Weight loss, excercise, and calories?
July 25, 2013 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I am a 56-year-old woman who needs to lose around 50 pounds. I'm going to the gym almost every day, and using the app LoseIt to count calories. I am shooting for a 2-pound-per-week weight loss, and the app says my daily calorie intake should be 1300. How do I compensate for gym time?

I'm doing great with the clean eating, and sticking to my daily calorie goal pretty well. I also go to the gym five days a week, and so far I've lost weight at an acceptable rate. My question is about calorie intake on gym days. The app I use adds calories to your daily total for the time spent exercising. For instance, if I spend 30 minutes on the elliptical then I get 300 more calories added to my daily goal.

While it's much harder to stay at 1300 calories on gym days, I can do it. Yes, I know the calorie counts for exercise aren't accurate, but you have to use some kind of benchmark. I'm actually worried about not eating enough calories on gym day. I know you really can't build muscle while dieting, and my main focus is to lose the fat. But at the same time, I am doing some circuit training along with the cardio, hoping to at least build a little muscle while shedding the pounds.

Should I stick to my 1300 daily amount on gym day, or should I increase the calories on the days that I work out to offset the exercise, as the app suggests?
posted by raisingsand to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I can't tell from their webpage -- does LoseIt give you different calorie-adds based on the type of exercise? If so, then trust the app. If not, then you might want to manually adjust your calorie intake based on the kind of exercise you're doing (go with the app on cardio days, ignore the adds on circuit days).

But mostly, listen to your body. If you find yourself being excessively tired on days after circuit days when you didn't add any calories -- more so than on days after cardio -- skoonch your calories up a little on circuit days.
posted by Etrigan at 9:36 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Increase calories. I use Lose It too, and I go for the net of recommended calories. So if I eat 1200 calories and then burn off 300 working out, I can eat 300 calories more.

I'm somewhat conservative when estimating calories burned through exercise though.
posted by sweetkid at 9:37 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Okay, maybe this is just me, but I would literally die if I had to eat only 1300 calories a day. I run 5-6 times a week, and I am hungry all the time. I probably come in at around 3000 calories a day just to maintain my weight. Obviously, all people are different, but I wouldn’t go by some arbitrary number than an app gives you. Talk to a doctor or nutritionist about what’s right for you.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:37 AM on July 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

As someone who lost more than 100lbs, I would tell you to ignore the 'calories burned via exercise' bumps and instead be very diligent about tracking food intake and weighing yourself for at least two to four weeks.

This will give you a MUCH more accurate look at how much of a caloric deficit you're really maintaining and will allow you to adjust in an accurate, sustainable, healthy way. If you're losing MORE than two a week, feel free to increase your food calories until you hit that two per week sweet spot.

I used physicsdiet when I was weighing daily to 'smooth out' the small fluctuations the scale will give you.
posted by unixrat at 9:43 AM on July 25, 2013 [7 favorites]

You will see a range of advice. All of it boils down to what works for the individual. Personally I would start by eating a couple hundred calories back on gym day to help minimize muscle loss and keep my binges at bay. Then I would adjust based on what the scale was doing. So if I started losing more than 2 pounds a week and it didn't feel sustainable then I would eat more calories or if I wasn't losing 2 pounds a week I would cut out the extra. Even the 1300 is a ballpark number. I lose more than what loseit tells me for my weight and height. Also I think 600 calories an hour is high estimate for elliptical. On preview, just what MoonOrb says: trial and error.
posted by RoadScholar at 9:45 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Forget about calories burned by exercise. Think of them as a bonus. Here's why: calculating calories burned requires knowledge of a TON of variables. Without a heart-rate monitor, it's a wild guess. Even with a heart-rate monitor, it's still a guess. Most of the guesses are (surprise) high, which leaves people wondering why they're not losing weight.

If you MUST eat some calories back, my advice would be to eat no more than half.

And if you're not using a kitchen scale in conjunction with LoseIt, start. Best of luck, you can do this with a little gumption.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:48 AM on July 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

As a data point, on Weight Watchers when you work out you "earn" points. I don't know what the ratio is, I'm sure you "earn" fewer calories than you burn up.

