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You go to your favorite hiit cardio class and burn 500 calories.
You do your 10,000 steps and burn 457 calories in the day.
You are looking to lose some fat so you are obviously exercising.
You may even be tracking your calories that you’re eating everyday.
If you’re even doing any one of these things above, you have stumbled across the thought of “should I eat back these calories my Apple Watch said I burned?”
Should You Eat Back Those Calories?
Today’s topic we’re going to be covering is the topic of whether you should be eating back the calories you burn or not.
If you’ve read last two or if you follow me at all, you know that I probably want you to be tracking your calories.
The immediate second question I get to that is, “Well, should I be putting in the calories I burn from working out? Should I be eating back the calories I burn from my workout?”
And honestly, that is a great question, especially if you don’t know, because that could make a huge difference in whether you lose fat, maintain, or even gain fat.
So we’re just going to sit here and dive into a quick bit of how people track their calories.
In a world where technology is abundant, people have all types of things that they can use to track calories now.
Whether it’s their phone, Apple Watch, Fitbit, the treadmill at the gym, there’s so many ways you can “track” how many calories you burn.
So this makes it so easy to see that, “Oh hey, I burned 500 calories when I ran on the treadmill for an hour.”
“Oh hey, my favorite HIT class does roughly about 500 calories when I go there.”
And while it may look sexy to see you burned 500 calories when you were working out, how accurate is that actually? That’s what we’re going to dive into here today.
I first want to dive into the things that actually track your heart rate and track your calories.
Like I said before, most people use their Apple Watch, or they use their Fitbit watch, or they even have a strap around their chest or around their wrist that tracks their heart rate.
The problem with these things is, they’ve been shown to track heart rate, up to 95% correctly, so there’s only about a 5% error there.
And there’s a couple of studies out there you can look at.
One of them is a Stanford Medicine article published back in 2017 that showed that most fitness trackers have about a 95% accuracy rate as far as heart rate goes.
So when it tracks your heart rate, it says you’re 86% of your target heart rate? Normally that’s about 95% right.
The problem was when the fitness tracker was showing how many calories they burned, that was up to 93% wrong.
So whether it’s over or under, it’s up to 93% wrong.
So how can you use that number to really put into your diet to hopefully help you see results?
Another study in February of 2019 from the British Broadcasting Corporation showed again that the heart rate monitors, show to be pretty much accurate as far as the heart rate, but most of them are up to 50% wrong in overestimating your calories burned.
Think about that.
So when you’re going into your favorite HIIT cardio class, it says you’re burning 500 calories, you’re only burning 250.
Now I’m really not saying that’s bad or good, because honestly I’m not really concerned with how many calories you burn at the gym.
It starts to become a problem when you need to hit a 1500 calorie goal for the day to lose fat.
Now you’re asking me, “Okay, well I’m supposed to eat 1500 calories. So do I eat back the calories that I burn? Because if so, that puts me at 1900 calories a day.”
So let’s talk about it.
If you’re eating 1900 calories a day because your fitness tracker says you’re burning 500 calories, but in reality you’re only burning 250 calories.
So you’re eating 1900 calories, but you’re really only supposed to be eating 1500 calories to lose fat.
You’re doing this five, six, four times a week.
You’re eating 1900 calories on the days you burn those calories.
So at the end of the week, if you were supposed to be doing 1500 calories every single day, that would put you at about 10,500 calories for the week to lose a pound a week of fat.
But you’re eating 1900 calories say four days a week.
So that puts you at 1900 calories four days a week, plus 1500 calories three days a week.
That puts you at 12,100 calories for the week.
So now, instead of being in a caloric deficit, you’re not in a caloric deficit.
You’re at maintenance.
But you’re so frustrated, because you feel like you’re doing everything you possibly can.
You’re counting your calories, you’re working out consistently four days a week, and you still don’t know why you’re not losing weight?
Well, we just figured it out.
You’re not in a caloric deficit, because you’re eating back the calories you “burned”.
And that can be a very frustrating process for people.
That can really get people’s minds messed up, because they feel like they’re doing everything they possibly can.
