JUST FOR THE HEALTH OF IT: Set your sights on the long-term

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First Posted: 2/11/2014

You probably know people who focus on how many calories they burn during an exercise session. If they work out on a machine, they’re glued to the calorie gauge to see where they stand and won’t stop until they’ve reached their “calorie goal.” They may even try to burn a certain number of calories to compensate for a cookie they ate so they can splurge without guilt on something high in calories after they finish. Unfortunately, that kind of focus rarely delivers results, especially if you’re trying to change your body composition.

The calories you burn during exercise are typically not enough to cause significant weight loss unless you’re training for hours every day. In fact, many people compensate after exercising by overeating because they feel it’s justified because they worked out.

A 15-minute, high-intensity workout burns fewer calories while you’re doing it than an hour jogging on a treadmill, but high-intensity exercise increases insulin sensitivity more, based on several studies. Improving insulin sensitivity works in your favor for the long-term. Again, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. How is your workout going to impact your long-term ability to avoid weight gain?

Unless you’re a professional athlete or training for the Olympics, you probably don’t spend several hours working out. You’re only exercising a small part of your day. For most people, exercise accounts for less than a third of their total daily energy expenditure. What’s more important is how many calories you burn when you’re NOT exercising: when you’re sitting at your desk, relaxing and sleeping. After all, you spend more time doing that than you do working out.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on exercise that increases your resting energy expenditure? That would include resistance training to build lean muscle mass. When you have more lean body mass, you have a higher resting metabolic rate. That’s one reason men are less prone towards weight gain than women. Resistance training may burn fewer calories while you’re actively doing it, but what about the long-term benefits of having more muscle so you burn more calories at rest? Sounds like a worthwhile tradeoff, doesn’t it?

The bottom line:

Focus less on the number of calories you’re burning DURING exercise and more on the long-term benefits of resistance training and high-intensity exercise. Then think about the effects they’ll have on your resting metabolic rate and total energy expenditure. You’ll also enjoy it more when you aren’t so focused on a number that isn’t all that important in the big scheme of things.


• Med Sci Sports Exerc. 43(10): 1849–56.

• International Journal of Obesity 32 (4): 684–91.

• Metabolism. Volume 43, Issue 7, July 1994, Pages 814–818.

-Tim Hlivia is the owner of Leverage Fitness Studio in Forty Fort.