Calories burned during exercise | should you include them when you track food?

Whenever I start working with a new client whose primary goal is weight loss, I assign her the task of food tracking. Before I can suggest changes to her diet, I need to know what she’s currently eating.

calories burned during exercise

An exemplary client 😉

 

Most of my clients use online food tracking software, with MyFitnessPal being the most popular choice, by far. Because MFP also allows users to ‘earn’ extra calories via exercise, the question ‘Should I track the calories burned during exercise?’ inevitably arises.

The question is a good one because weight loss depends on creating a net caloric deficit; to lose weight, one must consume fewer calories than are expended during the day. (Typically, a 500 calorie a day calorie deficit will result in a one pound weekly weight loss).

In a perfect world, where accurate measures of caloric intake and expenditure are available to all, my answer would be;

Yes! Track your workouts with as much care as you track your food and adjust your daily net calorie intake in a way that’s sustainable, well above your basal metabolic rate and on track for a 1-2 pound per week weight loss.

Because we live in a world full of imprecise estimates and frequently invalid assumptions, however,  I typically recommend that newcomers to food tracking focus solely on the ‘calories consumed’ part of the equation (at least until we’ve obtained enough information to create a weight loss plan).

[If food tracking makes you crazy or you aren’t sure how to get started, click through to read last week’s post “Food Tracking Tips: Lose Weight Without Losing Your Sanity”]

Why? People have a tendency to underestimate the number of calories they consume (think that was really just a tablespoon of peanut butter? did you measure it? if not, I bet it was more…) and over-estimate the number of calories burned during exercise (especially if they use the estimates displayed on most cardio machines or reported in standard ‘calories burned during exercise’ tables).

Once food tracking is well-established (and perhaps only used periodically to ‘check-in’) and exercise has become a regular part of a client’s day, the question of whether to measure and incorporate calories burned during exercise into the daily energy plan becomes relevant for two reasons;

  • to ensure that she’s not eating fewer calories than required by her body for daily maintenance (known as ‘basal metabolic rate’ or BMR) and
  • to determine how many calories can actually be consumed while still losing weight.

The first is important because long-term under-eating tends to undermine weight loss via it’s lowering of the body’s rate of calorie burn. Eating below BMR teaches the body to conserve energy and be all-too-eager to store excess calories as fat (when one inevitably returns to a more ‘normal’ pattern of eating).

The second is important because cutting calories is challenging enough without feeling ‘hangry’. If exercise allows you to consume an extra 200 calories a day and still lose weight in a safe and sustained manner, why deprive yourself?

calories burned through exercise

Tell me that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way…

 

The challenge now? To actually figure out how many extra calories you can eat in a day, as a consequence of exercise.

Many users of online trackers simply use the options provided to them by the tool itself. For example, MyFitnessPal allows you to choose from a list of exercise activities (both strength and cardiovascular), indicate how long you performed the activity and provide details about reps, sets and loads (for strength workouts) before giving you an estimate of calories burned during exercise.

tracking calories burned during exercise

Just a few of the options MyFitnessPal provides for tracking your workouts

 

There are several difficulties with this approach:

  • estimates are just estimates and may not apply to you. Online calorie trackers typically  consider only your weight and the duration of an activity to generate an estimate of caloric expenditure. This estimate is based on the average number of calories burned by thousands of other similar-weight people performing the same activity for the same duration. Without knowing the error of the estimate (a statistical term that should be provided for all averages…), you can’t know how wildly your actual calorie expenditure might differ from the published value.
  • Exercise intensity is rarely considered  and when it is, it’s measured subjectively. Most of the activities included have generic, intensity-free labels; ‘Running’, ‘Yoga’, ‘Spinning’ (and my personal favourite, ‘Wii Bowling’). When intensity-modifiers are included, it’s up to the user to decide whether their activity was ‘moderate’ or ‘vigorous’. As a Bootcamp instructor, I know that one person’s ‘vigorous’ is another person’s ‘light’ (especially when it comes to Burpees and Box jumps…). And I bet that my definition of ‘light housekeeping’ is substantially ‘lighter’ than yours 😉
  • calories burned during strength training depend on more than just sets, reps and load. Depending on the amount of rest time between sets, the tempo of the lifts and whether the workout has triggered an ‘afterburn’ effect (that is, whether they’ll continue to burn calories at a rate higher than usual for the remainder of the day), strength training can be more or less energetically costly than indicated by published tables and online calculators.

Rather than have my clients (inaccurately) estimate the number of calories they burn during each and every workout (and potentially undermine their weight loss goals), I prefer to individually tailor their daily recommended calorie intake to their weekly workout frequency and intensity.

I do this by;

1. calculating BMR (you can calculate your own here >> MyFitnessPal’s BMR calculator; MFP uses the Mifflin-St. Jeor equations to estimate BMR which is believed to be more accurate than the more commonly used Harris-Benedict equation)

2. calculating daily caloric needs based on weekly workout frequency and intensity (you can calculate your own here >> ACE’s Daily Caloric Requirement calculator. I typically generate two values for this number; one using the client’s reported weekly workout frequency and intensity and the second using the multiplier for a slightly less intense workout week, just in case 😉  ).