When in reality they kind of are, but they’re fighting an uphill battle.
They’re not actually getting all the information they need.
So from that side of it, no, I don’t think you should eat back the calories you burned, because you didn’t actually burn those calories.
I’d much rather you create a deficit through nutrition than trying to create your deficit through working out.
“I Get Hungry When I Workout”
Now, some people will come back to me and say, “Eric, when I work out, I’m hungrier, I need more energy, I need more focus, I want to feel better when I’m working out.
On days I work out, I need more energy. I need more food. I want to eat more food.”
And that’s perfect. That’s fine with me.
But at the end of the week, you still need to be in a caloric deficit.
So what can you do?
You can just simply calorie cycle.
You can do some days high calories, some days low calories.
You can do that same exact thing we just talked about, where you do four high calorie days when you work out, and three low calorie days when you don’t work out.
But if we’re following that 1500 calories a week plan, at the end of the week, we still got to be at 10,500 calories.
So how do you do that?
Simple. On days you work out, you do high calories.
So for example, if you’re trying to hit the 1500 calorie goal for the week to get you at 10,500 calories, your high day when you work is going to be 1650 calories.
Your low day is going to be 1300 calories, so for the days you do not work out, you do 1300 calories.
If you do (1650×4) + (1300×3), you’re going to come out to 10,500 calories.
That’s going to put you in a caloric deficit, so you’re going to lose weight.
And you still get all the benefits of having more calories when you work out, having more energy when you work out, better recovery, better fuel, better focus.
While still keeping the most important thing in check, which is being in a caloric deficit.
So that means you’re still going to see the results you want in the long term and in the short term, because you’re going to be able to eat a little bit more calories when you want them.
“I burned 1000 calories!!!”
Honestly, I could probably stop the blog right here, but there’s something else I want to touch on.
It is something I see way too many people focus on, and way too many “fitness influencers” brag about.
It is not just about how many calories you burn when you work out.
That should not be your only barometer of success.
That should not be the thing you’re striving for.
I know it sounds sexy, and I know it’s cool to tell your friends you burned a thousand calories when you were working out today, but that really doesn’t mean shit in the long term.
And I talked about this in the last post, I’m going to talk about it again.
Because it’s such an important concept that people need to wrap their heads around, especially people who feel like if they’re not dying, if they’re not getting a sweat, if they’re not out of breath, then they’re not getting a good workout.
That’s just not true.
Can it help you get a good workout?
Sure. Absolutely. That’s fine.
But that should not be your barometer of having a good workout.
Because as we talked about before in the previous blog, you need to work out to change your body for the long term.
You need to work out to change your muscle-to-fat ratio, to change your body fat percentage.
To change how much muscle you have so your metabolism can work better, it can function better.
So you can feel better, you can be stronger, you can be more fit, you can be more in shape.
You can change the physique of your body.
If the only reason you go work out is so you can get a high calorie burn workout, then you’re not doing it right, plain and simple.
The people who think that often overlook the importance of gaining muscle.
They often overlook the importance of training your core.
I guarantee you doing a plank for a minute is not really going to be a high calorie burn, but by God is it going to help you strengthen your core.
By God is it going to help you save you from injury when you’re doing workouts, when you’re playing with your kids, when you’re picking up stuff around the house.
These things are so important, because if you get injured doing one of these crazy workouts you do, you’re not going to be able to workout and burn those “500 calories”, or 250 calories actually.
And then what happens?
Then you’re not burning those calories, so you gain weight right back, because you haven’t changed your body for the long term.
They often overlook the sense of allowing your body time to recover, allowing rest periods so your body can actually recover, so you can give the workout you’re doing 100%.
What’s better to you when you think about it, giving 100% or giving 75%?
If your kid was to come back from school and say, “Hey Mom, I got a 68% on my test today,” you’d be like, “What the fuck are you doing, kid?”.
Some of you might actually say that to them, some of you might not, I don’t know.
Whatever you roll with.
But either way, you know 100% is better than 68%.
So why would you not give yourself 100% to your workouts?
