Don’t Use Exercise for Fat Loss

Newsflash! As a society we’re becoming more over-weight and more obese. This shouldn’t come as news to anyone. 

And with the current month we’ve entered a number of people will vow to change behaviours and embark on a fat loss program. They will swear off certain foods. They will commit to training six days per week. They will sign up at the gym where that really fit girl or guy trains. And they may stop in to the new supplement store to talk biochemistry with the kid that works afternoons peddling potions and elixirs of the gods.

The unfortunate thing is this won’t work.

And we know it won’t work because it hasn’t in the past. And it will repeat again next year when we flip the calendar from December to January.

Now it’s time to put away the decorations. The fun times end. The company leaves. The parties are over. And we have to face reality and return to work or school. And if we’re like the average North American we will have gained seven pounds over the Christmas holidays.

And since we all ‘know’ that exercise burns off the extra holiday weight we embark on this post-holiday health correction.

In terms of where we burn our calories, our metabolism, the food we eat and our activity accounts for the total. The table below (1) shows this.

Daily caloric expenditure as a function of metabolism, food and activity.

Daily caloric expenditure as a function of metabolism, food and activity.

The truth is that physical activity will only account for 10-30% of the calories we burn in a day.

Think about that for a minute…physical activity could potentially account for as little as 10% of the calories you burn in a day. And exercise is only a part of this.

In the table above the example uses a daily measure of 3500 calories per day. Physical activity could be as low as 10% which is 350 calories per day. Exercise is a fraction of this. If you are sedentary for the rest of the day meaning you sit at a desk, ride elevators, park inside the buildings where you work or live, and don’t do much else activity wise, this makes the contribution from physical activity very low.

But it gets worse.

We tend to over-estimate how many calories we burn during an exercise training session. And it’s disappointing to see how we in the fitness industry promote this myth. You see it in advertising with claims about so many calories burned in only a 30-60 minute session.

So how bad is it? How much do we over-estimate the calories we burn in training?

Well one study (2) found that subjects over-reported the calories they burned during exercise by 3-4 times. The actual calories they burned was between 200-300 and the subjects reported having burned 600-1200 calories.

In any other industry this would create outrage. Imagine a financial planner promising a 20% return on your investment but end up with a 5% return. But in fitness we over-estimate, or over-promise, the return on our training efforts by a huge amount. And no one seems to notice or get upset. And we repeat the same insanity every January.

To make matters worse the same study found that subjects then over-consumed at the buffet after training. They told the subjects they could eat according to the amount of calories they believed they burned. Subjects should have consumed 200-300 calories but instead ate 2-3 times this amount.

How’s that for a disappointing outcome for your efforts? The training was 3-4 less than you thought and your caloric inputs were 2-3 times more. Not only will this not lead to a fat loss goal it helps us understand why we as a society are getting more obese each year.

Is there any hope?


And it comes down to doing the little things most of the time. It’s getting 8 hours of sleep every night. It’s having a recovery strategy in place. And looking to make healthy nutritional choices. It’s structuring your training so you’re doing the right things, the right way, with the right frequency and intensity.

If you’re not sure how to get started or where your efforts would be best spent don’t worry. We can help you with that. Currently we’re offering a free fitness review to a select number of people. There’s no cost but you do need to qualify. To find out more give us a call at (250) 212-2972 or email


  2. Willbond SMLaviolette MADuval KDoucet E. Normal weight men and women overestimate exercise energy expenditure. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2010 Dec;50(4):377-84.


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