How Many Calories Is Your Time Worth?

Fitness and weight loss “experts” like to recommend finding ways to incorporate more physical activity into daily life, usually exchanging efficiency or convenience for increased physical exertion, based on the mistaken belief that doing so makes a meaningful contribution to health, fitness, or fat loss. They claim these little changes add up to a lot of calories burned over the course of a week, however this is not the case. If hour-long “cardio” sessions barely burn enough calories to be worth doing for that purpose, a few minutes walking up the stairs or across a parking lot are hardly going to amount to any calories burned, while reducing your time and productivity.

Unless you enjoy these activities for their own sake, doing them to burn calories is not worth your time. You could accomplish as much of negative calorie balancein a single day with a few dietary changes as the typical recommendations for increases in activity would amount to over several weeks, without it costing a minute of your time.

In a recent post I mentioned a study from the 2009 European Congress on Obesity (Swinburn BA, et al “Increased energy intake alone virtually explains all the increase in body weight in the United States from 1970s to the 2000s” ECO 2009.) which showed a lack of activity is not the problem. Overeating is. If you want to lose fat, forget about spending a few extra minutes walking an extra block to work; you’ll barely burn the amount of calories contained in a few french fries. Instead, save yourself a few minutes and skip the french fries to begin with.

The following are just a few suggestions for dietary improvements that will make a much bigger difference in fat loss than adding a few minutes of extra activity throughout your day:

  • Eliminate or minimize intake of grains and other refined carbohydrates.
  • Replace them with a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, especially leafy vegetables and berries.
  • Choose moderately leaner sources of protein – certain fats (animal fats, butter, egg, coconut oil, etc.) are healthy but very calorie dense.
  • Substitute water or other non-caloric beverages like tea for sodas and fruit juices.

This is not to say I believe people should be inactive. There are other benefits to getting up and moving around. However, doing so makes little or no positive difference in body composition.

The only worthwhile exercise for improving body composition is strength training. High intensity strength training in particular provides the greatest physical benefits relative to the time invested, including all of the cardiovascular and metabolic benefits of aerobics or “cardio”. Strength training directly improves body composition by increasing muscle mass and by preventing loss of muscle mass while fat is lost in people restricting calorie intake, and indirectly because more muscle mass equals a higher basal metabolic rate and more storage space for glucose (as glycogen). High intensity strength training also depletes muscle glycogen levels, so more of the carbohydrate consumed is stored as glycogen in the muscles than as triglycerides in the fat cells.

So, if you’re in a hurry to get to work or have better things to do with your time, go ahead and take the elevator or park in the closest spot – you’re not missing out on any kind of major calorie-burning or conditioning benefits. If you need to lose fat, focus on improving your diet instead.

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21 Responses to How Many Calories Is Your Time Worth?

  1. Ted August 17, 2009 at 8:51 pm #

    Drew,

    Thanks for the great article. I just got done reading the other articles in the Fat Loss category this morning, so it’s perfect. I started following the dietary modifications laid out in this article about 2 months ago and I can say it definitely works for me. For the first month I “exercised” all the time and lost fat following this diet to a T. Then, I took up HIST and gave up all aerobics and “Cardio”. Guess what? Fat loss was the same as before. It’s really nice to have the extra time and remain injury free. Thanks for propagating this information and wisdom.

  2. Anthony August 17, 2009 at 11:58 pm #

    That heart attack grill site is pretty funny, but they leave the lay reader thinking the “red meat” is going to “clog their arteries”, when in fact the refined carbohydrate is probably doing more damage than anything, alongside the whacked out omega 6:3 ratio in the meat.

    Ha, apparently they cook their fries in lard too, better than what McDonalds is using.

  3. Greg Roseman August 18, 2009 at 10:19 am #

    Drew,

    I’ve recently lost 45 pounds by strength training once a week for 14 minutes and consuming 1800 calories a day. The diet is the key, the first 2 weeks were tough but after that period of consuming less food it became effortless. I’m 6’1″ and weigh 195 lbs and am 50 years old. My wife isays is the best I’ve ever looked. Another 10 lbs. and I’ll be ripped. People must remember to separate activity from fat loss. Fat loss is purely a numbers game and has nothing to do with activity. If one thinks about it, if the human body was efficient at burning calories through activity we’d have never survived as a species. Humans during the pre-historic period would go days/weeks without food. If movement was effiiecent at burning calories we’d waste away going to the grocery store. Only since WWII have we had this amount of food available at our fingertips. I’ve also found that any additional activty throughout the day stimulates my appetite. Drew keep up the good work.

  4. Jordan August 18, 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    How about a blue collar worker who is on his feet for 8 or 9 hours a day, or someone using a Treadmill Desk for, say, five hours a day? Would that level of activity burn enough calories to make a significant difference?

