you’ve been a calorie counter for decades and it’s automatic – be mindful of the type of calories you consume and let go of thinking you’re an in/out equation.

In terms of calories expended from exercise:

A short bout of strength training won’t burn a lot of calories, but it does more to balance hormones than an hour of treadmill walking or an hour of strength training for that matter.

That old idea that you don’t have time is true if you think it takes an hour. It doesn’t. Equate an hour of slogging through exercise to a donut. Ten or twenty minutes of quality exercise could be far better for you. Equate that to a yummy piece of salmon or black bean burger topped with avocado. Calories may not be that different. But the results will be.


You might also like:

Long Workouts Don’t Work

Why This Trainer Tells Clients to Exercise Less

10 Limiting Beliefs to Dump Before Starting an Exercise Program


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