two dogs lying on black textile
An hour long run doesn't mean you can lounge on the couch and eat chips the rest of the day!! Photo by Greg Lippert

Saboteur Series part IV: The Sedentary Athlete

Have you experienced starting an intense workout program, diligently sweating and working your butt off every day, and then gotten on the scale and seeing the number stay the same, or even go up? The Sedentary Athlete and Compensatory Eating saboteurs may be to blame. They go together like a couch and potato chips !

As we saw in the post on NEAT, calories burned from traditional exercise compared to calories burn from staying active throughout the day show that the latter is more important for overall energy expenditure.

That leaves the question of the role of exercise. Exercise is clearly excellent for physical and mental health. Particularly for the corporate culture, it is a great source of stress relief. For some, like me, it’s medicine, a confidence booster, a way to connect with people. Besides its mental health benefits, exercise is also a part of many weight loss programs.

While exercise is a contributing factor to weight loss, a mistake that I have made is letting a rigorous exercise regime skew my judgement regarding the other important components of Calories in Calories Out (CICO), like my diet. In this article, I will outline the pitfalls of solely relying on exercise for weight control and how you can shift your focus to use exercise as a supplement, not a means to an end.

For more on calories in and calories out and how the CICO equation works, read my post on cardio here.

group of women doing yoga
An average barre/pilates class burns about 200 calories for 50 minutes.

The paradox of exercise

Studies have proven that exercise in and of itself does little for weight management. If you want to dig into all of these studies and their conclusions for exercise, you should read this article from Vox Magazine. The basic gist is that energy expenditure — or calories burned every day — includes not only movement but all the energy needed to run the thousands of functions that keep us alive. And that “Calories out” part of the equation is a variable that cannot be as controlled as we previously thought. The “calories in” is much more within our purview.

Take a moment, because this truth is hard to swallow: Intentional exercise is time consuming, hard on your body, and doesn’t burn as many calories as you think it does. It is, in the right amounts, great for your stress management, for muscle toning, and even fat loss, but most of us who are avidly into fitness have a propensity to think more is better and end up spending way too much time on exercise. And that’s not our fault – much of the advertising for high intensity workouts tout calorie burns of 700 calories per class – more than enough to cover a Big Mac – and some fries.

I was a prime example of this phenomenon. As my fitness journey progressed, I became an exercise machine. It wasn’t unusual for me to do a double SoulCycle class, walk 3-4 miles to and from work, and do another workout class after work. Coupled with working 12-14 hour days, that only left me time to do the two things and too exhausted to do much else. I would often cancel plans with friends, be a zombie needing naps all weekend, and even too tired to do something simple like go to the movies with my husband. Yet, the scale was going up. I cut carbs out of my diet and focused on getting a lot of protein and healthy fats – the scale went up even more.

breakfast menu
Bottomless brunch after bootcamp? Not so fast. Photo by Heather Ford

Compensatory eating

In looking back at my behavior patterns, the first pitfall is clear – I was overeating way beyond any calorie burn from the exercise. And this is obvious – exercise makes you HUNGRY. While some research indicates exercise can suppress appetite initially, it’s definitely mixed and not consistent, as this study explains. Even if you may not be hungry within the first half hour of finishing the workout, after consistently doing challenging workouts, the hunger hormones in your body go into overdrive. Doing double spin classes in the morning made me like one of those hungry hungry hippos. I would eat a big breakfast and then STILL be starving by 1030am. I reasoned that I needed to eat a snack, and then lunch, and then I would be starving again around 5pm and eat another snack. Then as I would prepare dinner, I would munch on olives, nuts, carrots and hummus, anything I could get my hands on, reasoning that this was healthy.

This is called “compensatory eating”. meaning a hedonistic desire to overeat or eat unhealthy food after exercise. This is driven by a primal urge to follow a healthy behavior with an unhealthy behavior – kind of like when you want to have a doughnut after going to the dentist. Compensatory eating mechanisms are driven both by our psychological response to hard work – we need a “reward,” something to comfort us and make us feel that it was all worth it. Unfortunately, that means you can undo a great workout in 5 minutes.