If you’re constantly dragging, if you’re constantly out of breath while trying to do your set, not being able to actually complete your set correctly, then how are you giving 100% to your workout?
You’re not. You’re just going through the motions.
I’d much rather you find a way to give max effort to your workouts, however that may be.
Give max effort and you’re going to get max results.
I am not saying there isn’t a time and place to push yourself to that point.
What I am saying is the calorie burn you get on top of that is just icing on the cake.
Like I’ve said before, you should not try to be in a caloric deficit through your exercise.
You should be trying to get in a caloric deficit through your nutrition, plain and simple.
Every piece of exercise you do on top of that should be icing on the cake.
That’s what’s going to help you see long term changes.
That’s what’s going to help you see physique changes. That’s what’s going to help you be more defined, be more toned.
Look in the mirror, see those abs.
Have one of your friends tell you they notice your arm muscles.
That’s the kind of stuff that’s going to happen, but it’s not going to happen if all you do is focus on running 10 miles in the gym every single day, getting a high calorie burn, doing these crazy, dangerous exercises in one of your favorite HIIT classes that is going to make you get injured.
Then you can’t do anything. Then you’re useless. Not only in the gym, but in the rest of your life. I don’t want that for you.
So if there’s anything you’re going to take from this, it is stop worrying about the calorie burn you have in the gym.
Start worrying about if you’re getting stronger. If the weights feel easier.
If the workouts you’re doing feel easier.
If your weights are progressing.
If you’re doing more reps with a weight that used to be really, really heavy for you, but now you can rep it out for six or eight reps.
That’s the kind of stuff you guys should be focusing on, rather than, “Oh my god, I only burned 462 calories, I need to burn more.”
I promise you, if you focus on moving better, if you focus on getting stronger, if you focus on feeling better, if you focus on progressing yourself through your workouts, that calorie burn and everything else you possibly want is going to come with it.
So now that my rant is done here, let’s kind of backtrack and talk about what we just went over.
We learned that fitness trackers and heart rate monitors and calorie trackers are a great tool to have, but they’re not the end-all be-all, mainly because recent studies have shown that they’re up to 50% wrong.
They’re up to 50% wrong at overestimating your calories.
If you’re worried about your heart rate, awesome, wear that thing, track your heart rate.
But if you’re focusing on using the calorie tracker to determine how many calories you should eat to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight, that’s not the way.
Throw that out, stick to the nutrition plan that you have, and then if you want to do some high-calorie low-calorie days, feel free.
But don’t let the number of calories you burn in the gym dictate how many calories you should be eating outside of the gym.
And last but not least, don’t just focus on how many calories you burn.
I could really give a shit how many calories you burn in the gym.
I’m much more worried about, are you getting stronger?
Are your weights progressing?
Are you feeling better with your workouts? Are you confident with your workouts?
Are you putting all of your energy, all of your effort, your maximum intensity, into your workouts? I
If you’re not, that’s exactly what you should be focusing on right there.
You should be focusing on, “How the hell can I get the most out of this set? How can I give everything I have to this set right here right now?”
I promise you, if you focus on that, you’re going to see amazing results.
There’s no way you’re not going to see results.
The results are going to last you a lifetime, not just in the span of four weeks when you’re doing a cut to go to the beach.
When you get older, when bone density matters, when muscle mass matters, when having to be strong matters, all this stuff is going to help you in every single aspect of the rest of your life, rather than just saying, “I burned a hundred calories” to your best friend.
I hope if you were that person who was using how many calories you burn to track your calories and work back into how many calories you eat, you see why that might be your issue.
If you’re struggling with results, if you’re really frustrated why you’re not seeing results, this could possibly be why.
This could be the reason that you’re either in maintenance or even in a caloric surplus, because you’re not actually burning those calories your fitness tracker tells you you are.
There you have it.
Despite your fit bit telling you you burned 462 calories, creating your deficit through food is always the better route long term.
The exercise can be the cherry on top that gives it that extra push.
If you have questions about this, please feel free to dm me on Instagram or facebook at @EricRobertsFitness.
Or, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like me for the go more in depth.