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Exercise Is More Than Just Calories Out

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Managemenet

Every day, people get themselves revved up for a new exercise session, chasing after some calorie goal. 500 calories? 800 calories? Maybe even 1000 calories in an hour? Somewhere along the line, the goal of burning a certain number of calories can overshadow the importance of proper form, a well thought-out exercise plan, or the need to balance exercise with other things going on in their lives.

Exercise does a lot more for us than increase the calories we burn each day. Rather than reiterating many of the benefits of exercise most people already know about, the intention of this article is to help you look at exercise from a different perspective, understand why a variety of exercise is important, and help you understand why exercise is more than just calorie burn.

Physical activity (green box below) calories include what we do during our normal daily routine – school, job, work around the house, etc. It also includes exercise. When we focus too much on the calorie balance equation, we tend to look at exercise simply as a way to increase the “calories out” side of the equation in hopes it can help us lose weight faster, or make it easier to maintain our weight.


The danger of looking at exercise as extra burned calories

Time and again, exercise has been suggested as a means to augment a weight management program and help keep the weight off once someone has lost it. A meta-analyses in Obesity Reviews showed people following a healthy nutrition plan plus exercising had significantly more long-term success with managing weight.[i] However, in August 2009, Time Magazine published an article titled Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin. Many people looked at the article as a reason to say exercise is pointless. However, the main point in the article was that when people only look at exercise as a means to lose weight, the rate of success is quite low. Why is this? Well, unless there is attention placed on the diet people are following, those who exercise tend to eat more later in the day. We kid ourselves into thinking because we just had a great workout we can follow it up with a lot more food than we should be eating.

When the goal is to burn as many calories as possible , people may also train at an exercise intensity level they’re not really ready for. Using too much weight, running too fast or choosing a group fitness class which is too advanced can lead to injury. It’s hard to burn any extra calories when someone’s hurt, so it’s best to avoid the chance of getting hurt. Training too hard can also add additional stress the body can’t accommodate. In an individual already facing a significant amount of stress, training at too high an intensity can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, leading to illness, overtraining and other stress related issues.

Form and function before sweat and calories

To get the most out of an exercise routine, movements must be performed with proper form. Unfortunately, many people add too much resistance or turn up the speed to fast to do a movement correctly. When form is sacrificed to burn a few more calories, bad habits can be created. The “lunge” is a great example. The lunge can add tremendous benefit to strength training, but when people focus on doing too many reps or using too much weight, they end up using only half the range of motion and lose much of the benefit of the exercise.

The same situation occurs with squats, dips, pushups and other variations of these movements. When people move faster and work harder using poor form, the chance of injury increases. In the long run, you’ll get a lot more from your workouts by slowing down and performing the exercises the right way and building up to higher intensity. levels, Not sure what proper form looks like? Talk with a certified personal trainer.

When done correctly, strength training can help improve range of motion or flexibility, increase muscular strength and endurance, increase bone density, improve coordination. When done incorrectly, it can decrease flexibility, increase muscular imbalances and lead to injury. Take time to learn how to do it correctly.

Exercise and metabolic rate

Exercise is often suggested as a means to increase resting metabolic rate. Aside from the workout itself, exercise may not have as much of an effect on their metabolic rate as people think. In the short-term, metabolic rate is raised following a bout of exercise. However, as the body adapts to a specific exercise routine, the metabolic effects are greatly diminished.

A group of women were followed over eight weeks of weekly eccentric, or negative training sessions. Eccentric training has been shown to increase the acute trauma and lengthening  of the muscle tissue, which would lead to greater increase in metabolic rate than regular resistance training. In the first week, resting metabolic rate was raised by a whopping 12.7%! If the study would have been only a week, it would have left researchers impressed with the increased metabolic rate. However, at week eight, the rise in metabolic rate following the training session was only 0.7%.[ii] What does that mean for those exercising? If you’re trying to get the most out of your training session, don’t fall into the habit of doing the same thing every week. Periodizing your routines and mixing up the exercises can help ensure you’re getting the most out of the post-workout metabolic increase.

This is not  meant to disregard the benefits of exercise related to metabolic rate. Exercise, especially resistance training, can play a critical role in keeping resting metabolic rate from falling too much as we age or as people lose weight. Resistance training helps us retain the most metabolically active tissue we can control – muscle. Those who focus more on diet and cardiovascular training may find their metabolic rate falls more than it should, which can make continued weight loss more challenging. A periodized resistance training program can help individuals maintain more lean body mass and keep metabolic rate from falling as much.[iii]

To get the most metabolic benefit from your exercise routine, avoid falling into the habit of doing the same workout every week. To realize a post-workout metabolic boost, your workout must be higher in intensity. When it is, the benefits can be significant. A brand new study showed the boost in metabolism can last for up to 14 hours after the workout, and can contribute an extra 190 calories in addition to what the workout itself burned.[iv]

Exercise and body composition

With a great many people using exercise to improve body composition, it would be valuable to understand what type of exercise is most effective for changing body composition. Traditionally, cardiovascular exercise, or aerobic exercise, has been seen as ideal for decreasing body fat. Cardiovascular training often results in more calories being burned during a specific workout, so for those who fall back to the “calories in, calories out” idea of weight management, cardio sounds like a wise choice. However, losing weight and decreasing body fat percentage are two different things.

