It's almost a month into the new year, and you've stuck with your fitness routine but haven't seen the scale budge. It may be time to look at calories in and calories out — and whether you have a realistic view of that equation.
Weight loss is a result of creating calorie deficits in the body, which can be done both by calorie-cutting on the food side and increased energy expenditure on the exercise side. But, as you might expect, there is a human tendency to overestimate how many calories we burn during (and after) exercising, while underestimating the number of calories we consume. That's where the concept of exercise equivalents — the amount of exercise needed to be undertaken to burn roughly the same number of calories in a food item — can be useful.
Keep in mind that these are rough values, and that an occasional indulgence needn't be followed with wind sprints. The best way to think of exercise equivalents is as a tool that can "help make us more aware of what we put into our bodies," as Ben Fidler, a Washington, D.C.-based personal trainer, puts it.
Let's consider a chocolate glazed doughnut with sprinkles from Dunkin' Donuts, which is 290 calories, according to the company's website, and the average American woman, who weighs about 169 pounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That woman would have to spend about 75 minutes of normal weight training or about a half-hour of running at five mph to burn roughly 290 calories. For the average American man, at about 196 pounds, the corresponding numbers are about 65 minutes of weight training and about 25 minutes of running at five mph.
These figures come from the American Council on Exercise's online physical activity calorie counter, on which you can plug in your weight to see what exercise, at what intensity and for how long you'd have to engage in to burn a certain number of calories.
Many restaurants provide calorie information. But they don't offer exercise equivalents.
I'm not trying to single out doughnuts. A serving of delicious bacon cheese fries at Shake Shack is 840 calories. The exercise equivalent for a 169-pound woman would be running at the five-mph pace for roughly 80 minutes; for a 196-pound man it would be running at the five-mph pace for about 70 minutes.
Or how about Panera Bread's amazing 800-calorie kitchen sink cookie? For Chicago resident Steffen Jacobsen, who does boot camp, who is 41 and 220 pounds, it would take about one hour of running at the five-mph pace to burn 800 calories. "That gives me pause," Jacobsen says. "At this age, it's all a trade-off. If you eat that one cookie, it's like you negate all your hard work, at least from a weight-loss perspective," he adds, acknowledging that working out has many benefits other than keeping weight under control, such as muscle-building and flexibility.
Katherine Basbaum, a registered dietitian with the University of Virginia Health System, agrees that for weight-loss purposes, exercise equivalents can be a helpful ingredient in understanding calories. "It's not a magic bullet, but I see it as one of several tools to understand weight loss," Basbaum says.
For example, Basbaum says, consider a patient who wants to lose one pound per week, which is the equivalent of creating a roughly 3,500-calorie deficit. The client could create a deficit of 250 calories per day by increasing their exercise quota (for instance, adding 30 minutes of slow running for a 130-pound person) and by eliminating calories (for example, skipping a daily whole-milk latte). The 250-calorie decrease and extra 250-calorie energy expenditure would create a 500-calorie deficit per day, which translates into the desired 3,500-calorie deficit for the week.
Looking more carefully at how much exercise is equivalent to the calories in some of your favorite treats will, hopefully, help you make better choices about food. But don't just consider calories. A 1,500-calorie bag of potato chips theoretically would have enough calories to fuel a roughly 150-pound sedentary person for a day. But it would make you hungry quickly because potato chips contain negligible amounts of protein and fiber. (By way of comparison and by no means a nutrition suggestion: 1,500 calories worth of brown rice, which is seven or eight cups, is packed with fiber and protein. The calorie equivalent for broccoli? About 12 pounds of broccoli.)
Instead of focusing on calories, Basbaum has patients look at fat, fiber, sodium, protein and other macro- and micronutrients to home in on what types of food best fuel the body and its specific needs. The needs of an athlete are very different from those of a desk jockey.
While Fidler agrees that exercise equivalents can be used to help you make healthy choices, he cautions against making workouts seem like a penance. In the end, the key is to find daily exercise and healthy food you like so you can sustain the habits over time.
— Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer.