Focus on the Food, Not the Exercise, for Weight Loss

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of days about this article at Vox.com that talks about how exercise doesn’t do much to help you lose weight. It’s a long article, and there’s a lot to think about. The gist of it is that even if you increase the amount of calories you burn by exercising, that still only accounts for a relatively small percentage of the total calories your body burns every day. Fitbit tells me that I burn around 800-900 calories on my morning walk. That’s a lot. Moving my largeness around for 45-60 minutes, even though I’m walking pretty slowly, requires a lot of energy. But for all that sweat and effort, it only accounts for about 20-25% of all the calories I burn in a (24-hr) day.

If I sit here writing this post for the next hour, I’ll burn (again, according to Fitbit) about 250 calories. With no sweating. No huffing and puffing. No complaining joints. Practically no effort at all. If I sit here for another 3 hours after that binge-watching Stranger Things, my body will burn more calories just keeping me alive than it does on my morning walks.

The article explains how scientists still don’t fully understand how our bodies regulate the amount of calories we burn, and that there seem to be a lot of factors involved, and that it can vary a lot from person to person. Which is one of the reasons why I think Fitbit is most likely wrong about my daily caloric expenditure. Looking back through the data, it says that on the least active day in my recent history (only 12 “active minutes” all day long), my body burned over 3,500 calories. And on an average active day, it says I burn between 5000-6000 cals. I know they take my weight, age, and gender into consideration to get those numbers, but I think they’re too high. Maybe even crazy high.

Because if they’re right, I would be able to eat an Egg & Sausage McMuffin, hash brown, and coffee for breakfast, a Whopper with Cheese and a medium fries for lunch, and an entire Pizza Hut Supreme pizza for dinner and still lose weight. Or at the very least maintain my current weight. I don’t think I really want to test it, but I’m pretty sure that I can’t eat like that, maintain a caloric deficit, and lose weight. Because I don’t tend to track what I’m eating when I’m gaining or maintaining weight, I don’t think there’s any data I can look at to try to get an idea of what my actual basal metabolic rate might be, but I’m guessing that it’s probably closer to 3000 calories a day. Which is still a lot. And that means that if I eat the recommended 1800 cals/day, I’ll lose weight. I know that’s true because I’ve done it.

So I think Fitbit is wrong about my basal metabolic rate, and I think it’s also wrong about the amount of calories I burn when I exercise. I really don’t think my morning walks mean that I can eat all that fast food and still lose weight. Which is yet another reminder that the numbers aren’t everything. They’re not even necessarily all that accurate. They’re approximations.

And the article has also helped remind me that the exercise I’m getting–the big morning walks, the intermittent activity, the upper body workouts, and even the stretching routines–helps me in lots of different ways, and is really, really important. But it isn’t necessarily going to be evident on weigh-in day. Going at it extra hard, pushing myself a little faster or a little further is much more likely to make me feel a little better thanks to the accomplishment itself than it is to show up as an extra kilo or even half-kilo of lost weight when I step on the scales.

I need to focus more on the accomplishment and less on the expected effect on my weight (especially if those expectations are grossly overblown). And I also need to keep in mind that the extra calories burned by pushing myself harder on my walk can all be quickly replaced by having an extra glass of wine.

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