Honestly, if you're hungry, eat a little more. As someone said above, just experiment. Try it for a week or two and see how it goes.
posted by radioamy at 9:57 AM on July 25, 2013

I think of this as a trial and error approach. See how things work for the first few weeks. If you're losing 2 pounds a week, stick with it. If you're losing more/are totally miserable, weak, and hungry then add more calories.

Seconding this.

Data point: I lost 30ish pounds and didn't go to the gym at all. No exercise increase at all. Different bodies gonna different.
posted by rtha at 9:58 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've lost bout 40kg (about 88 lbs) all up. Half of that I lost between 2006-2009. In this period, I was doing kind of as you were doing-- counting calories, (started off at 1700, and I whittled down to 1200) plus gym every day, cardio-- and it was tough and slow. I was aiming for 2lbs a week. It was insane to do a -7000 calorie deficit per week (where there are 3500 cals in a pound) and I started off well but as I progressed (especially when I dropped to 1200 cals), my weight loss started petering out until nothing was coming off. After losing about 40lbs I hurt my back and stopped being able to exercise. As a consequence, I gained about 20lbs back within a year.

After my back healed, I started again, and this time really looked into what to do and not to do. Turns out, pretty much all of the above.

I have lost another 40lbs, plus the 20lbs I had gained back this year, for a total of 88lbs and I've pretty much stopped counting calories all together. What I do instead:

(I am not a doctor, and what has worked for me may not work for you. )

- Low GI. I eat much more Low-Gi than I used to. It keeps me fuller longer, and is also much tastier. I also try to eat one one low carb meal a day -- even though I often fail. And I don't follow a low-carb diet.
- Introduced many more good fats into my diet, whereas before I was very much 'fat-free'
- I still eat everything but I'm mindful of what I'm eating. I have a good idea of what the net energy of a food is thanks to my previous food diaries. If I over-indulge one night on Burger King, the next day I will eat a bit lighter. I never blame myself for eating any more. I don't view foods as 'bad' or 'good' any longer-- just indulgent or less indulgent.
- I try to eat more colors in terms of vegetables and more healthfully generally speaking
- Buuut, If I'm lazy, I will totally eat a frozen readymeal.
- Interval train about once or twice a week for 5-15 minutes. I really don't do any more than this. Honestly. My cycles are about 2 minutes regular 1 minute sprint.
- Weight train twice a week, for about 3 sets and 20 reps. I do a 3 different body parts each time. Occasionally I completely mix it all up. Some weeks I do nothing.
- No pure cardio anymore, at all, ever. I loathed it anyway and intervals are much more fun for me.
- 'Refeed' days. For me this is key. I have days I'll eat 2000 (or more, I'm not sure, I stopped counting) calories without worrying about it. For me usually it's about once a month or every two weeks. I find these days are kind of essential to keep my metabolism high, and I personally believe they make all the difference.
- Drink a lot of tea instead of water. I make it myself, with 1tbsp of sugar per 2 litres. Not sure if this is helping but it doesn't hurt. Also I just really like ice tea.
-If I am hungry, I always always eat a snack of some kind. It never feels "tough" or like something I have to "stick" to. If I feel hunger pangs, in my opinion, I'm doing it wrong.
- I take omega 3 and 6s occasionally-- although I don't always take them because I like to try and get them naturally from food sources.

Lastly, so much of weight-loss is psychological. I really came to terms with myself, and food, and kinda loving my body as it was. This has helped tremendously. A lot of my barriers (as I suspects everyone's are) were internal. I no longer beat myself up at all.

I sometimes feel bad (not really!), because this entire year (55lbs) has kind of been really easy, especially compared to before. When I tell people this, they somehow never believe me.

For me, pure cardio, low calorie, and no rest or cheat day was not only torture, it was impossible to uphold AND it killed my metabolism at the end of it. For me at least, the 'no pain no gain' wasn't true at all.

So yes, in my experience you need to eat more on your gym day. I also think working out almost every day is excessive, but you may find that it works for you. Make sure not to go too hard too fast, though. And your body absolutely needs rest days.