This is possible even if you don’t touch any processed food, are vegan, or eat no carbs. It is COMPLETELY possible to overeat healthy foods – which leads to the paradox of eating healthy, working out a lot, yet not seeing results, or being worse off, even!

We overestimate the number of calories we burn – and so do our Fitness trackers

How many times have you come across a workout app, DVD, or class that claims to burn 700, even 1000 calories an hour?

The issue with believing this is really the case for all workouts is that we vastly overestimate the number of calories burned, as this study quoted in my NEAT article shows. But did you know that the your FIt Bit or other fitness device can overesitmate the number of calories you burned by over 50 percent? And it has been long known that calories estimated on fitness machines are also vastly inaccurate.

Just because your Apple Watch says you burned 800 calories; it doesn’t mean that you can win at a zero-sum gain of being entitled to eat 700. Often these devices are not accurate, just as the ones on the workout machines that we have known for years can be unreliable. Also, exercise gurus majorly oversell the afterburn effect of weightlifting and HIIT training.

This goes hand in hand with compensatory eating. In one study, people overestimated calories burned during a treadmill session by as much as four times the actual amount and ate 2–3 times their caloric expenditure from that workout during a buffet meal.

woman in blue shirt using macbook air
One hour of working out plus this style of workout can be a sedentary athlete pattern that you want to avoid. Photo by Bermix Studio

The Sedentary Athlete

Another reason exercise alone can not only be insufficient but counterproductive – we are lulled into the belief that it gives us license to be inactive the rest of the day. There is the phenomenon of the “sedentary athlete” – which is a defined term for an avid exercise person who may be physically fit but is doing damage to their health and body weight by sitting and being inactive the rest of the day.Under this model, the sedentary athlete does not believe that there is a need to take the stairs, or stand more. The convenience of technology and outsourcing work makes this even more perverse – we can order our food to be delivered, have someone else clean our house, commute to work in our cars or through public transportation, and do most of our work by sitting at a desk.

What I have learned is that “fitness” is not only about what you do in the gym – it’s a lifestyle that includes what you do (or don’t do) in the other 14-17 hours you are awake, and even includes the quality of sleep – therefore it is really a 24/7 engagement. The time outside the workout is what really counts. The more I started to focus on that time, and being incrementally active, the less it felt like i was exercising for 2 hours then flopping in a seat or bed for the rest of the time.

Implications for your fitness regime

This doesn’t mean stop exercising, for sure. Exercise has many health benefits and is an important aspect of weight control. Exercise can also help weight maintenance when it’s used along with watching calorie intakeAwareness is the first step to being able to identify when you are eating for a reason other than hunger. Treat post-workout nutrition no differently than you would a balanced meal. I don’t eat differently on days I do exercise versus my rest days. This eliminates the sense of entitlement you may feel from exercise versus not exercising. You need food to fuel your activities throughout the day. Therefore, exercise only creates an issue of timing, not content. There are types of food combinations that are recommended for post-workout recovery, but these are all balanced, healthy meals and snacks, which you should be eating anyway. We will focus on both pre-and post workout nutrition in an upcoming article.

The inverse of the issue around overestimating calories expended is underestimating calories intake. I was shocked by how quickly I could eat my way through a workout by 10am. Facts are facts – you can run 10 miles a day, but you can never outrun a bad diet. That is why the focus should be on not just WHAT but HOW much we are eating.

My key trick to manage this

One key way I manage this is that I log my calories and food intake in the MyFitnessPal app (see my post on metrics for more about why this is important). The app gives you an option for the calories you burn from exercise to be part of the equation, but I do not use that function. Instead I use the TDEE calculator to estimate the number of calories I need based on my daily activity and stick with that as a baseline. This helps me focus more on my diet and not get a false sense of comfort or entitlement from exercise.

More: Why you shouldn’t use exercise to earn your food (My Fitnesspal)