Why You Can’t “Work Off” Your Calories in the Gym

Have you ever eaten too many treats over the weekend and felt like you NEEDED to go to the gym to burn off the extra calories? Going to the gym becomes some form of penance and the cycle is vicious. There’s a constant negative feedback loop of feeling restricted and defeated, eating treats to help with those feelings, going to the gym to try and reverse the damage done, and after all that, you feel like you are treading water and not seeing results.

The truth is that it’s almost impossible to work off all the calories you ate because of the time it takes to actually burn the calories. We can eat a couple of hundred extra calories in seconds, and it could take a couple of hours to burn that same amount of calories by movement. When we look at our fitness trackers on our wrists or on cardio machines at the gym, those calories burned aren’t very accurate; the amount of calories burned depends on our body weight and our exercise intensity level. 

Instead of viewing exercise as the way to lose weight, we want to shift our focus to what is the heavy hitter in achieving results: our nutrition. Have you heard the phrase “body composition is 80% nutrition and 20% exercise”? Well, it’s true. I used to think I was immune to this concept. I was convinced I worked out hard enough and consistent enough that I could eat whatever I wanted. I chalked up the lack of results to “well, this is just the way my body is.” Sheesh, I needed a coach to slap me upside the head and say “you’re not that special little girl, this is the case for everyone.” It wasn’t until several years later when I had a severe case of mono and lost quite a few pounds that it finally clicked in my brain–my mindset around nutrition was the missing link. 

I tell my clients that if they want to change their body composition, their mindset needs to shift to “I go to the gym to train–to get stronger, faster, and fitter. I support my training with how and what I eat.” It is so much more effective to mindfully eat and be in a little bit of a deficit (eating fewer calories than you are burning) than to eat at maintenance or a surplus and try to work off the calories later. Don’t get me wrong, movement is very important. How much you move throughout the day (walking, fidgeting, etc) plays a huge factor in how many calories someone burns each day. But that’s different from intentional exercise. I talk to many people who think they can sit at a desk all day, eat what they want, workout for an hour and expect to see results because they do CrossFit (or another form of high-intensity exercise). I get it–I used to be one of them. But do these people see the results they really want? Not usually.

So how do we start making changes to see long-lasting results? I’ll give you three habits to start implementing. 

1. Eat slowly, mindfully, and to 80% full
This is focusing on WHY you are eating. Is it because you are hungry, bored, sad, excited, lonely, or just eating because the food is in front of you? Practice paying attention to how you are feeling before, during, and after you eat. How hungry are you? How are you feeling halfway through your meal? How do you feel when you are finished? Are you chewing your food thoroughly (25-30x per bite) or are you scarfing your food down by the handful? Eating to 80% full means that you are satisfied–you could still eat more and aren’t completely full, but you aren’t hungry anymore. Eating to satisfaction usually puts you in a natural slight deficit and is very effective for someone wanting to lose weight.

2. Eat whole foods–and protein. 

Eating 2000 calories of processed food and 2000 calories of whole foods are not the same thing–they will yield very different results. Why? Because when eating processed foods, much of the work has been done for the body and it doesn’t have to put forth much effort to absorb the calories. Whole foods on the other hand take more work to process and your body burns many more calories just by digesting the foods. Protein is the biggest contributor to this–digestion alone can burn up to 20% of the calories eaten. Protein is also important in maintaining muscle mass when in a deficit, and the more muscle mass you have, the more calories your body burns at rest. Unfortunately, when people cut calories they tend to cut out a lot of their protein intake, which bites them in the butt, so make sure to get a source of protein at each meal and snack. 

3. Look forward to non-food rewards

Have you ever justified eating a treat or a big meal because “I work hard, I deserve it, it’s the weekend, it’s a special event, it’s vacation, it’s my favorite, it’s been a tough week, I’m feeling sad, well my spouse wanted it, etc” I totally used to do this, and I would erase most if not all my hard work from the week? This last habit is not to say that you can’t eat treats, but we want to look at the motivation behind eating the treats. Too often, many of us want to reward ourselves with food and it becomes emotional eating. Instead, what if we celebrated an accomplishment by getting or doing something we love, like getting a new pair of shoes or doing an experience we’ve been eying? What if instead of eating when we feel stressed or sad, we journaled, went on a walk, or called a friend to process? Food can certainly play a role in creating special memories and celebrations, but if it’s the thing we turn to in nearly every situation, we can usually plan to keep treading water.

If you haven’t already, take some time to evaluate your mindset when it comes to your nutrition. Where do you want to start making a simple change? Maybe it’s taking notice when you start eating something and paying attention to how you feel, and what your thoughts are. Maybe it’s going for a walk during your lunch break to get extra movement in. Maybe you ask a friend if you can call them when you need to process. Or maybe it’s buying some more protein and vegetables when you are grocery shopping so you have good food options for the week on hand. Whatever it is, pick one thing and work on being consistent with it. And hopefully, soon, training becomes mostly about doing something you enjoy and what you eat becomes about making your body feel amazing.