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Exercise for health improvement, not for weight loss

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

As I sit here, my legs are tight and a little sore. No doubt a result of my last few workouts. Solely practicing Pilates and lifting weights, I have all but given up my high intensity cardio calorie burns as of late, and I have to say, I'm loving every minute of it. I mean, really loving everything about it. I just f-e-e-l good. And I'm all about that.

As a result of this change, the amount of calories I burn in each workout has decreased. Not necessarily when I lift, but definitely when I complete a Pilates class. But does that really matter? At the end of the day, does it really matter that my 60 minute Pilates workout is burning 350 calories and my high intensity cardio class burned at least 550-650 calories? (According to whatever gadget/heart rate monitor/watch you're wearing. Talking about the accuracy of those "tools" is a story for another day).

Are those calories I burned going to get me closer to a weight loss goal if I have one? I mean, it's been a long time since I held the mentality that I have to KILL myself in a workout for it to serve me. I'd like to say I've matured in my thinking. But maybe I'm just getting older and I just can't DO it anymore. :) Either way, I'm not worrying about the calories I'm burning every time I decide to take a class/go on a walk/lift weights. I'm just doing it because I enjoy it. But the question still looms? Is a high calorie burn better than a low calorie burn? Let's discuss.

No one denies that exercising is good for our health. But for those looking to lose weight may be surprised to find out that numerous studies demonstrate that exercise alone only has a very modest affect on weight loss. So every time an instructor tells you that you need to work EXTRA hard so you can indulge yourself with an extra drink or two over the weekend, they really aren't sharing the truth. Our bodies simply do not work that way. In fact, while 100 percent of our energy comes from the food we eat, we can only burn 10 to 30 percent of that with physical activity. Add to that fact that sometimes, people increase the amount of food they eat after exercising, because they either thought they burned a lot more than they did or because they were just hungrier. And we all know that many of us are guilty of underestimating how much we eat and/or how much we burned exercising.

There are three main components to energy expenditure. There is our basal metabolic rate, or the energy used for basic functioning when the body is at rest. Then there is the energy used to break down food; and lastly, the energy used in physical activity.

Our basal metabolic rate can be a little greedy, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of our total energy expenditure. Digesting our food accounts for about 10 percent, which only leaves 10 to 30 percent for physical activity, and exercise is only a subset of that activity. In other words, exercise alone doesn't do much to help people lose weight. So no, the higher burn activities are NOT better than the ones that burn less calories - at least when it comes to weight loss.

We've all heard that you cant out-train a bad diet, and it's true. So if you are trying to make changes to your body, stop trying to burn more calories to lose more weight. It's a futile endeavor.

I once had a client who asked me if I could train her more during the week. I asked her why she wanted to add additional sessions into her week. I asked her what else she was doing during the week - was she getting any other exercise in addition to the two 30-minute sessions with me per week? Her answer was simple: she said she didn't want to change her eating habits - that was too much work - and she just wanted to workout more to reach her weight loss goals. I wish it was that simple. But it's just not.

I don't want this post to turn into something solely about weight loss, so I'll keep this part quick - if you want to lose weight, start with your nutrition. THAT is where most of us need the most work. Eat fewer processed foods, drink your water, don't cut out food groups, find a nutrition plan that is sustainable. Think long term. Not short term. And at the same time, continue exercising in a way YOU enjoy. Stop worrying if you burned X amount of calories during your workout. Just MOVE YOUR BODY and enjoy it!

The evidence has been clear for a long time. Exercise is excellent for your health, your mental well being, your overall wellness. But it's not important for weight loss. So just do what you like. If you love the HIIT workouts that kick your ass, awesome. But if you're simply doing them to get the high calorie burn in an effort to lose weight, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

All the best in health!

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