This turned into another two part entry, as per usual. I really want to talk more about “counting calories burned during exercise” which is something I’ve already talked about a lot, but the more I think about it the more I wish I could stop people from doing it and adopt a better strategy. It has to be about the most counter productive idea in all of health and fitness.
First though, I have to clear up something important about calorie counting in the first place. That is, setting your nutritional targets required to achieve and maintain your goal weight with good health.
When we crunch numbers on your age, height, gender, current and goal weight to determine calorie targets, this is all theoretical. Lately I have been using the phrase “theoretical maintenance” when I explain the guidelines I am giving to an online coaching client because like any scientific formula these maths equations can predict a result (usually quite accurately) but we need to test the theory, monitor the results, and draw a logical conclusion from them.
We can’t just say “the maths says 1800 calories so that’s what you need, end of discussion”. There are any number of factors that can effect the calories to bodyweight ratio. Hormonal balance is a big one, as is over or under estimating activity levels. Personally for myself, I find that the Mifflin – St Joer equation is super accurate in predicting what body weight I’ll end up at if I follow a meal plan of a particular amount of calories. Accurate down to the last kilogram and in the vast majority of cases just as accurate for people who follow my recommendations as well.
Let’s say for some reason though, we’re not getting the expected result. Theoretical maintenance for our goal weight is 1800, but the scales aren’t moving.
What options do we have here? Assuming we’ve stuck to the plan for long enough that the body has had a chance to respond favourably, there’s not much point in sticking with 1800 because it’s “supposed to” be correct. It’s a lot like with people who refuse to count calories but insist “I’m getting about the right amount, I should be seeing results by now”; if it was the right amount it would be producing the right result.
So, options at this point? Most people would be thinking “more cardio” and probably “further reduce calories”, because if you’re not losing weight at 1800, 1800 must still be too much, right?
If you’ve paid any attention to any of my writing on this site, hopefully you’re starting to GET IT that it’s not all as simple as “eat less, lose weight” and “eat more, gain weight”. What we’re interested in here is achieving normal weight and an attractive body type as a reflection of good health and a positive relationship with exercise and food.
We’ve talked a lot about the faulty logic in trying to achieve this healthy body type through unhealthy means, and how this approach will always backfire due to survival mechanisms built into our biology.
The best analogy (and no apologies if I’ve used this one already, which I probably have) is to running a car on no oil. Not “no fuel” because your body will find a way to keep running on no fuel, but oil because that’s what keeps the engine running smoothly without so much wear and tear, right? So you might be telling me “eh, my car has been out of oil for months and it still gets me where I want to go. Therefore it doesn’t actually need oil”…. until one day the engine seizes up and you’re stuck. I don’t know so much about cars but I know that if this happens, it’s not just a matter of finally putting some oil in… it’s actually broken and needs to be repaired, and it won’t be cheap! Maybe you just write it off and get a new car instead. Too bad we can’t do that with our bodies when we destroy them through similar abuse though, right?
So back to our problem… we’re on an 1800 calorie plan which is the “theoretical maintanence” amount of calories for our goal weight, but we’re not seeing progress. We’ve just ruled out the options of either further reduction in calories, or increase in cardio to “burn more calories”. Logically there is only one option remaining, to increase calorie intake.
Eat more, do less. Lose Weight.
To this day I STILL struggle with the concept when I have to tell someone to cut BACK on exercise and eat MORE if they want to see better progress in achieving their goal weight. It does make sense though. Exercise is applying a level of stress to the body to encourage it to adapt and become healthier and stronger. If we do not fuel accordingly though, all we are doing is applying more and more stress without the opportunity for a favourable adaptation. Just like the car analogy above, not much that’s good can come of it.
So here’s the question we ask ourselves. If I am not losing weight at 1800 calories per day, could I increase to 1900 or 2000 calories without gaining weight? If you’re training consistently, I’ll bet the answer is yes.
Now, if we’re eating more and not gaining weight, what could that mean? It means that the body is utilising all of this fuel in daily activities, to adapt to training, and to regulate it’s hormonal and other systems. Remember, we only gain weight (especially from increased body fat) by consuming more that we can utilise. So, rather than blindly sticking with our “theoretical maintenance” level of calories that is not producing the expected result, we need to find our “actual maintenance” level by gradually increasing our intake to as much as possible without gaining weight.
At this actual maintenance level we are at last giving our body all of the nutritional resources that it requires to make the desired adaptation to training. This means better health and a hormonal environment suitable for reduced body fat and a lean and strong (call it “toned”, if you must) figure.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s entry where I expand on this subject and in particular I’ll explain why attempting to track calories burned in exercise is counter productive.