How many calories are you REALLY burning?

 Yes, I put voodoo floss on my head. Once I typed it, I had to try it. I'm thinking Bane for Halloween this year.

Yes, I put voodoo floss on my head. Once I typed it, I had to try it. I'm thinking Bane for Halloween this year.

Maybe it's because I suck with numbers. Or maybe I'm grumpy because the Pirates' bullpen is under-performing and we trail the Cubs by by 3.5 games. I know, it's early. Still. 

When I hear someone obsessing about calorie counting, whether it's calories in (how many calories are in this gum) or calories out (I burned 500 calories according to the treadmill), I want to dig my ears out with a spoon. Seriously, I want to wrap voodoo floss around my head (see picture to the right) or put my face in a blender. Any of the above. 

It's not the concept that makes me gnash my teeth. It's the focus on numbers. Every time you obsess over numbers, whether on the scale (read that post here), or with calories burned, somewhere a kitten gets an ingrown toenail. And that makes everyone sad. Especially the kitten. 

We obsess over numbers because they're tangible. Concrete. Measurable. I get that. But to hyper-focus on numbers can also minimize the hard work you're doing. If you've made a commitment to get to the gym for 45 minutes three times a week and you are getting there and putting in hard work, then you are creating positive change. You're changing behavior. But if you are obsessing over whether the treadmill readout or MyFitnessPal app tells you that you burned 300 calories versus 700 calories you're doing yourself a disservice. 

And the aforementioned kitten is sad. 

Because you're more than a number. 

AND....

How do you know how many calories you've actually burned? Sure our fitbit tells us we burned 500 calories. And the treadmill says 700. 

Which one is correct? 

 Did I really burn 1088 calories yesterday? Possibly. I happened to walk almost 20k steps because I taught five classes. But why does my Apple Watch think I should burn 770 calories a day? It's just a formula. It's just a number. 

Did I really burn 1088 calories yesterday? Possibly. I happened to walk almost 20k steps because I taught five classes. But why does my Apple Watch think I should burn 770 calories a day? It's just a formula. It's just a number. 

These devices estimate on a formula based on the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - the rate at which the body burns calories during the normal functioning of the body (breathing, brain activity, standing up) - and is based on the information you enter in regarding sex, height, weight and age. 

Your body is constantly burning calories, (and that rate will change as you develop more muscle because muscle burns more calories than fat). Your fitness tracking device is going to be more accurate when you're walking, because that's what many of those devices are programmed to track. But you could go through a strength training routine where you deadlift your face off, and the read-out could say that you burned 120 calories. 

If you obsess over that number, much like obsessing over the scale, you'll lose site of the bigger picture. In terms of fat loss, focusing on the calories out can sometimes lead to a false feeling that it's okay to consume more calories. i.e. I burned 700 calories according to my Fitbit so it's okay to have a burger and fries every time I burn 700 calories. First of all you don't have to earn your food. Second of all, if you are trying to drop body fat, you have to burn more calories than you consume. Basing calorie consumption on information from these devices can throw those calculations off. 

So what's my point?

My point is that in the end, what you're after is behavior change. Isn't it? And from behavior change comes the sweet spot of hitting health goals, body composition goals, and performance goals. 

Health goals: get off your diabetes medication. Performance goals, run that 10k you've been wanting to run; body composition, fit into that dress for the upcoming wedding.

Rather than obsess with staying at the gym until your app says you burned 700 calories, stay at the gym until you've completed your workout for the day.