QUES: Do exercises actually make you burn for weight loss?

NO, if you are an office person who is reading this on their laptop. And yes, for professional athletes or people who train like one. And no this do not include sportsmen by default. We do see sportsmen these days carrying fat around. This includes pro-athletes whose gain requirement is to train hard.

NO…exercise don’t make you burn extra calories. Shocking!!!! Right?

The below are my explanations as a sports scientist who understands all aspects of health with the experience of working with sportsmen (over 500 across sports) and office people for fitness, weight loss, or nutrition. 100% reference until this day….

Total burn = Total Budget = Work carried out by 37 trillion cells at various sites

Our muscles are only one part of total budget. I had this understanding since long but I had no idea that we can’t change the total burn unless we strive for it like an athlete. Read on….

Total budget = BMR + extra burn from activities through out the day (roughly 1.5 times BMR)

(BMR – basal metabolic rate is the amount of calories we burn via different activities through the day. It is more or less similar in everyone (&everyday) while simultaneously being highly individualistic genetically. We add ‘calories burn’ on top with our extra activities (over and above normal) – via movement, extra brain work, food digestion, more physical work etc.)

Example: More energy/fuel demand during the day would make our liver to convert glycogen (from stores) to glucose. Even this processing, for attaining fuel, burn calories.

Up until now, we have been living under the impression, that we can burn as much as we like and therefore, we can consume as much as we can, if we are exercising. NO. Its not true.

We have a budget and no matter we do, we stay in that budget. Our bodies get adapted to variable eating (we can’t eat similar calories every day). extra stress on few days, extra exercise on some, so on. Read on….

How about muscles only contributes to 16% of the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) whereas brain is at 20%. But the caveat to this is that we can burn calories via exercising and take the burn to a lot higher whereas brain would be limited to some. Having said that since total burn also includes 1.5 times more over and above BMR; we end up adding the burn at muscles but overall getting adjusted via other mechanisms unless we can bring constant stress on the system.

Also pertinent to know, and not get discouraged, we can take it to whatever level we like provided we are willing to put in the effort. The best example are athletes who ingest 8000 kcalories staying lean, fat free, and fit Vs us at say 2500 calories.

However, the extra burn via our musculoskeletal system is difficult because it requires a certain threshold continuously, which is not possible in our daily lives. So don’t take it on your ego…it is how it is.

Why it is not possible?

Because going beyond a certain level will fatigue/tire our system more than usual requiring more nutrition, healing, repair work, etc. Doing it everyday, for weeks or months is not something many can handle. It is not possible in our day today office lives as compare to an athletes life who is only doing this. Training plays a major role as well. Stressing the system with exercises that your body requires while ensuring body doesn’t get adapted (by varying factors like speed, time, or effort) is an art known to few.

Besides my athletes who only come to me for limited time in a year; I am happy to confess that I can do it easy as you can see while enjoying everything. But yes, it either requires proper training for days, or it requires to keep a check on diet, or both when am aiming to build up. Only after this, I reach a level where I can relish the joys of life without gaining weight or worrying about health.

Our body keeps us under check when we understand some key elements of healthy life.

Analogy – New car tyre’s can take car’s mileage say from 15km/litre to 17 or 18. Not to 20, 30 or 40km/litre!! But besides mileage it prevents the car from breaking, balancing, and longevity.

Common people who approach exercising to stay healthy can only up and down their burn from exercising by a little – say instead of 150 calories, you take it to 200 calories or little more. And these number of calories have literally no effect on weight loss because our body adjusts to these in the absence of persistent stress. Our system adjusts for a bit extra or under both. And how can it have any effect when our total consumption is to the tune of 2500 calories plus?

BUT but but…just like new tyre’s in car, it facilitates health at many different places.

Dr Herman Pontzer & his colleagues pulled a fantastic research where they identified the total calorie consumption in a hunter gathering population to be same as an office goer living in DC whereas their burn seems like 5 folds less than hunters. A highly mixed diet of carbs, fats, and protein; the research highlights the importance of all food substrates specifically when subjects of his research ate honey as their main meal. And lastly, the research beautifully provides evidence to the concept of quality/raw food over processed food.

My take – in the absence of food availability and in the absence of any junk or oils; both ill effects of sugar (honey) :

a) high blood glucose – cant be, they move so much. They are sucking glucose.


b) because of fructose becoming their main food substrate; the ill effects of it like slowing down metabolism, satiety effect, etc. etc will not come into effect because our body has a proper laid out process to metabolise fructose for energy. They burn fructose just like glucose.

I have questioned this many years back but people ignored it. I was too early again! Its a habit I guess 🙂

I ran a camp in the mountains for a season to conduct my study on running biomechanics, train runners and do yoga retreats. Besides I have been a regular to hills as an adventure traveler. Be it river rafting guides who slog their arses to push a raft through the currents burning humungous amounts of calories or it seems; or my workers at camp who would run all day up and down the hills burning their quads and calves like no other athlete does. They would eat home cooked food – more rice than us but overall their diet was not much different to ours considering our snacking etc. Yes, their plate always looked bigger but calorie per calorie, my guests consumed more than them. They walked long distances in the mountains most of their life (roads have only recently reached these places) and yet, their burn was and is the same.