Also, you WILL fluctuate . A consistent 2lb loss per week is kind of impossible. Some weeks may be more, some weeks may be less or none. Some weeks you may do 'everything right' and still gain. These weeks are demoralizing. I stopped looking at it in terms of '1kg a week!' (2.2lbs) which is kind of nuts and was unsustainable for me. It's taken me about a year to lose 55lbs which is about 1lb a week. Yes, it's slower, but I'm the only person I know of my peers who has lost weight and consistently kept it off, since 2006. I also rarely weigh myself.
posted by Dimes at 10:16 AM on July 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

Unless your starting weight is really high and you work really hard on the elliptical when you are, I really really doubt you're burning 300 cal in 30 min. Unless you're dying of hunger, I'd ignore the gym as an input.
posted by atomicstone at 10:21 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I usually don't recommend eating back calories burned from exercise. For one thing, the workout machines at the gym that estimate your calories burned are notoriously inaccurate (300 calories for 30 minutes on the elliptical sounds much too high, if you ask me). If you're hungry, start by making sure you are getting enough water, protein and filling foods. If you're still hungry, add 100-200 calorie post-workout snack or something.

Another thing to keep in mind is that losing two pounds per week is actually pretty speedy weight loss! If losing weight at that rate isn't going to be sustainable, aim for 1.5 pounds instead.

Source: I lost 65 pounds in the past year and a half. At first I was aiming for losing 2 pounds per week, but as I lost more weight, my calorie budget decreased to the point where it became much too difficult to eat at a 1000 calorie deficit every day.
posted by inertia at 10:25 AM on July 25, 2013

Best answer: I use LoseIt too and have lost 60 lbs with it so far, with only a slight increase in exercise. With 50 lbs to lose, 2 lbs/week may be too aggressive. One of the LoseIt users developed this calculator where you can put in your height, gender, and weight and it will spit out whether your calorie goals are under your basal metabolic rate. Plug in your numbers and I bet the 2 lbs/week rate will be in the red, meaning it's under your basal metabolic rate. There's a good sticky in the Diet and Nutrition forum on the LoseIt site about BMR which is a good thing to read (though I am not linking it here since you have to be a member to see it).

To answer your specific question: I use exercise calories as a buffer against possible underestimation of food intake unless I burn more than 500 or so per day as measured by a heart rate monitor, and then if I am hungry, I only eat about half of those. Otherwise, I always, always eat up to my full calorie budget in LoseIt. If you are still hungry on workout days after eating your full calorie budget, you are likely eating too little in general and should adjust your loss rate to 1.5 lbs/week.
posted by bedhead at 10:33 AM on July 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: The 300 calories in 30 minutes is from LoseIt. But the elliptical machines at the gym show 100 calories in about 15 minutes at the rate I go, which is still 400 calories in an hour. Since I'm just starting, I usually burn 100 on the elliptical and then do 10 minutes on the circuit machines, and do this three times. I plan to gradually increase the weights on the machines and decrease the time it takes to burn 100 on the elliptical by increasing effort. Right now it usually takes me about an hour and 15 mins, and I'm going five times a week. I'm not really working for strength, I'm just trying to get my muscles in better shape for later when I can get serious about building muscle. My plan is to lose half of my goal weight and then start strength training and possibly running if my knees will hold out.

Thank you all for the advice, I will take it all to heart.
posted by raisingsand at 10:34 AM on July 25, 2013

I think estimated calories burned are not terribly accurate - just to give you some idea, even when runkeeper is tracking where I cycle and the hills I go up, it still drastically overestimates the calories we burn compared to my boyfriend's cycle computer and heart rate monitor - so mine says about 2400 for 5 hours of cycling, his says 1800. Unless you are burning in the thousands of calories I would try to ignore it or at least halve it.
posted by kadia_a at 10:46 AM on July 25, 2013

You can't trust calorie-burning estimates. Not on machines, not on LoseIt. It is so dependent on the individual that these things are impossible to estimate. Stick with 1300 per day. Measure your loss weekly. If you're losing more than 2lbs/week, increase your daily calorie intake by 100-200 calories. Go another week. Increase or decrease intake slowly as necessary.

Seriously, even your estimated BMR from those calculators may be wildly off. In my experience the vast majority of people are actually burning less than those estimates. Those estimates use calculators whose calculations are based on studies that used healthy people from decades ago when people carried a lot more muscle mass and were more active than they are today.
posted by Anonymous at 11:00 AM on July 25, 2013

My suggestion would be to split the difference--if your app is estimating you're burning 300 calories per workout, it might be good to add a post-workout snack that's high in protein and around 150 calories. If you're really white-knuckling it to keep a grip on 1300 calories on your workout days, that is exactly the sort of thing that causes people to give up on diets. Listen to your body. A successful weight-loss diet is not always a walk in the park, but it's not supposed to be a Bataan Death March either.