    • Drew Baye August 20, 2009 at 4:27 pm #

      Jordan,

      Unless one is restricting their calorie intake, it is unlikely a more active job would make much of a difference, since the person would most likely just eat more to compensate due to the effect on appetite. Even if they are restricting their calorie intake, the difference would still not be more than a few hundred calories. The key is calorie restriction. No amount of activity and no type of exercise will make up for a poor diet.

      I never heard of a treadmill desk before your comment, so I looked it up, and quite frankly they are stupid and dangerous.

  5. Greg Roseman August 18, 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    Drew, I recently lost 45 pounds strength training once a week for about 14 minutes and consuming 1800 calories a day. After the first 2 weeks of consuming less food it was almost effortless. I’m currently 6’1″ and weigh 195 lbs and am 50 years old. My wife says its the best I’ve ever looked. Another 10 lbs and I’ll be ripped. Also additional steady state activity I’ve found increases my appetite. If steady state activity was effective as a calorie burner we’d have never survived as a species. Pre-historic man went for days/weeks without food. All the activity in the search for food would have caused humans to waste away.

  6. Drew Baye August 18, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    It’s ironic that in attempting to be politically incorrect they actually end up being healthier in some respects (frying in lard instead of vegetable oil) due to the public’s misconceptions about saturated fat, cholesterol, and cardiovascular health.

  7. AC August 20, 2009 at 7:03 pm #

    A friend of mine once worked on a small construction site for a couple of months. It was near where I lived and I used to go and see him every now and again and I remember hearing from my friend how they all worked really hard for nearly 10 hours a day and they were on their feet all the time lifting and carrying things etc. Yet they were all fat. That’s because I also heard stories about how much alcohol they drank at weekends and how much fried food they had for breakfast etc.

    I’ve also played on sports teams where some of the people despite running around a lot during games and training etc were still fat. Not obese but they still had fat stomachs and man boobs etc.

    The other day when I was going to work I saw a runner who looked fat. It’s not like he had just started. I’ve seen him once or twice a week for the last 6 months in the mornings and he is still just as fat.

    All of these examples suffer from too much activity and no real regulation of diet.

    • Drew Baye August 20, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

      Something Ken Hutchins pointed out was some people lose weight when they become very busy because they are less likely to eat while preoccupied. It’s hard to stuff chips or french fries in your mouth when you’re remodeling a room, painting the house, rebuilding a car, taking on a big landscaping project, etc. After a few weeks they notice they’ve lost a little weight, their pants fit looser, etc., and they assume it’s because they’ve burned a lot of calories with all the extra activity, when the real reason is they were so busy they ended up eating fewer calories.

      • Paul November 5, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

        I find that people have a tendancy to overeat after cardio sessions, because of the amount of glucose they are burning. It could explain why people dont lose weight with cardio aside from the fact exercise is a poor way to burn calories.

  8. AC August 21, 2009 at 2:48 am #

    I’ve often heard that from people that do lots of long gym sessions, be it cardio or weights. They say that although they are in the gym for 2 and a half hours a night, at least they’re not at home stuffing their faces. Sad but true.

    Fred Hahn had something on his blog a couple of years back that said similar. I’ve also seen it with people I know.

    If someone tightens up their diet, introduces a cardio routine and loses weight as a result, they will almost always attribute any weight loss and health benefits gained to the cardio. They won’t even mention their diet unless you push them to tell you. Yet you can bet if they have lost weight, the dietary changes they have made are pretty significant.

  9. Jordan August 21, 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    Thanks for the comments, Drew and AC. Honestly, I was hoping that would be the case! lol. I would rather just eat less than be active several hours a day.

    Eat less to lose body fat, strength train to build/ maintain muscle mass. Sounds good to me! So logical, so simple.

    • Drew Baye August 21, 2009 at 4:49 pm #

      Participants have to at least live close enough to attend initial and final meetings where the workout and diet programs will be handed out and explained, and measurements and before and after photography will be performed.

  10. Joel August 21, 2009 at 7:29 pm #

    Hi Drew, your article reminded me of something I read on t-nation. It’s interesting but doesn’t seem very time efficient:

    “However, with G-Flux, physiology can be profoundly changed — regardless of the energy-balance state or that input-output number.

    For example, if I were eating 2,000 calories a day and burning 2,500 a day, I’d be in a negative energy balance of 500 calories. And you’d expect me to lose weight.

    But if I bumped up my G-Flux by boosting my intake to 3,000 calories, and my expenditure to 3,500, my calorie deficit would be the same. So you’d expect my physique to be in the same state as in the former situation. And a classically trained dietitian would suggest that there’s no difference between the two.

