Cancel the gym

After I went to the gym this morning, I pulled in to the McDonald's drive through.  While waiting for my food, I played out in my mind a possible conversation I might have with someone concerning just this.  In fact, I have had many real conversations of similar nature.
"How was your morning?"
"It was good.  I went to the gym.  Then I grabbed a late breakfast at McDonald's on my way to work."
"Won't that cancel out?"
"Cancel what?"
"Going to McDonald's after the gym.  Won't that undo all the work you just did?"

I understand the humor.  I laugh about it.  It's funny.  And I think humor is an important thing, and that we should all laugh a little bit more and be offended a little bit less.  And so I write this not up-in-arms, but in the attempts of perhaps reaching some of those who literally believe this line of reasoning.

To the person who asserts that eating "cancels out" going to the gym, I ask just this "What do you believe is the purpose of exercise?"  And I know that many people will respond with "weight loss".  It is mathematically true that (all other things being equal), the more calories you burn through physical activity the less body fat you will have over time.  But to think of that as the only purpose of attending the gym is rather myopic.  I wrote about this a couple years ago, concerning the matter of calories in-calories out, in this post where I was apparently clumsy in my wording since multiple people thought I was saying I restricted my daily calorie intake to 700 calories.

So, I would like to take a moment to discuss some of the benefits of exercise, to show reasons why everyone should incorporate some physical activity into eir daily life regardless of whether or not ey wants to gain, lose, or maintain weight.

According to the CDC, here is a list of some of the possible benefits of routine exercise.  I include some of the items here for the convenience of the reader.

  • reduce risk of cardiovascular disease
  • reduce risk of type 2 diabetes
  • reduce risk of some cancers
  • strengthen bones and muscles
  • improve mental health
  • increase chances of living longer
  • improve ability to perform daily tasks
I would like to discuss some of these things.  In 2013, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  There are two different methods used to make this diagnosis.  An A1C score of 6.5 or higher is an indication.  And a glucose tolerance test of over 200 (2 hours after consuming sugars) is another.  My A1C score was around 6, but my glucose tolerance score was over 200 and so I was diagnosed.  I took metformin (which is meant to lower available sugars in the blood by preventing the liver from producing them from glycogen) for a year.  During that year I began routine exercise and dieted to lose weight.  After a year, I was taken off the drug.  Since the diagnosis I have switched primary care physicians twice (once for insurance purposes and the second because my doctor's practice closed).  My current physician has told me that it is his assessment I do not have diabetes.  I believe that this is due in large part to my continued routine physical activity.

Aerobic exercise is when you get your heart rate up to a target range (based on age) and maintain it in that range.  The purpose of this is to train your heart and your lungs to work more efficiently--to be stronger.  The way our bodies work is that when you use something it becomes stronger and when you fail to use it, it becomes weaker.  So raising your heart rate stresses your heart which causes it to grow stronger, so when you perform similar aerobic activity in the future you can do so with more ease, since your heart is better at delivering the nutrients your body needs to perform the tasks you are requiring of it.  Therefore, jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, etc are all good methods of keeping your heart and lungs healthy.  This helps reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease since your heart is stronger and it helps you feel more energetic since your body is getting its required nutrients.

One thing that younger people may not think about as much as older people is bone strength.  As people age, their bones tend to become more brittle and break more easily.  This is unfortunately an inevitable part of aging.  However, it can be helped by routine exercise.  When you lift weights or perform cardiovascular activities, you not only strengthen your muscles but you also strengthen your bones and your joints.  (Of course, there is also the fact that certain physical activities are stressful on joints and weaken them over time, so be careful which activities you engage in.)  When you strengthen your bones, your joints, and your muscles, you help slow the effects of aging on those body parts.  You can keep your bones strong with routine exercise.

So, now that I have mentioned some of the benefits of exercise (aside from weight loss), I would like to address the original point.  The logic goes as follows: working out is for weight loss, eating is calorie intake, calories in minus calories out determines weight gain/loss, therefore eating the number of calories you just burned cancels out, so no weight will be lost.  I do not dispute this logic.  However, what is missing is the fact that your body needs calories to operate.  The fact that you just burned 300 calories in the gym means that your body needs 300 calories to replenish the used energy.  People who regularly lift virtually all agree: you need to eat after you work out--almost immediately after.  Now, they may disagree on what you need to eat--some will say you need to immediately eat lots of protein in order to build muscle, but it seems to be that the scientifically supported answer is that you need to eat carbohydrates because they offer short-term (essentially immediate) energy to replenish the energy just used.  Proteins digest very slowly in the body, so it is best to eat a fair amount of protein at regular intervals throughout the day.  Most people that I've read will recommend chocolate milk as the best food/drink to consume following a workout.  

To reiterate, your body needs nutrients.  You need to eat a certain number of calories in a day just to stay alive.  On top of that, you need to increase your calorie intake based on your physical activity.  Yes, this does mean that it "cancels out" in the sense that 2500-500 is larger than 1500-500.  However, when exercising it is crucial to eat enough nutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) in order to allow your body to rebuild itself and grow stronger from the exercise.  If you decrease your calorie intake severely your muscles will atrophy, whether you are working out or not. Most nutritionists will recommend that you should have a calorie deficit (calories consumed minus calories burned) of no more than 500 per day.  That is, if you burn 2000 calories in a day, you should eat at least 1500.  There are many calculators available online or on your phone if you wish to calculate maintenance calories.  For me, I probably need to eat about 3000 calories a day to maintain weight.  I get on average about 600 calories of activity (depending on the day).  So, if I eat about 3000 calories and burn 500 calories from exercise, I will lose about 1 pound of fat per week and this is the fastest most people will recommend losing weight.  If I want to maintain weight, I would increase my calorie intake to match the 3600 total burned (3000 maintenance calories plus 600 from activity).  

So, in summary, just remember it's important to eat--especially when you exercise routinely.  Your body needs food.  If you want to lose weight, decrease your calorie intake slightly, not drastically.  Don't think of food as evil.  It is helpful and necessary to living a healthy life.  Yes, there are healthier options than McDonald's, and it's certainly good to try to eat healthy foods.  But eating complements exercise, rather than being antithetical.