Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Accounting for Exercise on Your Weight Loss/Food Tracking App

Happy 2013 everyone!!  I hope everyone enjoyed themselves last night, and was safe as the new year began.  We were at our house with some friends watching the ball drop at 12am, while drinking some good beers and recovering from a day's worth of sodium at a local Japanese Steakhouse.  Delicious, but let's just say I couldn't get my rings off last night!

 YesterdayI posted about the importance of changing your food diary phone app goals (specifically on My Fitness Pal), and today I'm going to teach you that you shouldn't record your exercise on most food recording apps.  If you happen to have one where they don't give you those extra calories burned from exercise to then consume, then by all means, add your exercise.  My Fitness Pal, and most apps I've seen, are not like that unfortunately.  Let me explain.......when I first started learning about My Fitness Pal, I hated it that when I added exercise to my plan they would then "allow me" to eat more calories.  To me, this was pointless.  So many Americans workout, then eat more because they think they can.  This is why for many people working out doesn't help them lose weight.

Many times the "calories burned" number that you see on your exercise machine is inaccurate.  This has been tested many times.

Check out my goals below from My Fitness Pal (before I changed them to make them more realistic and accurate for my personal needs.  See a local registered dietitian to help you do the same!).

See the asterisk??  Your net calorie recommendation from MFP is your total calories consumed, minus those burned by exercise.  So, they are saying on days that you exercise you can eat those calories back.  It even says, "So the more you exercise, the more you can eat!!"   

Ummmmm...BOOOOO !  Not true.  That would be nice though, wouldn't it?

Exercise more, eat more?  Hmmm, I don't think so.  Maybe some days, sure, but don't do that on a regular basis (unless you're an elite athlete!)  

By determining my own calorie needs and showing you why I would have gained weight if I would have been adding my exercise into My Fitness Pal, and following their goals, you will see why this is a problem.

I like to use the very accurate equation called the Mifflin St. Joer equation for Resting Metabolic Rate, which can be found hereThis equation tells me that my Resting Metabolic Rate is 1150 calories.  This means if I sat around on the couch all day, I would burn about 1150 calories (if I wasn't sick, or eating, or doing anything at all).

This equation then allows you to multiple by an Activity Multiplier (source);

Sedentary = BMR X 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
Lightly active = BMR X 1.375 (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/wk)
Mod. active = BMR X 1.55 (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/wk) --------This is ME!
Very active = BMR X 1.725 (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/wk)
Extr. Active = BMR X 1.9 (hard daily exercise/sports; physical job or 2X day training, i.e marathon, contest etc.)

So this activity multiplier/factor takes into account your everyday activities and exercise.  If I multiply my RMR by 1.55 I get 1782.  So, in order to remain at my current weight, which was my goal when I was using this application, I needed to consume about 1782/day.  Yep, that's almost exactly hat they came up with for my calorie goals on MFP. HOWEVER, the problem is that when I added my exercise, they give me on average an extra 300 calories.  WRONG!  The equation already took into account my daily activities and exercise, so why would I add more?!  It's lame, and I this is why I never added my workouts to My Fitness Pal, and I tell clients not to either.  And just to prove my point even more, check out this recent article from the New York Times Well Blog.  Here is a quote form the article;

Close mathematical scrutiny of past studies of exercise and weight loss shows that that happy prospect [that exercise will speed up your metabolism, basically continuously] is, sad to say, unfounded. One of the few studies ever to have scrupulously monitored exercise, food intake and metabolic rates found that volunteers’ basal metabolic rates dropped as they lost weight, even though they exercised every day. As a result, although they were burning up to 500 calories during an exercise session, their total daily caloric burn was lower than it would have been had their metabolism remained unchanged, and they lost less weight than had been expected.

The problem for those of us hoping to use exercise to slough off fat is that most current calculations about exercise and weight loss assume that metabolism remains unchanged or is revved by exercise.

My Fitness Pal does give you less calories as you lose more weight, which is the accurate thing to do, but they should not give you more calories when you add exercise.  Period.  Why? Because it's already accounted for in the equation.  What's more, they tend to overestimate the calories burned from different exercises.  I put in "30-minutes elliptical training" one time and they gave me a 300-calories burned.  HA!  In my dreams.

Here is another great article about how people who exercise a lot tend to weight more.  Why? Read the article it's fascinating. One of the points they make is that people compensate for their exercise by eating more, despite not really being more hungry (did you know that your appetite often decreases on days you work out?!) and that people tend to be more lazy during the day on days they do a hard workout, which is not good.

QUESTION:  Do you add your exercise to your food diary phone apps? If so, do you eat those extra calories if you are trying to lose and/or maintain weight?

Keep in mind, if you workout for long periods of time (such as when you are training for a marathon or a similar large athletic event) you may actually need the extra calories.  But, for most of us who are recreational exercisers (ie: ~45-60 minutes a day, moderate intensity on average) we really don't need to strive for extra calories on days we work out!  But like I always say, see a local registered dietitian for more details about your own personal dietary needs.

Thanks for reading!

The Candid Rd
NOTE: I love comments!  But, be sure to come back to read any replies to questions or comments, as they do not go directly to your e-mail.


  1. Not having used exercise apps, I didn't know they accounted for exercise in the calorie allowance. Good to know! That "the more you exercise, the more you can eat" sentence is so misleading! Great job calling them out on it!

    Happy New Year, Gina!

  2. great points, Gina! I also wonder if those who have desk jobs have an even lower BMR due to so much inactivity. When I consider that, I think that recommending an hour per day of exercise is not too much to ask and should not mean an increase in calories per day.

  3. Great posts! (This one and yesterday's.) I've been using MyFitnessPal for a while. I like it, but it's not perfect. Your tips will help smooth out some of the rough edges.

    1. Glad you found the tips helpful! Good luck with the app, and feel free to e-mail me questions in the future, if you'd like.

  4. Great information! I think the statement "So the more you exercise, the more you can eat" is very misleading and clearly sends the wrong message!

    Happy 2013, Gina!

  5. I really appreciate this post. I always got confused when using My Fitness Pal because it seemed counter-productive. Thanks for the insight!

  6. Wow - what an informative post! I actually just signed up for MFP last night and today was my first day tracking. Thanks to your posts, I've changed my food goals and have decided to not track my exercise through this app after doing the BMR for myself. I don't plan to use this app long term, but rather to get a big picture on the foods I eat, what nutrients I need more/less of, etc.

  7. This is a great post. I noticed this recently. It's a shame I didn't figure it out earlier. You really have to stop and ask yourself, where is that calorie need number coming from?

  8. I use MFP and I put sedentary since I'm a student and sit most of the day. I've read several places that when you add in your exercise (like on MFP) you should choose your activity level not including how much you work out. MFP tells me to eat 1250 calories a day based on sedentary and if I didn't add in my workouts (around 500 a day) I'd be practically starving myself!