Why ‘Burning Calories’ Is A Terrible Idea And How You Should Think Instead

It was a few years back when my friend asked if I’d like to go for a run to ‘burn off the burger we just ate’.

No,” I replied. “That’s a terrible way to think about it.

Then, because I’m way too stubborn, I didn’t join him.


Input vs output for a good physique

Efficiency is massive for me. The less I have to do to stay lean and healthy the better, and it’s also more likely I’ll stick to it.

In terms of ‘burning calories’, I’d rather just not eat the calories in the first place so I don’t have to waste time or energy trying to burn them off.

There are two ways you can become leaner.

Either lower your calorie intake or increase your calorie expenditure.

In both cases, you must find a way to make a calorie deficit.

And 99 times out of 100 it’s way more time and energy efficient to lower input a little than increase output.

Either decrease input, increase output or do a little of both.

The difference is that decreasing input requires you to NOT DO something while increasing output requires you to DO something.


When my friend returned from his run, he inquired, “Why is burning off calories a terrible idea Mike?”

It’s not a terrible idea, it’s just not a great way to think about exercise in general.

Exercise, at least to me, should be more about doing something positive, making you better somehow. Not undoing something, like that awesome burger. It puts both the run and the burger in a negative light. It’s like we ate it, regretted it, and HAD to get rid of the calories from it.

He followed up, “Yeah, I get it. But it was a good burger!

Yeah, it was,” I replied, “And I’ll have a few less calories for dinner tonight to even out my intake. You ran for half an hour to burn off 250 of the calories you ate. I’ll just reduce calories by 250 for dinner.


Burn that muffin off... or don't

It’s common these days to see pictures which place food items against the exercise it takes to burn the same amount of calories.

In the essence of our equation from earlier, you can see that to maintain a calorie deficit, two scenarios emerge.


Eat the blueberry muffin, increasing the input by 265 calories and requiring you to do the equivalent of 25 minutes of running to balance the equation out.


Don’t eat the muffin and don’t run.

I know my choice.

All food contains calories and that’s not the point.

The point is, it's much more efficient, when trying to improve your physique, to reduce input slightly than try to maximise input.

If the goal is to create a calorie deficit of 500 every day you can either ADD an hour or so of running every single day, or make a few food swaps and choose some lower calorie options.

In a busy world, efficiency is key.

Exercise is for your health, feeling and longevity

Exercise should a positive thing because you’re more likely to do and stick to things you enjoy and make you feel good. Using it as an excuse to ‘undo’ bad food you ate turns exercise into a negative experience.

Improving your fitness has an incredible amount of benefits, including

  • Energy and mood enhancement

  • Lower risk of injuries

  • Increased muscle mass

  • Stress relief

  • Decreased fat mass

  • Boosted mental clarity

Not to mention the big one, extending your lifespan.

The mindset of using exercise as a punishment is generally unhealthy and, in the long run, isn't sustainable.

Minimising input is better than maximising output


In terms of time, obviously, it is more efficient to spend 0 seconds not eating the blueberry muffin, then having to spend 25 minutes of time exercising to burn it off.


Eat to fuel your body, rather than eat based on your feelings and emotions. Having control over the food you put in your mouth builds mental discipline and forges a lifestyle built around performance.


You are probably already running full blast on all cylinders, and having another thing added to the ‘to-do' list is going to stress the hell out of you.

It's far easier to control inputs rather than try to control the outputs.

The point of this isn't to eat less. It's to consider the impact of eating nutritionally poor foods and then trying to exercise to make up for doing so. If you want to eat the muffin, go for it. Just don't feel guilty and depressed after, and feel like you HAVE to burn it off. In a well balanced diet, a muffin is a perfectly fine food.

Control your inputs (diet) to control your body composition.

Then use your outputs (exercise) to improve your health.

Want a hand getting your inputs and outputs in balance? Head over to the coaching page and see what I can do for you.

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