“Should I eat back my exercise calories?” Is by far one of the most common questions I get as a fitness coach.
With the recent rise in popularity of calorie counting, apps like my fitness pal or your apple watch are tracking how many calories you burn through exercise.
That means of course if you can simply just exercise a bit more, burn a but more calories, you will be able to eat more calories.
At least, that is what one would think, right?
Don’t worry, in this short article I cam going to cover everything you need to know about the question of “should I eat back my exercise calories”.
Just be sure to read the whole thing. Top to bottom. Side to side.
Yea I am talking to you. I know you like to skim through things and just see if you can quickly find the answer.
If you are going to read one thing in it’s entirety today, make it this.
Capeesh? Groovy. Let’s jump right in.
Should I Eat Back My Exercise Calories
Let’s First Understand Why
If you are reading this article right now chances are that you are either trying to lose weight, maintain your weight, or gain weight.
Chances are also that you are tracking your calorie intake per day to try to accomplish one of these goals.
Let’s first briefly cover why total calories are so important and how they are going to play a role in your body composition.
Total calories are by far the “biggest rock” when it comes to making body composition changes.
Before carbs, fats, protein, fat burners (kidding those do absolutely nothing!) your total calorie intake will determine whether you lose, gain, or maintain your weight.
In order lose weight, you must be in a calorie deficit. This means you are intaking less calories than what your body burns.
In order to maintain your weight, you must be in a calorie maintenance. This means you are intaking the same amount of calories your body burns.
In order to gain weight, you must be in a calorie surplus. This means you are intaking more calories than your body burns.
Anyone of those 3 equations you are in at all times.
If you want some extra help with learning exactly how to count calories correctly, you can head HERE I have a free in depth guide on that.
Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not! (Quarantine weight gain anyone?).
Yet this clearly comes back to your question of “should I eat back my exercise calories” because the calories you burn is going to play a role in how many calories you eat.
Let’s talk about how big or small of a role they play right here and now.
Calorie Trackers : Are They Accurate?
Let’s take any one of the trackers you are using to track your calories burned.
My fitness pal, your apple watch, Fitbit, Garmin, you name it.
I am going to let you in on a dark, dirty little secret. Remember, don’t shoot the messenger.
That calorie tracker you are using to track your calories burned is anywhere from 20-93% inaccurate .
Yep, you read that right.
So let’s say your apple watch says you burned 500 calories doing cardio.
You really only burned like maybe 250. Maybe.
I know this seems like a shot below the belt, but there are studies to back this up.
A Stanford study HERE proves this.
Now they aren’t totally useless. They are for the most part accurate with your step count as well as tracking your heart rate.
So why are they so inaccurate on calories burned?
Let’s talk about it.
Why Are Calorie Trackers So Inaccurate?
Well a few reasons.
Number one is that each individual is different.
For example if you have more lean muscle mass than me, you are automatically going to burn more calories.
Because the more lean muscle mass you have, the more oxygen your body has to pump.
The more oxygen your body has to pump, the more calories your body burns.
Your apple watch cannot know this about you.
Second, let’s say you run 5 miles a day and I run 0. (If I could run negative miles, I would).
We both decide to run 5 miles.
We are the same age, same weight, same height, same heart rate, everything.
My body is going to burn more calories running 5 miles than your body.
Your body is used to it! It is conditioned for it. My body on the other hand never runs so it will have to burn significantly more calories.
Once again, your apple watch does not know this.
Third, “Caloric expenditure can be measured directly, which requires the measurement of the heat released by the body, or indirectly be measuring ventilation and the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide by the body” – Robert A. Robergs, Ph.D., and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
So if you could care to explain to me how your Fitbit knows how much carbon dioxide you are releasing, that would be nothing short of a miracle.
On Top Of That
If you want to dive deeper into the science of things, should I eat back my exercise calories really is a concern that should matter very little.
When it comes to how your body burns calories in a given day, there are 4 main components of that.
Above is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure.
70% of your total calories burned during the day comes from your BMR, or your Basal Metabolic Rate.
This just means how many calories your body burns at rest without doing anything else throughout the day. This is different for everyone.
15% comes from your NEAT, which is your Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This just means all the extraneous movement you do during your day that is not dedicated exercise.
Me writing this article right now is NEAT. You walking to the fridge or from your car to the store. Reading this article. All of that is NEAT.
10% comes from your TEF, which is your Thermic Effect Of Food. Your body has to use energy to break down and digest food.
Fun fact : Protein has the highest TEF so if you are looking to lose weight, this is why protein is so important!
And finally, we come to EAT, which is exercise activity thermogenesis.
This takes up 5% of your total calorie burn for the day.
5. Yes, 5%.
You read it right. If you don’t believe me and you are arguing science, then I can’t really help you.
