Exercise Doesn’t Burn That Many Calories: Here’s the Health Benefits It Does Provide

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Experts say you should focus on the overall physical and mental health benefits of exercise. Oscar Gutierrez Zozulia/Getty Images
  • Many people make weight loss one of their New Year’s resolutions.
  • Experts caution that exercise alone is not an effective way to shed pounds.
  • They say that’s because working out may not burn as many calories as people think.
  • In addition, people sometimes eat more after exercising because they overestimate how many calories they have burned.
  • Experts say you should do an exercise you enjoy and make weight loss a side benefit.

When it comes to burning calories, the math isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

This is especially important when trying to lose weight, as so many people resolve to do this time of year.

Experts say there’s plenty of research that shows merely burning calories doesn’t necessarily equate to good health, and all that extra exercise may not burn as many calories as we think.

“Workouts and exercises are considered important in burning calories for weight loss purposes. However, recent studies have pinpointed the less significance of exercises in weight reduction,” Nataly Komova, a registered dietitian and fitness expert for JustCBD, told Healthline.

“Workouts are important in keeping the body fit and maintaining healthy well-being. Exercises burn small amounts of overall body calories.”

Komova noted that the human body is an organic machine that needs fuel to replace what it’s burning. What’s important is what type of fuel and what you do after a workout.

“The more you work out, the more likely you will eat after a workout session,” Komova said. “Increased eating replaces the burnt calories and delays weight reduction. The body uses compensatory behaviors to alter the calories burnt. For instance, some people may opt to rest or go for the elevator to curb energy use. These activities impact your non-gym physical activities, slowing down the weight loss process.”

“Healthy diet, supplying all the nutrition elements but limited in calories intake precisely worked out with a dietitian, planned for longer time, would bring good results when weight loss is considered,” she explained.

How to exercise

The value of exercise goes far beyond just weight loss.

It makes for a longer, healthier life, benefitting everything from brain function to lessening stress to building healthier hearts and fighting off disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even small and moderate amounts of daily exercise has benefits.

“Moderate activity, such as taking a brisk walk, may only burn 350 to 450 calories per hour. But after exercise, your body needs oxygen for recovery. This phenomenon is referred to as post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC,” Rami Hashish, PhD, DPT, the founder of the National Biomechanics Institute in Los Angeles, told Healthline.  

“Your focus shouldn’t just be on how many calories you’re burning during exercise but also after exercise. This at least partially explains the recent increase in popularity of HIIT (high intensity interval) training, which results in greater EPOC than more steady-state vigorous activities, like long distance running or swimming,” he explained.

Hashish said it’s important to remember muscle burns more calories than fat, especially when we rest.

“So, to maximize EPOC, implementing resistance training is crucial, as it helps to develop lean muscle mass and muscle size, and improve muscle quality,” Hashish said.

“Generally, the CDC recommends that people should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week, along with resistance training for all major muscle groups at least twice per week. But while these are more general guidelines, the amount of exercise required to burn calories largely comes down to diet and how many calories you burn at rest.”

Calorie counting cautions

Hashish said to be wary of devices purporting to tell you how many calories you’re burning.

Erin Mahoney, a certified personal trainer and founder of EMAC Certifications, agrees.

“Studies show caloric burn estimations from smartwatches can be erroneous by sometimes 30 percent,” Mahoney told Healthline. “Accuracy may differ from one device to the next. One might conclude that if you’re trying to lose weight, then, you should only buy the most accurate calorie tracker. This can be problematic, however, because it perpetuates the notion that one can ‘out exercise’ a bad diet.”

Mahoney said research shows that people motivated to have better overall health, rather than just weight loss, actually lose more weight.

“This is why most food logging apps won’t give the user the full active calories they burn back into their daily calorie balance,” Mahoney said. “Instead, they’ll offer up about 50 percent of how many calories the client actually burned. This helps to avoid problematic behaviors and accounts for inaccuracies in calorie tracking.”

Reda Elmardi, a certified nutritionist, trainer, and editor at thegymgoat.com, told Healthline that “exercise can even sabotage weight reduction in unobtrusive ways.”

“Working out, obviously, has a method of making us hungry — so ravenous that we may burn through a larger number of calories than we consumed,” Elmardi said.

He noted that people can increase their food consumption after working out, either on the grounds that they thought they had burned off a ton of calories or in light of the fact that they were hungrier.

Some tips for weight loss

Mahoney offered tips for effective, healthy weight loss, including:

  • Focus on the health benefits derived from exercise (such as improved energy, cardiorespiratory endurance, recovery, strength, etc.) rather than caloric burn. This drives intrinsic motivation (enjoyment for the sake of doing something) and helps with the development of longer term habits and consistency.
  • Set goals. Learning how to do a bodyweight pushup, pullup, or pistol squat are all types of skills an individual can learn that may result in greater motivation levels.
  • Do exercises you enjoy rather than focusing on higher caloric burn. Since consistency is more important, opt for workouts you enjoy, such as yoga, walks, hikes, or dance classes, to name a few.
  • Give yourself goals that make sticking to healthier eating and exercise a habit rather than the diet or exercise itself. If your goal is to meal prep once per week to lose weight, make the meal prep the goal and the weight loss the side benefit.

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