When the body is in a caloric deficit (consuming fewer calories than what is burned), fat and muscle tissue can both be lost. Without providing a stimulus to maintain the muscle tissue, the body can shed more muscle than it should. Incorporating a good strength training routine can help conserve the lean body mass, or muscle tissue better than aerobic or cardiovascular exercise.[v] Aerobic training should still be incorporated, but a good program must include sufficient resistance training as well.

Other exercise benefits

Even without a change in body composition, exercise has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.[vi] Since insulin resistance can lead down the path toward diabetes, exercise can play a critical role in improving the way the body handles carbohydrate. That’s not to say exercising will prevent the development of insulin resistance or diabetes, but it’s likely to help reduce the chance it will develop.

Other benefits of exercise include conservation of bone density (especially from resistance training), improved cardiovascular function and increased HDL cholesterol levels.

Exercise has many positive effects on mental and psychological states as well. Aerobic exercise has been shown to help reduce levels of anxiety for up to four hours after a workout. With resistance training, there can actually be a short-term increase in anxiety, which is important to consider for people new to exercise.[vii] If their resistance training program increases anxiety, the likelihood they’ll stick with it is diminished. To avoid the chance of falling off track, those new to resistance training should either start out slow (but don’t get stuck in a rut on the same routine every day) or work with someone who can help guide them through their program until they’re confident enough to do it on their own.

In addition to reducing levels of anxiety, aerobic exercise has been shown to help reduce the symptoms of depression.[viii] If this is an area of interest to you, I strongly recommend the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. The book goes into great detail on the tremendous benefits of exercise on learning and for mental health.


The benefits of exercise go far beyond burning calories. However, to gain those benefits, exercise must be done appropriately. Strength training must be done by learning proper technique, choosing appropriate exercises, challenging oneself more each week and periodizing a program. Varying intensity levels (and heart rate levels), especially for cardiovascular training, provides a variety of health benefits as well. If you’ve been exercising for a while and haven’t seen the results you were hoping for, maybe it’s time to try something new.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] Wu T, Gao X, Chen M, Van Dam RM. Long-term effectiveness of diet-plus-exercise interventions vs. diet-only interventions for weight loss: a meta-analysis. Ob Rev. 2009;10(3):313-323

[ii] Paschalis V, Nikolaidis MG, Theodorou AA, Panayiotou G, Fatouros IG, Koutedakis Y, Jamurtas AZ. A Weekly Bout of Eccentric Exercise is Sufficient to Induce Health-Promoting Effects. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 May 27. [Epub ahead of print]

[iii] Hunter GR, Byrne NM, Sirikul B, Fenandez JR, Zuckerman PA, Darnell BE, Gower BA. Resistance Training Conserves Fat-free Mass and Resting Energy Expenditure Following Weight Loss. Obesity. 2008;16(5):1045-1051. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.38

[iv] Knab AM, Shanely RA, Corbin K, Jin F, Sha W, Nieman DC. A 45-Minute Vigorous Exercise Bout Increases Metabolic Rate for 14 Hours. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Feb 8 [Epub ahead of print]

[v] Geliebter A, Maher MM, Gerace L, Gutin B, Heymsfield SB, Hashim SA. Effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption in obese dieting subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66(3):557-563

[vi] Bell LM, Watts K, Siafarikas A, Thompson A, et al. Exercise Alone Reduces Insulin Resistance in Obese Children Independently of Changes in Body Composition. J Clin End & Metab. 2007;92(11)4230-4235

[vii] Bibeau WS, Moore JB, Mitchell NG, Vargas-Tonsing T, Bartholomew JB. Effects of Acute Resistance Training of  Different Intensities and Rest Periods on Anxiety and Affect. J Str Con Res. 2010;24(8):2184-2191

[viii] Sarsan A, Ardic F, Ozgen M, Topuz O, Sermez Y. The effects of aerobic and resistance exercises in obese women. Clinicial Rehabilitation. 2006;20(9):773-782

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Reader Comments (3)

where is the green box mentioned in the third paragraph of the article? thanks

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrobin

There is a difference between "calories" and "Calories." 1 Calorie = 1kcal = 1000 calories. 1 calorie = energy needed to raise 1 g of water 1 deg C. The unit we use to measure food energy & exercises is "Calorie" or kcal.
So--a workout goal of 1000 calories in an hour? No sweat.
The article hints at, but doesn't elaborate, the effect of adding muscle mass on metabolism, or Calories-out. I have read (but I can't say definitively) that each pound of muscle added increases daily metabolism by ~40 Calories. Strength training that results in a few pounds gained & maintained can burn off a pound of fat a month just by itself. I believe this is one reason men are more successful at losing weight than women: They are more inclined to incorporate strength training into their workouts and benefit from increased musculature while women avoid it and do only cardio (as the article mentions).

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

Robin - Sorry. When I copied over the article into the blog, I forgot to add the graphic. Thanks for catching it.

Greg - There is a bit of a myth about how many calories a pound of protein burns. I've seen some articles suggest as much as 40-50 calories per pound, but that's nowhere near what the research shows. Muscle burns 5-6 calories per pound per day. Fat burns 2-3 calories per pound per day. Some of the confusion is that "lean body mass" and muscle tissue are often used the same way. However, lean body mass also includes other tissues. You can see the calorie expenditure of various tissues in the table found in this article: Hopefully that helps.

Tom Nikkola

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

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