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Cutting Through The Hype On Calories Burned During Exercise

As I was skimming through my RSS feeds this morning I saw an article headline that literally made me laugh out loud. It read…”Burn 200 Calories in 2.5 Minutes!” Ok, really? Of course I couldn’t wait to see what research was being taken out of context here.

It ended up being new research from the University of Colorado that showed 2.5 minutes of intense exercise performed in 30 second intervals could burn an extra 200 calories by the end of the day.

This was measured in a metabolic chamber as resting expenditure “post workout” mind you, not the calories burned during the exercise itself. The idea that you could burn 200 calories during two and a half minutes of exercise is a pipe dream.

I’ve long been on record as a proponent of high intensity interval training, not as the holy grail of fat loss, but rather as an effective form of exercise to integrate into a fitness routine.

All this talk of calories burned during exercise and EPOC (calories burned following exercise) can be quite misleading to say the least.

More after the jump…

There are some individual’s out there promoting such and such workout being superior because it supposedly burns more calories.

Hate to burst their bubble, but the differences between steady-state cardio and interval training (in terms of calories burned during and after) isn’t all that great.

When someone pitches you on doing a particular form of exercise because you’re going to burn significantly more calories in a shorter period of time, they’re not telling you the whole story.

Basically marketing hype and a bunch of B.S.

This is a post that will probably ruffle a few feathers, but so be it, someone needs to speak the truth.

Are calories important?

Of course they’re important, but a lot of people get caught up in thinking caloric expenditure is everything when ranking exercise hierarchy.

Quite simply, there’s too much emphasis on calories with exercise.

Let me be blunt and give it to you straight…

Caloric manipulation with diet will have far greater influence on body composition change than ANY amount of exercise.

When you often hear me say that “you can’t out exercise a bad diet,” this is the gospel truth. Obviously, for most folks it’s going to be hard to offset cheeseburgers and fries with any amount of time in the gym.

But it goes deeper than that. Believing that you’re going to burn some astronomical amount of calories doing some grueling workout is for the most part nothing more than wishful thinking.

That is of course unless you’re a highly trained individual, and ironically this is the group that least benefits from high caloric expenditure because they’re likely already lean.

It’s the people who want to lose a significant amount of excess body fat that could benefit the most from high caloric expenditure, but they’re also the group least likely to get it through exercise.

Misleading fitness hype in marketing pitches, article headlines, and even company tag-lines is a real pet-peeve of mine. Feeding faulty and false belief systems is not how fitness professionals should be looking to educate and coach the masses.

I understand everyone’s looking to get an edge with their marketing, but let’s not use “broscience” as a means of promoting products and services. How about social proof on the effectiveness of your product or service and letting that speak for itself? But I digress.

Back to this whole issue of caloric expenditure with exercise.

I don’t want to turn this into a debate on which type of exercise is better for caloric expenditure. That’s an argument which can go in circles and really won’t get us anywhere. There may be slight differences, but it’s often over-hyped as there are too many other variables at play with body composition change.

Each form of exercise, be it high intensity interval training, steady-state cardio, resistance training, etc, all have their differences but each has a place at the table. They all serve a role in helping to influence body composition. No one form of exercise holds the single solution “magic bullet” to weight loss and body composition change.

Just know they each have their unique benefits and physiological impacts on the body. Trying to use fuzzy math and speculative research to elevate one form of exercise as “best” is a slippery slope.

The truth on exercise and caloric expenditure…

With what I’m about to share with you, you’ll be able to do the following after reading this post:

1. Disregard how many calories the treadmill or other piece of cardio equipment tells you that you’ve burned during your workout.

2. Avoid the temptation to overly stress about trying to figure out caloric expenditure with exercise. If you want to wear a Bodybugg or some gadget that tells you this, that’s fine, but know it’s not necessary.

3. See through marketing hype, “broscience,” and misleading claims on such and such workout producing an extremely high amount of calories burned.

A side note on my last point. There are some workout facilities that use “calorie hype” as I’ll call it, to promote their services. These may be great programs with top notch instructors and highly effective workouts. Then again they may not, my point is not to discredit what they do, but rather to discredit the assertion that’s being promoted.

Without naming names there is one such facility here in my local community of Charleston, SC that promotes 900 calorie workouts. In all fairness and full disclosure, I know very little about the program. But do I know enough about exercise science to challenge this assertion.

This is not a knock on their programs or business, let’s just address this calorie claim.

Let me explain and break it down for you in simple terms.

Research has clearly shown that an average untrained individual will burn approximately 5-10 calories per minute with moderate intensity exercise. Even achieving 10 cal/minute would be fairly challenging for a relatively untrained individual.

They may be able to hit upwards of 10-15 calories per minute with high intensity activities, but the duration of these activities would be low due to their limited work capacity. In short, they’d need rest intervals after completing really high intensity exercise.

Even highly trained individuals would have a really hard time sustaining activity in the 15 cal/minute range and up without rest.

Any way you want to do the math and regardless of the intensity we’re looking at around 300-600 calories burned over 60 minutes for most individuals. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but we’re not talking about 900 calories either.