Therefore you worrying about whether to eat back your calories burned through exercise is really a 5% kind of question.
It simply will not make that big of a difference.
This is not me saying don’t exercise. I know some people will read this and say “OMG you are saying not to exercise how is that healthy?!”.
No, that is not what I am saying.
What I am saying is don’t worry about how many calories you burn during your exercise because it really doesn’t make that big of a difference.
Focus your workouts on increasing your performance. Getting more reps, lifting heavier weight, improving your mile time or push ups.
If you want to know how to take advantage of the other 95% and increase your metabolism, head HERE.
Calorie trackers are wildly inaccurate. This obviously plays a role when talking about should I eat back my exercise calories or not.
Let’s use this as an example as we break down the scenario for if you are trying to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight.
Should I Eat Back My Exercise Calories : Weight Loss
I am just going to give it to you straight, if your main goal is to lose weight, you should not be eating back the calories you burned through exercise.
Let’s talk about why.
We just learned above that your calorie tracker is wildly inaccurate, correct?
You don’t truly know how many calories you are burning.
Let’s say your maintenance calories are 2000. You are trying to eat in a 1500 calorie deficit to lose body fat.
You go on your treadmill and burn 500 calories, then just through some walking and chores around the house your fit bit says you burned 200 calories.
This means you can eat 700 more calories!… Right?
Well, since we now know you didn’t actually burn that many calories, here is where the issues come up.
You are supposed to be eating 1500 calories to lose weight. Your maintenance calories are 2000.
You are now eating 2200 calories because you think you burned 700 calories.
When in reality you have no clue how many calories you burned.
This leads you to eat 2200 calories and not see any progress as a result because it effectively takes you out of that calorie deficit.
Your calorie equation is no longer that of you are eating less calories than your body burns.
You are more than likely eating around the same amount of calories as your body is burning, thus leading to no weight loss.
See How This Could Be An Issue?
This is where people start to get incredibly frustrated because they aren’t seeing any progress. Though they think they are doing everything right.
Don’t even look at it. Think of it as a cherry on the top.
You learned above that exercise only takes up 5% of your total calorie burn anyway.
Continue to stick to whatever your calorie deficit number was and do not even take into account your exercise calories.
If you don’t know what your calorie deficit should be, you can head HERE to check out my 100% free calorie calculator.
Should I Eat Back My Exercise Calories : Weight Maintenance Or Gain
Now that you know you really shouldn’t be focusing on your calories burned when it comes to losing weight, let’s talk about weight maintenance or gain.
Honestly, I am going to give you pretty much the same answer with some slight deviation.
When thinking about how many calories to eat to ether maintain or gain weight your activity level should already be taken into consideration.
If you don’t know how to find your maintenance calories, you can head HERE for my totally free calculator.
Therefore if you are eating around maintenance calories, whether you burn 300 exercise calories or 500 exercise calories, I wouldn’t put too much stock into it.
I would continue to eat the same calorie limit you were shooting for from the beginning.
If you are looking to gain weight, you would simply take 2-300 above your maintenance calories and eat that per day.
Here if you wanted to truthfully eat back your exercise calories just to ensure you are in a calorie surplus, you can.
Yet again honestly, I wouldn’t worry too much about it at all. When my clients go into a calorie surplus to gain weight, unless they had a day where they go on a hike and burn 3000 calories, we don’t even look at their exercise calories.
What Should Your Exercise Be Focused On?
I briefly touched on this earlier but wanted to make sure I hit on it towards the end so it is fresh in your head.
So many people are warped into thinking that exercise is for the sole purpose of burning calories.
As we learned, that is the least important thing about exercise, especially when it comes to making body composition changes.
If you are using exercise and cardio as your sole vice to burn more calories and lose more weight, you are going to lose that game every time.
Remember, you can never out train a bad diet. Let your nutrition take care of your body composition changes.
Your workouts on the other hand should be centered around increasing your performance.
- lifting more weight
- Doing more reps
- Doing more sets
- Getting your first chin up or push up
- Improving your form
- Increasing your range of motion
- Improving your Mile time
To name a few.
Your workouts are meant to build your body up, not tear your body down.
If this article taught you anything I would hope it is that exercise calories don’t really matter, and you should be looking to be a bad a** in your workouts.
If you want 52 free workouts, you can head here .
Should I Eat Back My Exercise Calories : Final Word
That’s all folks.
I hope you learned in depth as to why your exercise calories should be nothing more than a less than important piece of data.
I wouldn’t spend anymore time focusing on it past this point in your journey.
Focus way more on your nutrition.
Focus way more on improving your performance in your workouts.
I promise the rest will fall into place.
If you have any questions or concerns drop them below.
To get my diet and training programs, feel free to check out hundreds of us rocking it inside The Clubhouse, my members only content area.