It’s the end of a long day. You’ve been at work 9-5, managed to fit in an hour of exercise, and now it’s time to pick your dinner. If you’re like most people, then this is a regular occurrence. You’re tired, you feel like you’ve worked hard, and therefore, you deserving of a pizza…but then you also had pizza the other night…and you had some of that cake from your co-worker’s party…and a large popcorn at the cinema the other night.
It doesn’t matter though, right? If you exercise regularly, then you can’t put on weight. Whatever weight you do put on, you can easily burn it off the next time you hit the gym. I mean, take a look at those teenage boys who seem to get away with eating whatever they want just because they play a few hours of sports each week.
In this article, we’re going to explore whether you really can take a more relaxed approach to your diet if you exercise, how relaxed that approach can be, whether those “naturally skinny” people are naturally skinny or if they are freezing fat cells in some unknown way, and how to manage both your diet and exercise for an easy, stress-free, and healthy lifestyle.
Does the Gym Negate Calories In vs Calories Out?
The first thing to understand when it comes to gaining and losing weight is that your caloric balance will determine your results. If you’re burning more calories than you’re eating, you’re going to lose weight, and if you’re burning fewer calories than you’re eating, then you’re going to gain weight. This is the overriding rule of all weight-related goals.
The two ways to manage this are through exercise and diet. So, hitting the gym does allow you to eat a little more calories than you otherwise would. Yet, you might not be burning as many calories as you think and this perception could be affecting your habits in the time after your exercise.
A study from the University of Bristol invited 70 men and women to exercise on a stationary bike for a set period. Afterward, some of the participants were told they had expended 50 calories whilst others were told they had burned 265 calories. In actuality, the participants had only burned 120 calories on average. After the exercise was over, the individuals were then presented with a table full of orange juice, tortilla chips, and chocolate chip cookies. They were all told they had 10 minutes to eat whatever they wanted.
As you might expect, those who were told they had burned 265 calories drank more juice and ate more of both the tortillas and cookies. The higher-calorie group ate 67 more cookies than the lower-calorie group. Overall, the higher-calorie group consumed 128 calories more than the lower-calorie group. Even though both groups burned the same amount of calories and therefore, their bodies would need to replace that energy with similar amounts of food, just believing they had burned more meant the higher calorie group at more.
Now, this doesn’t sound like a large number, but it does add up. If you were to exercise 5 days a week, that’s an extra 640 calories a week or 2560 calories a month. 128 calories were only relevant to that group, you might eat a little more on some days or a little less on others, but at the end of the day, your perception can make a big difference. It’s also important to note that the individuals were under a time-restricted feeding window. If you get home hungry after another intense gym session, there are no restrictions on your cupboards or timing. You’re free to eat as much of whatever you like.
I’m not saying that you immediately dive into a pack of Oreos as soon as you get home, but your willpower does wain the more tired you are. If you get to the end of the day exhausted from both work and exercise fancying a takeaway, there’s little stopping you from picking up the phone and dialing Domino’s digits for a well-deserved stuffed crust extravaganza.
If this is a regular occurrence, then you can easily run into problems with both your health and your body composition. Using exercise as an excuse to eat whatever you want will eventually cause you to run into problems.
However, what exercise does do is allow you to indulge a little bit more often and fit in foods you otherwise couldn’t. For instance, if it gets to the end of the week and you’ve both exercised regularly and eaten healthily, then one takeaway isn’t going to throw your entire body off balance. At the end of the day, your diet should make you happy. If you can’t fit in a few of your loves now and again, then you need to shake up your eating habits. A slice of cake here and a packet of crisps there really won’t damage you as much as you think. It’s only when these habits start stacking up regularly that the issues arise. As with most things, the devil is in the dose.
How Many Calories Do You Burn Each Day?
In 2004, the Harvard Heart Letter issued a table showing the rough amount of calories burned in 30 minutes of activity for three different weight categories: 125 lbs, 155 lbs, and 185 lbs. Here are just some of the calories burned by the most popular forms of exercise:
As you can see, a hard stationary bike session burns the most calories at 466 for a 185-lb person over half an hour. However, the chances are that you wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace for the full hour unless you were extremely experienced or an advanced rider. Most people don’t have a clue as to how many calories they’ve burned in a single session, and going by what a machine tells you can often be very inaccurate.
Data sourced from the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine analyzed the total daily energy expenditures of men and women aged between 20 and 70. 52% of women burned between 2000-2600 calories per day, putting the average at around 2,300 calories per day. 20% of the women burned less than 2000 calories per day with 16% burning more than 2,800. For men, it’s a slightly different picture. An even 50% of men burn between 2,600 and 3,400 calories per day! This puts the average around 3000 calories – much higher than the recommended intake of 2,500 calories per day. 19% burned less than 2,6000 and 29% burn more than 3,400.
Why is there such a big difference? Well, first and foremost, men tend to carry more muscle than women. Unlike fat, muscle is metabolically active. This means that it requires calories to stay in the body and directly contributes to the metabolic rate. Alongside this, men tend to be both taller and heavier, both of which will also contribute to your metabolic rate. Imagine carrying around an extra 20 lbs with you every day. The data also looked at height which is a clear increase in caloric needs the taller the individual as well as a large disparity between the heights of each gender.
Interestingly, the data also reported men to be more active with men’s caloric requirements increasing more so than women’s as their activity levels increased, too. This means that men might need more calories after the same bout of exercise.