    However, the research paints a different picture. This boost in G-Flux would most likely lead to an increase in lean mass, a decrease in fat mass, and an increase in metabolic rate. ”

    http://www.tmuscle.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_nutrition/gflux_redux

    • Drew Baye August 21, 2009 at 8:15 pm #

      Joel,

      I believe Berardi made up the term G-flux to describe this. A few possibilities come to mind:

      A higher calorie intake might have the effect of keeping leptin levels higher despite the negative energy balance, helping maintain a higher metabolic rate.

      Although the effect on energy expenditure may not be significant, thermic effect of food would also be a factor.

      Performing the hours of intense exercise required to increase expenditure to such a degree would also deplete muscle glycogen significantly, meaning more of whatever carbohydrate was consumed would end up replacing the depleted muscle glycogen instead of being converted to triglycerides and stored in the fat cells.

      I don’t believe what Berardi is suggesting is either efficient or necessary, and very highly doubt it is much more effective than just high intensity strength training and a higher protein, lower carb diet.

  11. Víctor March 20, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Hello Drew, thanks very much for the 31.4 and how fat burn works, i thing that there is a intentional misconception in fitness industry between different types of fats (i thing misconception because maliciously all kinds of fats are intentionally confused is a favorite lie in fitness industry), fats for chemical reactions in the body
    fatty acids for fueled the muscle in a mid range of intensity, and fat stored in the adipose tissue, subcutaneous fat mostly (and organs surroundig fat) in fact subcutaneous fat is the thing that really would be of interest, not to deplete the body of fatty acids necessary for life.
    Thats the cuestion how really many calories stored in subcutaneous fat are really burned in a recommended 1 hour of running, according to the 31.4 kcal per pound and per day one can do a generalization, and then really doesn’t matter how hard is the cardio, you never burn many calories
    Example, a lean person with 20 pounds of subcutaneous body fat in a hour are 20*31.4/24 =26kcal that is a misery that in the past would found very difficult to believe, thats is reallity, if this is true, cardio is a scam for fat burn, 26kcal its simply a very little of milk!!!
    Well, then the over eating post cardio arrives and informally is very difficult a diary accurate intake error less than 200 kcal, then is unlikely, the 26 kcal soon will be dig with a peak of insulin.
    And doesn’t matter if the body is working very hard, the speed 31.4 is yet the peak because in a complete starvation process the body is not in less emergency than in a cardio session.
    It’s probably true that a 1 hour cardio sesion may burn 500kcal (120-130 heart rate) of fat
    but from fatty acids stored in the muscles not from subcutaneous fat THATS IS THE LIE in my opinion, its a subtle game of words.
    Thanks very much for freedom me of crap drugs (ephedrine+caffeine), this drug is dangerous and little effective, tendinitis, an waste of time

    • Drew Baye April 10, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

      Victor,

      I believe due to the type of diet the subjects in the study were eating that their estimated limit on energy transfer is actually low, and a same-calorie diet higher in fat and lower in carbohydrate would have produced a hormonal state more conducive to fat loss and possibly much better numbers.

      You are correct that running and similar endurance activities are highly overrated for fat loss. Any physical activity will make some contribution, but one has to consider the benefit versus the costs and risks, especially with activities with higher potential for traumatic injury or long-term damage.

      I don’t think there is a problem with ephedrine and caffeine when used in appropriate amounts by healthy people, and there is actually research showing these can help with fat loss in various ways. They’re only dangerous if used improperly or by people who have conditions for which they would be contraindicated.

  12. Kelly July 26, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Hi Drew,
    I understand that diet is essential to fat loss and that most aerobic exercises don’t burn a significant amount of calories. But what about high calorie burning aerobic exercises like cross country skiing or walking with hand weights like the Heavy Hands exercises. These exercises in 30 minutes burn 700 to 1100 calories based on your size. Would these type of exercises be worth the time invested? Thanks

    • Drew Baye July 26, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

      Kelly,

      You won’t burn anywhere near that many calories in an hour performing either of those activities. While any physical activity will burn more calories than sitting down doing nothing, none burn enough to be worth doing for that purpose alone. If you want to be more active then choose activities based on your enjoyment of them, rather than exaggerated claims of calorie expenditure.

  13. David February 24, 2013 at 5:58 am #

    Hi Drew.

    Should I eat the same amount of calories every day during weight loss if I train twice a week? I mean, shouldn’t I eat more on the days of training to ensure muscle repair/growth? The pre- or post workout meal/shake will take up some calories that I will have to deduct from other meals on the same day.

    And does the same go for the gaining periods?

    Best regards,

    Dave.

    • Drew Baye March 6, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

      Dave,

      Whether you are eating to lose fat or build muscle I think it helps to consume more of your calories around your workouts.

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