For an individual to burn 900 calories in a sixty minute workout, they’d have to average 15 cal/minute throughout the workout! Good luck with that.

This is one of the reasons that the differences in caloric expenditure with high intensity interval training and steady-state cardio comes out in the wash. When you factor in the necessary rest intervals, it basically evens out.

This isn’t to say that higher intensity exercise doesn’t produce more caloric expenditure, it most certainly does. Hard work burns more calories. Well no duh.

My point in all of this is this…unless people are tremendously fit, it can be difficult to burn a large number of calories unless the duration of the workout is insanely long.

Even at a pretty good clip, working hard, the average person will burn between 5-10 calories/minute with cardiovascular based exercise. Resistance training doesn’t change the numbers all that much so let’s not go down that road.

So if you’re going to do a longer session of say sixty minutes, you might achieve 300-600 calories burned during the workout. Once again, this adds up if you’re doing it several times a week, but it’s still a fairly small expenditure when you consider what could be done with diet manipulation.

I think we have to look at things as well it terms of what amount of exercise is “realistic” for most individuals. Not everyone has the time to do 60 minute workouts 5-6 times per week. Then we have the whole issue of recovery, over-training, etc.

It’s not that sixty minutes of steady-state cardio done a few times a week wouldn’t be beneficial for body composition change. It most certainly would if the right diet was in place, resistance training was incorporated, and there was adequate recovery.

The bigger question becomes, is it necessary?

This is where I’d have to say no. From personal experience working with hundreds of clients I’ve seen the right diet, resistance training, and shorter duration cardio workouts be equally if not more effective.

Personally I like the MIX of shorter high intensity interval training and longer duration steady-state cardio routines. After all you couldn’t do high intensity interval training every day, the demands are simply too high.

But then again, I’m not focusing on caloric expenditure with exercise anyways. I don’t track caloric expenditure with workouts and have never seen the need to do so. There are far too many variables to make this an exact science anyways.

One person may burn more calories post workout than the next since they have a higher metabolic rate to begin with. Then how do the substrates consumed prior to and following the workout effect fat loss? These are all variables that make mere caloric expenditure associated with the workout somewhat of a moot point.

Higher intensity exercise like burst training and interval training produces certain hormonal responses that lower-intensity aerobic exercise does not.

Resistance training impacts body composition through it’s own unique set of benefits. We could go around and around, but invariably the best results are likely to be achieved when a combination of exercise modalities are used.

You may have experienced this first hand yourself. Hours upon hours of cardio that burned a ton of calories, but didn’t produce the weight loss you desired. Just doing interval or burst training, with their own set of benefits, won’t produce magical results either.

What does work? Following a clean diet and getting a combination of resistance and cardiovascular work.

Just don’t get too hung up on the calorie side of the equation with exercise.

Exercise is NOT and I’ll repeat NOT just about how many calories you burn during or after the workout.

It’s not about how much you sweat or how long you pushed yourself through vigorous activity.

As much as some personal trainers and fitness coaches will cringe to hear me say this, exercise is NOT the most important factor in body composition change. It’s DIET hands down.

Exercise plays a very important role in the fat loss equation, but it’s certainly not the piece some make it out to be. Most definitely when we’re solely looking at caloric expenditure.

I say this because many individuals when arriving at a weight loss plateau, will attempt to further increase exercise “duration” in attempts to see the scale go down.

The problem is the strategy often fails miserably for a host of physiological factors. Sometimes this works, especially with younger individuals, but the older you get the more likely you are to see the “extra cardio” strategy fail to produce favorable results.

It’s because burning more calories with exercise wasn’t the problem in the first place. They may need to incorporate vigorous strength training, perhaps switch up a few things with their cardio, make some adjustments with their diet, etc.

I just want you to see that it’s not all about the calories.

If that were the case, the best strategy would be to burn as many calories as possible for as long as possible with your workouts, and drastically restrict calories in your diet.

Can anyone say “starvation state?”

The human body gives up excess fat stores when it no longer sees a need to hold onto reserves and is provided with the right conditions to burn it off.

Trying to eat what you want, only to burn it off later with some mega calorie burning workout, will only be effective for the small percentage of people blessed with a really fast metabolism.

For the majority of folks this means, yes you’ll have to watch what you eat and exercise regularly.

Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

The next time you hear someone bragging about how many calories they burned during some class or whatever workout, ask them…and so what?

Is that a good thing, does it mean you’ll be a fat burning machine now, so exactly what happens next?

Ask someone who’s working their tail off lifting weights, doing sprints out at the track, etc, how many calories they’re burning and they’re probably going to give you a blank stare.

They don’t know and they don’t care. But if they’re pretty lean and muscular I’d say they must be doing something right.

Yeah, hard work is a non-negotiable if you want to get lean and defined. We can’t get around that fact.

But just know hard bodies were being made long before the invention of Bodybugg’s, heart rate monitors, and all the other gadgets.

Yeah, they’re cool and I guess they can have a beneficial role in some ways. Just don’t get lost in the numbers and miss the big picture.

Tis my two cents for what it’s worth.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides fitness consulting in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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Category: Fitness Training.