“Hard Gainers”, Metabolisms, and NEAT
We all know at least one person who just doesn’t seem to put on weight no matter what they eat. This is a common reason behind people thinking that they can eat whatever they want due to their exercise habits. When we see someone else constantly gorging on bags of chocolate whilst maintaining a slim frame, it’s easy for us to slip into the same habits. Yet, no two people are the same.
“hard gainer” is often the term given to gym goers who have the desire to build muscle and put on size, but just can’t seem to no matter how hard they try. It’s also used to refer to those we’ve just mentioned whose diet looks more like an extensive fast food menu than anything else.
It’s often thought that these hard gainers just have a ridiculous metabolism and that’s why food just doesn’t seem to affect them, and this is true…to a degree. Everyone’s metabolic rate is different. Though we’re often similar which is why online calorie calculators can be a good starting point for determining your needs, there are slight differences that can make a big difference. This is why your friend might be able to lose weight on 2,200 calories whilst you have to drop down to 2,000 calories despite having similar bodies. There are genetic outliers who have to eat upwards of 5,000 calories just to maintain their weight. Though, these people also tend to carry a lot of muscle mass and be fairly active.
A “fast” metabolism is an inefficient metabolism; it means that your body isn’t converting the energy you’re taking in as effectively as it could be. Those with “slow” metabolisms are more efficient at this conversion process. If we were back in the stone age, then the slow metabolisms would be able to survive much longer periods without food because their body can effectively convert fat for energy whilst faster metabolisms will have a harder time. However, in the modern world where highly palatable, highly caloric food is readily available, faster metabolisms allow individuals to eat more, making it harder for them to become overweight or obese (but not impossible).
If you’re born with a slow metabolism, then there are ways you can influence to allow for a higher calorie intake:
- Build muscle
- Don’t go too low in calories on a diet
- Increase your protein intake
The first two points we’ve already discussed, but the third is arguably the most important. Your metabolism is an incredibly adaptive mechanism designed to prevent you from becoming both over and underweight. If you drop your calories too low, then eventually your body will adapt to this lower calorie intake which forces your fat loss to stall. After this, you’re forced to drop your calories even lower just to stimulate some form of change. If you’ve started with a dramatic drop, then the chances are that anything lower is going to affect your hormonal function, mood, cognitive abilities, and physical performance. Slow and steady to win the race when we’re discussing long-term, sustainable changes for a happy, healthy body.
In regards to the last point, protein is a potent thermogenic. This means that when we eat it, a high amount of the calories we could get are burned off as heat. In turn, this heat increases the temperature of your body, causing it to spend more calories cooling you down. The recommended protein intake in the UK is 0.75 grams per kilogram of body weight. This equates to just 56 grams of protein for a 75kg individual. Bumping this up to 0.75 grams per pound of body weight can make a massive difference to both your metabolic rate and your satiety. Protein is both extremely filling and hard for your body to store as fat, making it harder for you to overeat and cause weight gain. For example, compare how you feel after eating a lot of Turkey at Christmas to chocolate at Easter. Turkey is high in protein whilst the chocolate is high in both sugar and fat. The chances are that it’s much harder to eat the same amount of calories from lean meats than from sweets. Now, this isn’t quite a fair comparison, but it is an easy way to understand how important protein is for body composition.
Another reason why some people tend to be able to eat whatever they want is because of NEAT. This doesn’t mean that they’re clean freaks, NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. You might have also heard it referred to as NEPA or Non-Exercise Physical Activity. Essentially, this is the calories you burn through movements outside of the gym. Things such as going to the bathroom, going up the stairs, walking around the kitchen making dinner, shaking your leg as you fidget, etc. Those who eat more tend to have more energy which boosts their daily NEAT. If you know someone who just can’t sit still, then the chances are that they’re burning a lot of calories just through these activities which can cause a big result at the end of the day. For non-active individuals, this can add up to around 15% of total energy requirements. However, for active individuals, it can add up to 50%! This can be a true lifesaver for those who don’t have time to frequently exercise. If you can only manage to hit the gym 2-3 times per week, then just simply moving more day-to-day could be the solution to your weight problems.
The 80/20 Rule
So, what should you do? Place a ban on your household mentioning Ben and Jerry’s name. Aim for 30,000 steps as opposed to 10,000. Purchase a brand new walking desk so you’re never sat down. Not quite. No food is inherently bad for you. As we’ve already said, the devil is in the dose. If you want to keep on track with your health and fitness goals whilst still enjoying some less “healthy” food options, then prolonged “good” periods interspersed with binging is not the answer. The 80/20 rule means that 80% of the time you eat healthy, wholesome, natural foods like lean meats, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and wholegrains whilst allowing 20% of the time for less healthy items like cakes, cookies, and pastries, chocolates, and sweets. This means you get to satisfy your cravings as well as your health goals without binging, without becoming frustrated, and without sacrificing one or the other. You don’t need to track calories if you don’t want to; just be real with yourself. If you ordered a Chinese last night, then going for that high-calorie meal deal at lunch probably isn’t the best choice. Though, if you’ve been good all week and your partner’s asking for the takeaway menus, then don’t feel guilty when you indulge. Enjoy yourself safe in the knowledge it won’t have any long-term effect on your physique.
If I had to come up with a definitive answer to the question, then it would have to be no; no, you can’t eat whatever you want if you exercise. Though, exercise can be a good way to allow more of the foods you want in your diet. If you struggle to fit in exercise, then simply moving more can be a great way of increasing your caloric expenditure.
Finally, if you do end up binging or making some bad decisions, then don’t beat yourself up. Tomorrow is another day that brings with it many moments to make better choices. It’s all in the past now, what matters is how you handle the future.