Almost any woman playing the weight loss game knows how vitally important daily calorie intake is. If you aren't in a net negative calorie balance by the time you go to sleep each night, you aren't losing weight. You can will it off all you want, it just isn't going to happen unless this criteria is met.

You could consume cookies, cakes, chips and candy as your daily food intake (not recommended however!) and as long as the total calorie intake is less than what you've burned that day through your basic metabolic rate and all the various activities you did, you will lose weight. Basic weight loss is really that easy.

So after learning this concept, some women start thinking that they would much rather increase the amount they are exercising so then they don't have to cut back on their food intake quite so much.

It only stands to reason right, if you are burning 500 or more calories per day in your workout, you will then be able to eat more calories and still lose weight.

For illustration purposes, take two women, both of which require 1500 calories per day to maintain their weight (before structured exercise sessions). The goal is to lose one pound per week so this means they should be aiming to create a net deficit of about 500 calories per day either through diet or exercise.

Woman A burns 600 calories per day exercising and eats a daily diet of 1600 calories. 1600 calories—600 burned through exercise equates to a 1000 calorie balance. Since she required 1500 calories to maintain, she has achieved her goal.

Now, woman B only burns 200 calories per day exercising. Therefore in order for her to have this same 1000 calorie net balance, she's going to have to only consume 1200 calories.

One woman gets to eat 1600 calories and the other only 1200. For any dieter out there who knows what it's been like to be on a strict diet, option A probably sounds a heck of a lot better.

Be warned however, there are problems with this approach.

Problem 1

The first problem is if you are using moderate cardiovascular exercise as a means to burn these additional calories off (which is most often the case because we all know that weight lifting doesn't usually burn as many calories minute per minute as cardio does—it's the "after" calorie burn that's more predominant there).

When first starting these cardio sessions, you may be burning about 300 calories per 30 minutes of exercise. However, after a couple of months time, your body has started to learn the exercise, has gotten comfy performing it and now is only required to burn 200 calories for that same 30 minutes (assuming all other variables have remained constant). Therefore you have two choices.

  1. Increase the time you spend exercising in order to reach that 300 calorie burn rate.
  2. Decrease your food intake to make up for those reduced 100 calories.

Let's say you go with door A. So now you are doing forty minutes of cardio. That's not too bad, just 10 minutes longer than your favourite sit-com. What happens though in a few more months? Are you going to then bump it up to 50 minutes? And in a year's time? Are you planning to dedicate half your evening to slaving away on the treadmill? Likely not.

So going with door B then. You simply decide, "100 calories isn't really all that much to cut. I'd rather keep the cardio at 30 minutes and take away that half a cup of pasta with dinner." Easy enough. But... and you knew this was coming, in another few months, you're now not burning 200 calories for those 30 minutes, you're burning 100 calories. So you reduce food further. You'll be damned before you start increasing your time on that treadmill.

So a few more months pass, you've stopped seeing results and now your foot intake is on par with woman B from above who chose to only burn 200 calories per day exercising BUT you are also still doing your 30 minutes of cardio per day. Hardly fair now is it?


The way to get around this issue is to rather than increasing the time you spend exercising, increase the intensity of it. That will increase the calorie burn more minute-by-minute so you can still achieve your desired goal.

But I digress, the issue now becomes, after a few months of doing this, you've got five high intensity cardio sessions per week on top of your three to four lifting sessions. How much can your body take? This is a fast track to overtraining yourself.

Which then brings us to problem 2.

Problem 2

The second problem with 'exercising away your calories' is that it's going to leave you with less energy reserves to weight lift.

Are You Exercising Calories Away?

You absolutely MUST be lifting weights—heavy weights!

You should know by now that while cardio may make you smaller, it's weight training that will change your shape. Therefore, if you really want to see a noticeable difference in your aesthetics, you absolutely MUST be lifting weights—heavy weights. I'm sorry, there is just no way around this one.

As stated above though, if you are already performing five cardio sessions per week, where are you going to fit weights in? Are you going to start doing twice daily workouts? Most of us who have a full-time job, a husband and potentially demanding kids simply do not have time for this.

Something has got to give and it sure shouldn't be your weight training sessions. So now we move onto our last problem.

Problem 3

The last issue with trying to create your calorie deficit entirely with cardio and potentially the most important one, is the mindset it can get you into.

Eating disorders are a very real thing among many women who are involved in fitness. Even the average dieter who starts seeing results rather quickly can begin to take their commitment a little too far and start performing some behaviours that would borderline on a problem.

If you are using exercising as a way to justify eating vast quantities of food, you are showing symptoms of exercise bulimia. There are women out there (and this is an extreme case), who will binge eat thousands of calories at a time and then head off to the gym immediately after to spend 2 hours on the elliptical in order to burn away all the calories they've just consumed. It's their way of purging.

While you may think you'd never let it get this far, don't be mistaken. What is once the thought of 'Oh, I'll have that extra slice of cheesecake and just do an extra 20 on the bike tomorrow', can quickly progress to you loving food again and becoming conditioned to realize you can have that food you crave so long as you exercise it off.

In no way am I trying to say you must always deny yourself that piece of cheesecake because you should never go to the gym to work it off, I'm more saying that you need to pay attention to the mental processes that are going on when eating that cheesecake. If you are eating it while calculating the 'burn off' time in your head, Houston we have a problem.

If on the other hand you realize that it is perfectly natural and normal behavior to treat yourself once in a while with a food you are really craving (in moderation), and you know that you needn't worry because one slice of cheesecake is not going to cause a massive 10 pound weight gain that requires hours in the gym, then congratulations, you have a healthy frame of mind.

As a last and final warning with this whole notion of burning off the foods you eat, be very careful about how far you take this concept. If taken too far, it can really set you up for serious psychological issues.

About the Author

Shannon Clark

Shannon Clark

Shannon Clark is a freelance health and fitness writer located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

View all articles by this author