Even if adding in a post-workout snack causes your weight loss rate to slow slightly, it's better to spend a few extra months losing the weight in a balanced, sustainable way than to make yourself miserable for the next 25 weeks and then give up and rebound back to where you started.
posted by drlith at 11:09 AM on July 25, 2013

Consider a heart-rate monitor which, while it's still an estimate, will at least allow you to judge how much effort you're putting into working out and may give you a better idea of how many calories you're burning.

In general, from what I've read it's a bit difficult to cut calories drastically and add muscle at the same time, because building muscle requires calories. You can still cut fat and add muscle, but it's going to be a fine balancing act (and not one I've solved yet). Bodybuilders tend to go in cycles of eating more to bulk up, then eating less to cut fat, rather than doing both at the same time.

Anecdata time: I use LoseIt as well, and when I started lifting weights--a modest program, not even a big competition-type program--I became exhausted. All the time. Sleeping 9-10 hours and still having trouble getting up. As in, my husband was urging me to go to the doctor. And this was me eating 1650 calories/day. On a suspicion, when I realized that the timing dated almost precisely to starting the weightlifting program, I upped that to 1850 calories/day, and wham! the tiredness went away. I think that if I tried to drop much below 1650 calories/day, I'd do serious damage to my health. (Not to mention stopping exercise, because I'd be too tired to do it!) I'm still trying to figure out a good balance for myself (although I think it's going to be hitting 1850 on the days I lift, and under that on the days I don't).

So I'd advise that if you want to add muscle and cut calories drastically, to start talking to professionals, such as a dietician and trainers, and be clear about your goal.
posted by telophase at 12:17 PM on July 25, 2013

- I wouldn't, unless you're getting too hungry. Even then, I'd switch to low GI and a bit more protein and see if that helps first.

- I, personally, find that if I go more than a week at a low calorie intake, I start to struggle with motivation and hunger. I will therefore pick one day a week to up my calories to at least my BMR. This is often a day when I have a social function, and will often result in a jump in my weight by 0.5 - 1 kg, due to excess salt or carbs, but that comes off pretty quickly.
posted by kjs4 at 5:03 PM on July 25, 2013

Think of diet to lose weight, and gym for body shape.
posted by devnull at 5:35 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have no idea about LoseIt but I used Livestrong's dailyplate and set my baseline activity level to sedentary and input all my exercise every day - walking, jogging, cycling, etc.... My initial one year of dieting was about 50lbs of weight loss and it tracked exactly to my caloric consumption and burning. It was shocking. I am science grad school drop-out and I have never seen or heard of anything being this accurate when there are so many potential confounds involved. [ I was very conservative in my input - I chose the lower values for caloric burning and the higher values for caloric consumption - Livestrong had a lot data entries in the food database that were from people who were clearly sabotaging themselves.]

There are lots of people who have special snowflake stories to tell about calorie counting and exercise calorie burn inaccuracy but as Michael Moseley's BBC documentary on weight loss showed these people are often making big mistakes in their counting or are deluding themselves (like eating a whole mixing bowl full of fruit and not counting it because "hey, it is fruit!"). Even if there is the hypothesized differences people propose ask yourself what the size of these differences are. A 10% difference either way in your case is 130 kcals. That's about one thin slice of toast with butter. That isn't the reason people fail at dieting.

One thing that I learned from calorie counting was that I got headaches and binge ate from under-eating or over-exercising the day before. These issues went away when I made sure I was right at my lose 2lbs a week NET caloric intake every day. Levelling off my daily caloric consumption alone did a lot for my well-being. Losing 50lbs completely changed my health - massively reduced arthritic pain, almost no back problems, way better sleeping, opened up fitness opportunities like jogging and on and on...

Stick with it. It is worth it.

Oh and I was always hungry, to the point of distraction, at the end of every single day for about the first 6 months of my diet.
posted by srboisvert at 9:48 AM on July 28, 2013

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