Should I eat back calories from exercise?

Episode aired Aug 22, 2022 on The Core Podcast

So you work out and the machine or google search says you burned about 300 calories. Are you supposed to add those calories to your daily consumption? Let’s talk!!

It’s a classic. You have a good workout, sweat a lot, and you feel like you can eat all the pizza and donuts you want. There’s a popular idea that we burn a LOT of calories with exercise. Among people who want to lose weight, there’s this concept that exercise burns a lot of calories, and that is the key to fat loss. At the same time there is also the idea that I can eat back all these calories if I’m on a diet.

So first, let’s get some things straight.

1. Exercise and calorie burn
Exercise burns less calories than we FEEL like it burns. Calvin is on to something. 😉 Sweat is a good thing, but sweat and calories are not equated, it’s not linear. Sweating more does not mean more burned calories.

Another important point is that the numbers you see on your device or on a search are estimates, based on an average height, bodyweight, and fitness level. The average person will burn 100-200 calories in one hour of exercise. It could be a little less or more, but on average it’s not a lot.

The purpose of exercise is not to burn calories, it’s for a host of health reasons. Exercise is important for overall health, muscle and bone health, cardiovascular health, etc, but burning calories is certainly not the biggest reason to exercise.

2. Exercise and food
There is also this idea that food and exercise are two sides of a balanced scale. I had a good workout so I deserve food. I ate too much so I have to exercise. This is untrue.

This things should never need to reward or punish each other. Exercise and nutrition are equally important for good health, but they have very different purposes. You need to use them differently depending on your goals.

Exercise is about 10% of your metabolism

3. Exercise and metabolism
There is another idea, which is that if you workout, that is going to make this massive difference in our overall calorie use. But exercise is about 10% of your metabolism, it’s not something that you should be doing thinking it will make the biggest difference. In this post I talk about all these parts of metabolism.

What we want to do is build muscle and increase our NEAT, move more. These things contribute to overall metabolism over time, and are great in the long run.

All this being said, exercise is IMPORTANT, it just burns less calories than we image. So let’s see, should we eat calories burned during workout?

There are a few things you should do:

Go from thinking of exercise as calories in a bank, something you can use, to thinking of exercise as improving your body, your mood, your health. Exercise not as a source of dessert calories, but as a source of health.

You don’t exercise to bank dessert calories, you exercise because it improves your health, how your cells work, your body composition, your longevity, etc.

Especially in the beginning, start with exercising to improve your muscle mass, to have muscle definition that will show when you lose the fat.

Let’s be honest though… it is HARD to shift this mindset. This is a process, it doesn’t happen overnight. If you’ve been wired for years or decades to think of exercise as a food bank, it’s hard to shift. That is the first shift to make, though.

The second thing to do is learn to ignore the apps, the watches, the lists on google, and even the numbers on the gym machines… ignore the calories burned.

Seriously, ignore all of them. These apps and lists are averages, they do not consider individual body composition, fitness level, type of exercise, cardiovascular health, bone density… ANY measurement of calories burned that isn’t done in a controlled setting is simply a range, it’s generic.

When you keep looking at exercise as a calorie bank, it takes away from the joy of exercising, it steals the joy from the non scale wins. Forget all the lists… they are only averages without considering important variables.

Work to separate exercise from what you can eat. This is not easy, but this is an important learning curve.

So should you eat back calories? No. Why?

1. Freedom
You have more freedom to eat without adding one more number to the mix. There’s enough to think about with nutrition and exercise without having to do another calculation.

2. Better results
You’ll have better results if you don’t consider these. The chances of eating more than you actually burned are 99%. Separate the calories burned from your nutrition focus. Exercise for health and body composition, and leave calories for the nutrition aspect, make all adjustments there. Once you exercise consistently that number stays the same, and making adjustments to nutrition is more precise.

So there you have it. The simplest, most effective way to have results with exercise is to simply not account for calories burned during exercise and make adjustments to calories in through nutrition.

Now go work out! 🙂