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.

Comments

  1. says

    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. says

    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. Anonymous says

    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.

  4. says

    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. says

    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.

  6. says

    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?

  7. says

    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!

  8. Justin Summerlin says

    I know this is an old post, but I came across it and thought I would comment because I think you have a few facts mixed up.

    Now, keep in mind that I’m not saying you should eat more if you exercise. I think your advice is VERY good for losing weight. I’m telling you what the app calculates. When it talks about activity level, it’s talking about your everyday life… it’s not talking about exercise. It even gives you descriptions of what each one would be… and NONE of them actually include exercise.

    For instance, here are the descriptions from the app (word for word):

    Sedentary – Spend most of the day sitting (e.g. bankteller, desk job)
    Lightly Active – Spend a good part of the day on your feet (e.g. teacher, salesman)
    Active – Spend a good part of the day doing some physical activity (e.g. waitress, mailman)
    Very Active – Spend most of the day doing heavy physical activity (e.g. bike messenger, carpenter)

    None of those descriptions mention exercise, and ALL of them specify jobs that are increasingly more active as you go up the scale. Exercise is EXTRA.

    I put in my info and it gave me 1900 calories to lose weight. My BMR is about 1900. After accounting for my activity level (sedentary) it’s 2288. Thus, with NO exercise I will lose weight just eating the 1900 calories it gave me (assuming the calculations are accurate). If I add in exercise then, technically, I could eat more food and still be at or around my 1900 calorie BMR mark AND I would still lose weight because I’d still be the same number below my BMR*Activity level as I was before I exercised and ate.

    I believe your advice is very good and I don’t want to convince people to eat more food, but your facts are a bit misleading, and it’s those kinds of things that can keep people from sticking with the app. My wife was told by the app that she can only eat 1200 calories a day to lose the weight she wants to lose and she’s having a really tough time sticking with that number of calories. She feels extremely hungry often throughout the day. If someone told her that her exercise didn’t raise the number of calories she could eat, she would probably stop using the app because she feels miserable (and frankly she gets ornery) when she hasn’t eaten enough. :) That is the only thing I would caution against when you tell people not to count their exercise.

  9. Justin Summerlin says

    Just as a follow up to what I said above, I would also like to point out that in your scale, you jump straight from “little or no exercise; desk job” to “light exercise sports 1-3 days/wk” with nothing in between.

    You’re completely skipping over a lot of different areas. What about the people who don’t exercise at all, but have a more active job than a “desk job” like a teacher? What about the people who don’t exercise and have an even more active job than the teacher like a bike messenger?

    You’re basing your opinion on a flawed scale… in fact, a scale that is not even used by the My Fitness Pal app.

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