“Calories burned” makes me sad

It never ceases to amaze me how even bad ideas can become so commonplace as to be a part of our daily conversations.  And lucky me – in my line of work, you get to be a part of a LOT of these conversations.

“Does this count as my exercise today?” someone will playfully ask me while moving a couple boxes or some other physically trivial task.

I put on a cheesy grin and feign laughter as part of me dies inside, because to this day, I have no idea how I’m supposed to respond to that kind of question.

I believe the question, serious or not (I can never quite tell), stems from the belief a that it matters how many calories we burn, especially when we’re working out.  That’s why they put that obscenely inaccurate readout on all the treadmills and ellipticals so you know that your workout just burned 250 calories.  Well first of all, it didn’t.  Second of all, that’s less than one-tenth of a pound, so maybe don’t throw a party just yet.

But most importantly, even framing the conversation this way is playing on their terms.  Who are “they?”  I have no idea – but I feel like they’re out to get me.

The most important thing to remember is this: if you burn energy through activity, your body is going to want that energy back in food.  Believe it or not, your body doesn’t care about weight loss; it cares about survival.

We can try to pretend that’s not the case all we want.  We can keep saying, “Listen body,” in an angry, condescending voice, “I know you’ve evolved over eons to give me cues when I’m starving myself, but I have a Halloween costume to fit into, so knock it off!”  (I know most people aren’t trying to lose weight to fit into a Halloween costume, but it’s almost October and I’m trying to be seasonal)

When you exercise, your body is going to want more food.  And, believe it or not, you should actually give it what it needs.  When you don’t exercise and don’t eat enough, you are literally starving yourself, even if only to a small degree.

You should workout, but you shouldn’t do it with this idea in mind that you have to burn off as many calories as possible, even if the goal is losing weight.  What you eat plays a much more important role in fat storage than simply how much.  Your body has different uses for fats, carbs and protein, and to just cut back on everything and leave your body short on nutrients is exactly why we have the term, “yo-yo dieting.”  You can’t do it long-term, so you stop, gain weight back (because you’ve never changed what kinds of foods you’re eating) and then start all over again.

Exercise should be done to improve how your body functions (stronger, more mobile muscles and a capable circulatory system) not to burn off energy.  Your body isn’t stupid enough to let you starve it without fighting you, so if you want to choose the calories burned approach to exercise, prepare to be hungry.

Always remember that your body knows better than your brain what it needs, so if you’re hungry, eat.  And if you’re trying to lose weight, that rule doesn’t change,  but the kinds of foods you’re eating should.

‘Til next time!


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