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No, you can't eat what you like and just burn it all off

A coach explains why we need to decouple exercise from weight loss and look at nutrition more closely

Exercise is great for you, but it isn't the most efficient weight-loss tool
Exercise is great for you, but it isn't the most efficient weight-loss tool (Unsplash)

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One of the top things I hear from my clients is that they only work out so that they can "eat what they want." As fun as that sounds, if you're looking to lose weight, get fit, or even maintain your current weight, this philosophy may not do you any favours.

Outrunning the effects of a bad diet is like the quote from the movie Casablanca. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday." Ultimately, you can't outrun a bad diet; it will catch you.

Also read: When health is just a click away

To understand why this is a losing battle, we first need to understand the very basics of the energy balance equation. I won't bore you too much with the math; however, the basics are energy input (food and drink) minus energy output (exercise and other daily activities) equals our energy balance. If our energy intake is high and our output is low, we have the perfect conditions to gain weight. If our intake is low, but our output is high, we will likely lose weight.

Folks who say they want to eat what they want to assume that they can net this equation by exercising enough to cancel their food and drink choices. It's possible to do. However, you may not realise how difficult it is in the real world.

Let's say your daily calorific goal to maintain your current weight is 2000. Throughout the week, you are the picture of perfection, eating accordingly. You're also exercising almost every day, with two days off a week. However, your weekends are your time to unwind with friends. It is tempting to think that being on your best behaviour during the week warrants a little flexibility on the weekends. However, there is a vast difference between flexibility and diving headfirst into indulgence, filling your weekend with lots of alcohol, "cheat meals," and treats.

Surely two days' indulgence won't derail your fitness or physique goals? Let's see what a typical night may consist of. We will start with your drink of choice. Let's say you have four glasses of wine spread out over Friday and Saturday night. According to Drink Aware, every 175 ml serving of wine can be up to 160 calories (but you're notorious for being a little heavy-handed with the servings). Your alcohol consumption adds 640+ kcal additional calories to your day.

Also, when indulging on the weekends, you're less likely to snack on a kale salad while drinking your wine with friends, and you may choose high sodium, fat, or sugary foods to accompany your wine. It could be an extra bowl of biryani, a couple of pizza slices, or maybe even a decadent dessert. According to MyFitnessPal, even the humble pizza slice can range from an extra 210-700 kcals (per slice!) So you have two high-calorie slices and your wine. This can add 1400 calories to your week, just in pizza. The next night you indulge your sweet tooth with chocolate cake, and on MyFitnessPal, that's another 250kcal.

If you're doing the math along with me, that's approximately 2,250 calories, just in "extra" calories.

Not to depress you; however, the fun doesn't stop there. According to the Sleep Foundation, critical hunger and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin) are reset during sleep. If you have a late-night or fitful sleep (which alcohol contributes to), it will affect the regulation of these hormones, leaving you hungrier the next day.

As you can imagine, these drink, food, and sleep choices start to snowball. At this stage, and this is just a rough and ready guess, you could be over your weekly calories by about 2500-3000 (or more!) Can your body keep up?

Let's factor in your weekly exercise and weigh it against your weekend. Let's say you're an avid exerciser, and your goal is to exercise 5 days a week, and each session is approximately 300 kcal worth of energy burned. You've managed to knock off 1500 kcal in exercise - but there is a balance left over. It's not much, but it's there.

Also read: The best strength workouts using just a weight plate

And that begs the question, how much exercise will it take to cancel the excess calories? With sleep, food, and drink, you have an extra 1,000 calories to burn. According to data on MyFitnessPal, depending on your size and activity level:

• A 60-minute jog can burn 500-800 kcal

• A 60-minute walk can burn 250-300 kcal

• A 30-minute swim is about 240-350 kcal

Is it possible to add that additional exercise into your weekly routine? It may not be. And, if you're already exercising five days a week, your body requires 1-2 days to rest; otherwise, you'll become injury prone, impair your sleep, and become overall less healthy (which isn't the goal of fitness, last time I checked).

I'm not someone who preaches perfection; I'm certainly not saying "don't have fun meals" - in fact, I encourage them. I only ask that my clients honestly weigh their expectations alongside the lifestyle they want to lead. If that means prioritising food and drink on the weekends, that's their business. However, there will be no discussion about working off the weekend or punishing themselves through exercise once they've decided. However, if they want to balance their weekends with their health and fitness goals, there are ways to do it.

1. Serve a glass of water or soda in between each drink.

2. Order drinks that require water or soda as mixers (tonic and juices are more calorific)

3. Load one side of your plate with vegetables when eating your "cheat meal." The vegetables will fill you up while still enjoying a smaller portion of your favourite food.

4. Cap your night off early enough to get 7-8 hours of sleep, so you are better rested for the day ahead.

5. Always have a food plan in place for the following morning - so that you have healthy food available at your fingertips, making the food decisions easier.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach




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