Sussex Performance Centre

Restricting calories or burning calories; what’s better for fat loss?

This may come as a surprise to you, but exercise is not a very efficient way to burn fat or lose weight. Relative to the amount of energy consumed, exercise burns a pitiful amount of calories, even in intense bouts of exercise.

Simply put, restricting your calories, (eating less) is a far superior way of achieving the weight loss you desire with or without exercise.

Research suggests that for every 100 calories you ‘burn’ you actually only burn on average around 70-75 calories. This is due to a compensation that occurs in the body regarding non activity energy expenditure.

The Study

Scientists studying tribesman in Africa who would be out for days on end tracking and hunting noticed that their daily calorie expenditure was, roughly, equal to that of the average westerner.

The only possible conclusion from that study was that the bodies of the hunter-gatherers were somehow compensating for all that work so that they wouldn’t starve while looking for food.

As stated above these compensations can affect calorie burn by reducing perceived expenditure by 25% on average with some overweight people experiencing up to 50% reduction in calories burned. That means that if the already hugely inaccurate gauge on the treadmill said they were burning 200 calories an hour, they might only be, in reality, burning 100 calories.

This is a big problem if you use this metric to judge how many calories to consume each day to meet your body composition or weight loss goals.

So what does this mean for you?

The inconvenient truth is that for people who exercise and are body conscious, the calorie-burning effects of exercise aren’t what they’re touted to be. According to the findings, the more active you are, on average, the fewer the percentage of calories you burn because your body compensates. This compensation can occur by reducing the amount of energy expended in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).

Therefore if weight loss is your primary goal then we suggest you focus on establishing the appropriate calorie intake to achieve this. Eat in a deficit each day, consider any calorie expenditure that comes from exercise as an added bonus AND Certainly don’t trust those expensive bits of kit around your wrist for accurate info!

Exercise has a huge amount of benefits, psychologically as well as physically and we’ve covered those in other articles. At SPC we always advocate exercise in the form of balanced cardiovascular exercise and resistance training. It’s especially good for those who are concerned with body composition. 

But…for weight loss and fat loss, it doesn’t beat good old-fashioned dieting….



How Many Times a Week Should You Exercise? A Comprehensive Guide
How to Lose Belly Fat: A Scientific Approach
Embracing Fitness After Your 20s: Unlocking Lifelong Energy and Strength
Why Strength Training Can Reduce Chances of Weight Gain During and Post Menopause