3. comparing both numbers and choosing a value somewhere between the client’s BMR and Daily Caloric requirement that’s in line with their weight loss goals. I have my client enter this number in MFP (or whatever tracker they’re using), over-riding the program’s calculated daily calorie goal (not sure how to do this? see the imbedded video at the bottom of the post for a quick tutorial). We then work towards this target for a few weeks, paying attention to energy levels, feelings of hunger and satiety, quality of sleep and measurable weight loss. If need be, we alter it by 100 calories or so and repeat.

While this approach isn’t error-free, it fits nicely with my general approach to fitness and nutrition;

Figure out the smallest possible change you can make and still see results.

Not to mention all the time it’ll free up by saving you from having to enter your daily workouts in your food tracking software!

Do you account for calories burned during exercise in your food tracker?

Do you find that knowing how many calories you burned during exercise tempts you to ‘eat back your calories plus more’?

Not sure how to change your daily goals in MyFitnessPal? Watch the short clip below (and note that I’ve also indicated a way to change macronutrients too), then ‘Subscribe’ to my YouTube channel to stay up-to-date on my video offerings!

Looking for an inexpensive way to jump-start your journey to fitness and health? Join my online Bootcamp today! Get more info by clicking the image below.

Looking for an inexpensive way to jump-start your journey to fitness and health? Join my online Bootcamp today! Get more info by clicking the image below.

Comments

  1. Hello There!

    I saw where you said you use my fitness pal to track the calories you’ve burned, I’ve had this app for a little over a year now and i’ve noticed that it only tracks the calories i’ve burned if it was some type of cardio never when I do squats or deadlifts. Do you have this problem? If not please tell me what you do! Ha it’s so frustrating.

    Nicholette

    • Nicholette,

      As I mentioned in today’s post, is nearly impossible for a fitness tracker to give you an estimate of calories burned during strength training. While MFP does actually have options for inputting a variety of strength exercises (when you click on ‘exercise’ you’ll see two choices; strength and cardio), I wouldn’t rely on them, especially if your goal is weight loss. Read the post again and you’ll see my answer to your question 🙂

  2. Since I’m happy with my weight I don’t count calories burned (at least past what my fitness tracker estimates). I also don’t count calories when eating (actually my diet is not the best, but it’s not the number of calories that is the issue!)

    I think focusing on making healthy choices and being “fit” (strong muscles, good CV system, flexible and agile) is far more important than being “slim”. Don’t worry about your weight (as long as you’re not very overweight/obese or significantly underweight). Just be fit and healthy!

    Personally, I’m concentrating on making sure my fitness habits are regular for at least 6 months, then I’ll focus on making healthier choices in my diet. I don’t want to try to change too much at once.

    • Sounds like you’ve found what works for you Ish. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. But I will add that you’ll see better results with your exercise habit if you also make some small changes to nutrition!

  3. Calorie counting and burning and all that… Is just such a headache for me that I could never count anything. Life is a headache enough, I don’t need to make it a migraine! LOL!
    GiGi Eats recently posted…Once Upon A Time… I Had A Large Intestine: Part 3My Profile

    • If it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it! That’s what I like to tell my clients. The key is figuring out what your need to do to get the results you want. For many, that includes figuring out what they’re eating 🙂

  4. Love your quote about finding the change that is smallest to still get results. Did you create that? I had not heard it so succinctly before. Kind of matches nicely to our quote to get started with exercise by finding the least one can do.
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…Bunny-Shaped Dinner Rolls RecipeMy Profile

    • Thanks! The quote is based on something I read somewhere. Not really a ‘quote’ per se, but a way of looking at things based on the habit formation research I’ve been doing!

  5. I am so glad to have found this website…maybe my question is answered somewhere and i’ve overlooked it…there seem to be alot of “watches” and metabolic/calorie counters out there to purchase and wear to track different things…have you found any of them to be useful? any one in particular f you mind sharing?

    • Wendy, there are waaaay too many for one person to have tried them all and compared! LOL!
      I’ve only tried three; the Fitbit Charge, the LifeTrak pedometer and the Samsung GearFit. If you search this site (see the ‘Looking for something’ box in the right sidebar), you can find the three posts I wrote about each of these models. I like each of them for different reasons. I really think it depends on how you’ll be using it. If you’re just interested in counting steps, I’d forego the fancy models and buy a plain, old-fashioned pedometer.

  6. Great post. I’ve always wondered that. Having a science background it always made sense to me to include all aspects. But doing so really takes up a lot of effort and time.
    Marge recently posted…6 Eye Opening Benefits of Waking Up EarlyMy Profile

  7. Valerie says:

    I’ve never eaten back my calories, mainly for exactly the reasons you discuss. There’s so much margin for error with the trackers, and I guess I’ve always figured the bigger the deficit, the better. Given your points about eating too little, however, it’s something I definitely need to consider.