Their burn is easily 3/4 times more than visitors. And yet, we se bellies (fat climbing on them) in almost all of them as they cross 40 or something.

HOW? WHY? If burn is everything then they are doing it more than required?

Caveat – We live on a total budget say 2500 calories for Indians. When we live hard lives as I described above, it seems hard from city guy’s perspective. They were still burning the same total number of calories; and whereas, they look to be doing lot of hard work, their physical work has come down significantly and food quality is been compromised.

For the ones living that life, it is their daily life. Their bodies get adapted to it and adjusts the burn at all levels. However, if I put them in say swimming and train them for a month, they would end up losing good amount of weight very quickly. Why? Because their legs may be used of the stress but only doing acts that they would all day and are fully adapted. And now when they are asked to do a different task where their body needs to move in a different manner; they will end up burning more. Just like how my body aches when I go for a swim once in a while or end up playing a sport like badminton once in few years. It’s not that I lack in fitness. Its because my body is not used to of the stress that these kinetic movements demand. Our body has a way of telling us all about stress provided we know how to read into it.

So exercises do burn calories but one requires to train for that. I am willing to except this as a challenge in a research setting if anybody is interested.

Let me help you understand this with couple of analogies:

  • You start running in the park say 5kms/day. Supposedly you burn 200 calories first day. You persist with that average for 6 months/year/decade. What happens to the burn? Yes, it comes down once your body is adapted to the stress. It will now be burning less than 200 for the same task. Therefore, either you have to increase the distance, or effort in terms of speed (vary it); otherwise you wont burn more calories. It doesn’t mean 5 km/day is not helping you. It is helping you everywhere but just not in weight loss.
  • Or you start exercising/walking/weight lifting/yoga…and where one does feel the effect in the first few months and may reduce a bit of weight (if over weight) but then it plateaus. Eating same small meal, doing daily activity suddenly stopped fetching you results. Again….it doesn’t mean you are NOT doing good for your health. It just means, it is not good enough for weight loss.

Ques: Healthy Cricketers/sportsmen – what do you think happens with them? why do some of them stay bulky most of their career? Its not that they are not burning. WHY?

Its because they continue to eat and exercise the same way. It won’t work!! I have squeezed anybody who came under me for 3/4 weeks and the reasons are both training and food. Just training alone has also worked but players only lost a couple of kilos. But when I monitored their diet, they lost every extra bit. Eating what they like, filling their plate from the buffet, eating just like anybody else is eating; and yet, they lost weight. Because nutrition, sequencing, and timing of the food is also been taken care of besides appropriate training.

Else why do you think people living in Ashrams gain fat eating a well balanced healthy & unprocessed diet?

Ques: Do you know even the timing of a food substrate can have significant effect? Or have you heard the sequence of food substrates how you eat can make a difference?

I had prepared the above slide for one of my talks and its worth sharing here because call it the over-simplified mechanism of our body or find it over-complexed – depends how you look at it; there are so many factors that can contribute to energy, fat, or the balance/homeostasis in our body. Our body is smart to see more coming, and it reduces or increases the burn depending on food type sometimes or your body state, at cell level. It is smart enough to see less coming and it conserves, reduces the burn rate and resort to what is available to our body. Thankfully this is an autonomous mechanism and this is why a few days of hogging your favourite food or eating at wedding’s do not make us gain weight.

To make any impact on our body, we need constant stress or persistent over feeding. Therefore finding exercises that challenge our body is a must. However, it is not simple either considering movement nuances on the field of play. A fast bowler/pitcher bowling in the nets might seem stressful to people sitting out. But for them its a walk in the park and they do it easy. This is why you see even fast bowlers piling up kilos while bowling and playing.

This is also why I get shocked when I see injuries coming to fast bowlers and people blaming it on load. If it all, a fast bowler should not lure injuries while bowling. Why? Because it is something that his body is so much adapted to that he can bowl an over literally in his sleep without any stress. We are not preparing our bodies to take the task is a fact that no matter, how much it is ignored today, it will come to light one day.

Learning – A gym visit in the morning doesn’t allow us to have a beer and chips in the evening. A walk doesn’t allow us to have tea/biscuits/desert or any other snack assuming we have burnt. If we were to adjust for all this then we have to eat healthy in our meals – whole foods, less sugar, and quantum that suits our body.

Again, exercising help us at so many levels that muscle burn is only one part in the whole. But yet, exercising is what I call the driver of health. It can lead to several benefits including burning calories that no other factor can. It can even change our genetics. So don’t be discouraged by the burn but instead do it for health reasons.