Here is a little background on my last six months of run training as this will preface my thoughts on calorie burn in general. In March I began running four miles a week. I did two miles on one day and a few days later I ran another two miles. Every other week I added one total mile to my week. So, by the beginning of May I was running about 8-9 miles per week. With this increase in ACTIVITY (I was taking more steps on my run days and had more of an elevated heart rate) I actually lost weight. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but I dropped about five pounds on the scale. I was slightly surprised, but then had to remember what I talk about with my clients on a daily basis.
Weight loss is a simple calculation AT FIRST. If you burn more calories than you take in (via food and drinks) you will lose weight. It is science. It works 99% of the time. This is that MOVE MORE, EAT LESS mindset that we all know works so well.
I was burning more calories and not making up for it by eating more food. I basically kept my nutrition the same for the first two months of my running. This increase in calorie burn each week and no change to my calorie intake lead to five pounds of scale weight drop. Cool. Well now a days what is really neat is we can see an estimated calorie burn on our watches. Even though these are always overestimated by 25-50% (meaning if it says you burn 100 calories you probably only burned 50-75 calories) it is cool to monitor as a general baseline. But, does this really matter for your LONG TERM success sustaining weight loss, muscle and your level of leanness?
In the short term, I think yes. Being able to match your calorie intake to your activity level on a day to day basis is a very important skill and habit to get down. This doesn’t mean you need to eat back exactly the 374 calories you burned in your workout, but on days you are more active and burn more calories you can eat more than days of only 3000 steps and minimal calorie burn.
Let’s re visit “me” now 🙂
After increasing my mileage the first three months of running I leveled off my weekly mileage around 12-14 miles per week in June. Guess what happened to my scale weight in June and July? Yup, you guessed it. I gained the 5lbs back. This was neither good nor bad, but interesting. My body adapted to the new INCREASED activity level I was throwing at it and since I didn’t change my calorie intake much, my weight responded by going back up to my “normal” set point. I have been sitting around the same scale weight for a few years now naturally and my body wants to continue to be there unless I make drastic changes to my activity level (like more running) or calorie intake. Even though was I more active in June and July than I was in March and April the 12-14 miles a week was not NEW to my body anymore. Running is not a new stimulus for my body anymore so in order to see more my scale weight go down again I need to burn more calories by running more miles. In August I felt ready to increase my mileage and I am now sitting around 20-24 miles a week. Guess what happened to my weight when I jumped up a few miles a week? Yup, I lost the five pounds again.
But, there is a problem here. I am having trouble fitting in all my runs with my work schedule picking back up heading into fall. This means I can’t simply keep adding miles week after week after week, nor do I want to as I am not running for weight loss. This brings me back to the question of, “how much does calorie burn matter.”
In the long term, it matters but not as much as you want it too. Ya see, your body adapts and at adapts fast. Your body adapts to activity level faster than it adapts to gaining muscle and caloric intake. In my blog last week I said that I see most of my clients increase activity level and eat less food in their first three to four months with me. This is what I want! It works! But, in the end gaining muscle and tracking your caloric intake (food and drinks) is everything for sustainable weight (fat) loss. In the long run, the workout you do today that you burned 500 calories at a year ago, you might only burn 350 calories today at. Your body adapts and gets efficient at things it knows how to do better. But, your body doesn’t adapt (as well) to the calories you take in. Tracking your food intake is much more efficient and accurate than tracking calorie burn. This is a concept I have found is hard to grasp but nevertheless must be talked about. So, when you THINK you are burning 500 calories but only burn 350 calories what do you do? Well, you eat back 500 calories and expect to maintain the weight you have lost over the past year. Unfortunately this does not happen though. Instead you eat back the 500 calories you THINK you are burning and over a period of the next 6 months you gain back your weight. Does this sound familiar?
This weight gain is not entirely your fault. You have been duped to believe you are burning more than what you are burning. These activity trackers aren’t sophisticated enough to know that you have been doing the same workout for months or years and your body has adapted. The metabolism is a tricky and complex thing. This is why “move more, eat less” only works for so long…like a few months.
Back to “me” 🙂
I will be leveling out my mileage here this month and I bet I gain the 5lbs back as my body adapts once again. This could be very frustrating for me IF I was doing cardio for weight loss…but I’m not. I am running for a PERFORMANCE goal. The weight loss that happens with cardio is only short term. I understand this so this is not frustrating for me as I gain the weight back. But, why I am leveling out my mileage? For one, I am only training for 5ks and don’t need to running more than 25-30 miles per week. And for two (which is more important) I am simply running out of TIME. This is an issue if you are using cardio as your main focus for weight loss. Eventually the biggest limiting factor for cardio as a mode of weight loss for busy adults (you and me) is TIME. What happens when you can’t add more TIME to your cardio or you have to take some time away? Well, you probably guessed it by now. You gain the weight back you lost via cardio. This is why cardio is only a SHORT TERM weight loss mechanism.
This brings me to my last point. Even though your activity tracker might say you burned 500 calories in your workout, if you have not spent time strength training and gaining muscle your ability to sustain weight loss is very slim. Having more muscle and learning proper portions is EVERYTHING. It allows you to have a nutritional buffer…meaning you can have some more nutritional freedom while not losing all your hard earned progress. If all you do is try to burn more calories in your workout you will eventually run out steam or run out of time as your body adapts to its activity level and becomes more efficient. Think of cardio as your checking account. It can get you by in the short term with expenses and paying the bills. But, strength training, gaining muscle and learning proper portions is your long term investment so you can retire (sustain results) happy and stress free 🙂
In the end, I think it is really cool to watch my calorie burn, but I am not obsessed it and by no means do I try to burn more and more and more. I only have so much time on my hands. My long term goal is to sustain muscle mass and monitor my calories (sometimes strictly, sometimes loosely) as that allows me the most nutritional freedom AKA a few more beers or pizzas without losing results 🙂