You can’t “burn off” your bad calories at the gym!

by Christine on October 28th, 2010

filed under Christine's Life Updates, Diet, Food, Nutrition

October 2010

Happy Thursday, Revolutionists!

This morning I was reading Patrick’s blog like I always do in the mornings, and his latest post made me realize something that has bothered me for quite some time…something that many bloggers do that irks me to no end. It bothers me because I used to think just like them….and I just got fatter and fatter. I learned something REALLY IMPORTANT, and its knowledge has helped me to lose almost 100 pounds.

This is important, you guys. Listen up.

Today Patrick talked about burning off food through exercise. He said that when he works out, he likes to envision burning off four heads of lettuce, or a piece of birthday cake.  While I understand that Patrick’s “trick” for working out motivates him to work out–and that’s a good thing!–I also think that this mindset that you can “burn off the food you eat” is very detrimental. Here’s why:

Exercise doesn’t help you lose weight. That’s right. Losing weight is 80% about your food intake and has very very little to do with exercise. I know, you think “it’s all about the calories….calories in vs. calories burned, right?”  WRONG.  Weight loss just doesn’t work like that.  For starters, your body needs a certain amount of calories just to exist (google “BMR and RMR calculators” sometime and do some research). And while you might not want that piece of birthday cake or Halloween candy to go directly to your hips, your body is going to use those calories to fuel its basic needs.  Whether you want your body to use those calories or not. You can’t decide: “Oh, I’ll keep the calories from the vegetables I ate at dinner to fuel my body, but I’m going to exercise away those rotten calories I consumed from that brownie.”  Your body doesn’t work like that. A calorie is a calorie, regardless of where it came from.  Furthermore, the more you exercise and the more weight you lose, the more efficient your body becomes at burning calories. So although your treadmill says you burned 350 calories (yay, you just burned off that Cesar salad, right?!) your body is probably more efficient than that and actually only burned off 100 calories or so.  Don’t any of you work with avid exercisers and marathon runners? Don’t you ever wonder how they can eat a relatively normal amount of calories, but run 10 miles a day, and maintain a healthy weight? If weight loss–and exercise–were truly about “calories in versus calories out” then shouldn’t those marathon runners weigh approximately 30 pounds?  Weight loss doesn’t work like that because exercise has relatively little to do with weight loss, especially the closer to your goal weight that you get.  So stop thinking that you can “exercise away” those bad calories because it just doesn’t work like that, people. Really.  If you don’t believe me, go ahead and read this Times Magazine article “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” and read this New York Times article “Why doesn’t exercise make you thin.”

The calories on those cardio machines lie. As I said above, your body becomes more efficient the thinner you get and the more you work out. If you are a regular exerciser, you are not burning the calories that those cardio machines say that you are. Check out this article and this article for more information.  Your true calorie output depends on your age, weight, cardiovascular health, genetics, etc.

The idea that you ate badly and need to “punish” yourself by burning calories creates a defeatist attitude. You ate a brownie, and therefore you must “punish” yourself by burning it off at the gym. That mindset can easily lead to how weak-willed you were for eating badly in the first place, how you’re not worthy, how you’ll never lose weight, how much of a failure you are. Oh, I’ve been there, plenty of times; I’ve been through that negative cycle a bajillion times. If you’re a failure at dieting, then why not have a THIRD brownie? A fifth?  What’s the point of all this anyway? You screwed up today…you’ll start the diet over again tomorrow. Today just can’t be salvaged anyway. And so goes the cycle of defeatism, and that’s saying nothing about the resentment you’re going to feel that you’re spending hours a day punishing yourself for your weak-will instead of using that same time enjoying life, going out with friends, dressing up and feeling GOOD about yourself.  This idea of “burning off calories” through exercise is a very dangerous one, especially if you’re like me and have a tendency to beat yourself up over slip-ups.

So you ate a brownie. SO THE FUCK WHAT? Seriously. So what? It was one brownie. Let’s put this in perspective people. 150 calories. That means you’re going to cut out the cream in your coffee tomorrow, you’ll skip the rice in your stir-fry and have an extra serving of veggies instead. Whammo, there you go, crisis averted. Who the hell cares if you ate a brownie? Unless you’re making brownies a regular appearance in your daily diet (which leads to all kinds of vitamin and nutritional deficiencies, sugar addiction, snack cravings, etc) then really, a brownie shouldn’t freak you out and make you go running for the gym to burn it off. Seriously, you’re going to punish yourself for what’s the equivalent of a little extra rice at dinnertime? A brownie-crisis isn’t anything you can overcome by cutting back on a calorie or two here and there throughout the rest of the week.

Honestly, most of you fellow bloggers eat pretty well. You have already done the math and know what calorie amounts you should be eating every day. You know the difference between healthy food and shitty food. Most of you don’t go on all-out binges and consume 5,000 calories in a day. Most of you are pretty moderate, rational, even-keeled eaters. But many of you FREAK THE HELL OUT because you ate one Halloween candy. Or one brownie. Or a slice of pie (GASP).  Seriously, you’re beating yourself up over such small indiscretions?  Really? Stop punishing yourself. Be smart about your food choices, compensate for your indiscretions by eating a little less for the rest of the week, and stop beating yourself up by punishing yourself at the gym.

One of my favorite bloggers is Sean from Daily Diary of  a Winning Loser.  You probably read his blog too (and if you don’t, you should).  If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice something. Sean doesn’t always eat perfectly. In fact, his most recent post was talking about indulging in one of his favorite foods: fried mushrooms. He didn’t run off to the gym immediately after eating this meal to try to burn off those mushroom-calories. No, he made the calories work within his budget. He ENJOYED THE MUSHROOMS. He didn’t beat himself up. He wasn’t defeatest about it. He didn’t allow those mushrooms to derail him from his weight-loss goals. He didn’t put his dieting on hold for the rest of the day and “start again tomorrow.” He didn’t apologize for the meal. He didn’t say, “oh god, my bad. I’ll do better tomorrow.” He OWNED that meal. He ENJOYED that meal. He made that meal fit within his calorie budget. And THAT, folks, is why Sean has lost hundreds of pounds, is so successful, and is able to keep the weight off.

I could go on and on about this, but really, I think this is a very dangerous mindset to have, this idea of “burning off” your bad calories. It annoys me to read bloggers that continue to think that they can/should burn off “bad calories” by exercising them off.  Now, I’m not saying that all exercise is bad. I think it’s important for cardiovascular health, for mental health, it’s a great coping mechanism, it releases endorphins and chemicals that benefit your body in a milliard of ways, it helps protect against depression, etc etc.  Everyone should exercise! But thinking that you can eat poorly and do some extra exercise to make up for it will absolutely not help you in achieving your weight-loss goals.

If you want to lose weight, you need to make the change in your food intake. Period. End of story. I’m not talking about a “diet” that one day you’ll stop following. I’m talking about a change in the foods you eat FOREVER.

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