Fitness: Problem with wellness goal?

Looking more carefully at how much exercise is equivalent to the calories in some of your favourite treats will, hopefully, help you make better choices about food.
Looking more carefully at how much exercise is equivalent to the calories in some of your favourite treats will, hopefully, help you make better choices about food.PHOTO: MYPAPER

Consider exercise equivalents - the amount of exercise needed to burn calories consumed

It is just over a month into the new year, and you have stuck with your fitness routine but have not seen the scale budge.

It may be time to look at calories in and calories out - and whether you have a realistic view of that equation.

Weight loss is a result of creating calorie deficits in the body, which can be done both by calorie cutting on the food side and increased energy expenditure on the exercise side.

But, as you might expect, there is a human tendency to overestimate how many calories we burn during (and after) exercising, while underestimating the number of calories we consume.

That is where the concept of exercise equivalents - the amount of exercise needed to burn roughly the same number of calories in a food item - can be useful.

Keep in mind that these are rough values, and that an occasional indulgence need not be followed with wind sprints. The best way to think of exercise equivalents is as a tool that can "help make us more aware of what we put into our bodies", as Ben Fidler, a Washington DC-based personal trainer, puts it.

This is not to single out doughnuts but consider a chocolate-glazed one with sprinkles from Dunkin' Donuts, which is 290 calories according to the company's website.

The average Singaporean who weighs 64kg, according to the Health Promotion Board's HealthHub portal, would have to spend about 90 minutes of normal weight training or about 34 minutes of running at 8kmh to burn these calories.

These figures come from the American Council on Exercise's online physical activity calorie counter, on which you can plug in your weight to see what exercise, at what intensity and for how long you would have to engage in to burn a certain number of calories.

Many restaurants provide calorie information. But they do not offer exercise equivalents.

For Chicago resident Steffen Jacobsen, 41, who does boot camp and weighs 100kg, it would take about one hour of running at the 8kmh pace to burn 800 calories.

"That gives me pause," he says. "At this age, it's all a trade-off. If you eat that one cookie, it's like you negate all your hard work, at least from a weight-loss perspective."

He acknowledges that working out has many benefits other than keeping weight under control, such as muscle-building and flexibility.

Katherine Basbaum, a registered dietitian with the University of Virginia Health System, agrees that for weight-loss purposes, exercise equivalents can be a helpful ingredient in understanding calories.

"It's not a magic bullet, but I see it as one of several tools to understand weight loss," she says.

For example, she says, consider a person who wants to lose 0.45kg a week, which is the equivalent of creating a roughly 3,500-calorie deficit or 500 per day. It can be created with a combination of:

• 250-calorie energy expenditure: Increase exercise quota. For instance, add 30 minutes of slow running for a 59kg person.

• 250-calorie decrease: For example, skip a daily whole-milk latte.

Looking more carefully at how much exercise is equivalent to the calories in some of your favourite treats will, hopefully, help you make better choices about food.

But do not just consider calories. A 1,500-calorie bag of potato chips could theoretically fuel a roughly 68kg sedentary person for a day. But you would be hungry quickly because they contain negligible amounts of protein and fibre.

By way of comparison and by no means a nutrition suggestion: 1,500 calories of brown rice, which is seven or eight cups, is packed with fibre and protein. The equivalent for broccoli? About 5.5 kg.

Instead of focusing on calories, Basbaum has patients look at fat, fibre, sodium, protein and other macro-and micronutrients to home in on what types of food best fuel the body and its specific needs. The needs of an athlete are very different from those of a desk jockey.

While Fidler agrees that exercise equivalents can be used to help you make healthy choices, he cautions against making workouts seem like a penance. In the end, the key is to find daily exercise and healthy food you like so you can sustain the habits over time.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 03, 2019, with the headline 'Problem with wellness goal?'. Print Edition | Subscribe