How to Burn More Calories

When it comes to health and fitness goals, 90% of our clients rate weight loss (body fat loss) in their Top 3 reasons to start exercising. 

While there are many different ways we can approach the the weight loss problem, one truth remains: If you want to lose weight, you need an energy deficit. 

What is an Energy Deficit?

In simple terms, we need to consume less energy than we burn. As energy is most commonly measured in calories, another way of saying this is that we need to burn more calories that we eat each day.

There are more factors that come into the seemingly simple solution of eating less. For starters, there are 2 sides to this problem:

  1. The energy or calories you consume (Energy In)

  2. The energy or calories you burn (Energy Out)

While limiting your food intake is always part of the solution, increasing your “Energy Out” is just as important. So rather than looking at reducing your calorie intake, this article will deal directly with:

  • Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE - the total amount of energy we burn each day);

  • Identifying the things that effect our energy expenditure and finally;

  • How we can increase our energy expenditure.

How Do We Burn More Calories?

If you want to lose weight, we need to burn more calories than we consume. Easy!

So how do we burn more calories?

There are 4 main ways that our body burns energy:

  1. Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)

  2. Physical Activity (PA)

  3. Non-Exercise Activity (NEA)

  4. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

N.B. If you want to skip the nerdy info, scroll to the bottom of each part to get to the “What Should I do Today?” section. 

Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)

Your RMR can be defined as the sum of the energy required to complete all the chemical reactions that occur in your body each day. 

Of the 4 different components of TDEE, your Resting Metabolic Rate makes up the largest chunk of your calories burnt. In fact, around 60-75% of the total energy you burn each day is attributed to your RMR. 

To increase your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, you should therefore aim to increase your RMR.

What influences your Resting Metabolic Rate?

Many things influence your RMR, but the key ones are:

  • Gender

  • Age

  • Genetics

  • Hormones

  • Size (Height and Total Weight)

  • Body Composition

While it is very difficult to change things such your age, gender, genetics and height, you can certainly change your weight and body composition to increase your RMR.

So how can you influence your RMR?

Simply put, bigger (taller and heavier) people burn more energy at rest. There are many reasons for this, but regardless of your body composition, if you put weight on, you will burn more energy. 

Ergo, if you lose weight, you will burn less energy. 

That’s right! As you lose weight, your RMR will go down. And seeing as RMR makes up approximately 75% of your TDEE, this is a big deal.

Severe calorie restriction for an extended period (e.g. going on a very low calorie diet for several weeks) will cause your RMR to drop. It’s for this reason that dieting alone will usually cause a drop in RMR. In some cases, this reduced RMR may not recover and you will need to stay on your extremely low calorie diet to keep the weight off. An increase in calorie intake in this situation will cause you to put weight back on and it’s for this reason people’s weight tends to yo-yo back and forth when they attack weight loss with diet alone.

It is for this reason that we encourage strength training for weight loss clients. Progressive strength training will increase lean muscle over time (i.e. make you bigger) and help to counter the drop in RMR you will most certainly encounter as you lose weight with dieting alone.

Your RMR increases post exercise as your body recovers from exertion. For example, a solid strength training session with some moderate intensity cardio will cause micro-damage to your muscles. Your body needs to repair this damage and it’s during this recovery phase that your energy expenditure increases. 

What Should You Do Today?

Change your mindset around body composition. 

While many people want to lose weight, what most people actually want increased tone and reduced body fat percentage. The most sustainable way of doing this is to increase your muscle mass.

The mindset of “skinny is sexy” is slowly changing as more and more people realise that feeling strong and confident far outweighs the feeling of looking like a photoshopped catwalk model. 

Simply getting skinnier by severely reducing calorie intake is a quick-fix solution that will, in most cases, result in putting weight back on. Increased lean body mass percentage will lead to a healthier hormonal balance and increased RMR. 

Make physical activity part of your lifestyle

Simply doing a stint of exercise to help you lose weight is not going to have lasting effects. Daily exercise in any form will increase your resting metabolism so book it into your calendar and make it a priority each day to get moving for at least 40-60 minutes.

Physical Activity (PA) and Non-Exercise Activity (NEA)

When it comes to losing body fat, what type of exercise is the best? 

Let’s look at this question another way. If your physical activity only makes up 15-30% of your total daily energy expenditure (compared to RMR which makes up 60-75%), is the type of exercise you do as important as the fact you are exercising or not?

For many people, performing any type of exercise is chore. They have to force themselves to go to the gym. They don’t play sport and they prefer to take the elevator rather than the stairs. 

So for some people, the question of what type of exercise is best, is irrelevant. These people should do what they enjoy and what gets them moving consistently.

For those with regular exercise habits who are struggling to shift body fat however, the type of training you do could have more impact than you know.

“Cardio" Training (specifically referring to steady to moderate paced workouts including cycling, walking, jogging and low impact aerobic classes etc) burns more calories than strength training during a training session. For this reason, many people believe this is what they need to do to lose fat. And for good reason. This increased energy burn will certainly help you create the desired energy deficit.

The body’s response to this type of training however, includes the catabolism of muscle.

In other words, you lose muscle mass with excessive “cardio” training. So while you may notice you are losing more weight when you do heaps of cardio, you are losing muscle and water along with that fat, and as we learned above, this will cause your RMR to drop.

“Strength” Training however, will stimulate the growth of new muscle tissue and over time, will increase your RMR. While muscle does burn slightly more energy than other tissues in the body, it’s not so much about carrying more muscle. It is the continual breakdown and repair of the muscles that causes your RMR to increase. A solid strength session in the gym will lift your RMR for 2-3 days as your body does it’s job of repairing damaged muscle fibers, so overall, the energy burn from strength training may be greater. 

The other thing to consider here is that an intense resistance training session will also have cardio benefits. If you have ever done a set of 10 heavy squats followed by 20 walking lunges, you will know what I mean. Your breathing rate and heart rate will be jacked, so don’t under-estimate the potential cardio benefits of strength training.

What about Non-Exercise Activity (NEA)?

NEA includes any other movement your body performs. This includes incidental exercise such as getting up from your desk, and general daily movement like picking up your kids, brushing your teeth or taking the stairs, along with things such as fidgeting, shivering coughing etc. 

This type of movement only makes up a small portion of our Total Daily Energy Expenditure, but while we can't really aim to shiver and cough more, we can increase NEA by making more physical choices during the day.

What Should You Do Today?

Start Moving.

If you’re not moving with purpose for 40-60 minutes a day and you want to improve your body composition, get your ass out of your chair. Book time into your day to move. Make it a priority. Everyone has the same amount of time each day, it is purely a matter of what you prioritise. 

Start Strength Training.

If you’re a regular exerciser and you aren’t getting the body composition results you want, aim to make progressive strength training 60-70% of your weekly routine. You could do this by making 3 out of 5 training days strength-focussed or you can make 40 minutes of each 60 minute training session focussed on strength. 

See a Trainer

Any Personal Trainer or Group Training Program worth your money will get you to start strength training. The type of strength training you do is going to depend on your situation. You should seek a thorough assessment prior to just jumping in and your programming should be individualised or scaled to your level, particularly if you have injuries.

Make physical choices.

Park and walk. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get out of the office to eat your lunch. Anything you can do to move more is going to add to your daily energy burn.

The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

This fourth and final factor is often overlooked, but it is a key part of nutrition that has a significant impact on your TDEE.

Around 5-15% of your daily energy expenditure is spent on breaking down and absorbing the food you eat. What most people don’t know however, is that the type of food you eat can influence how much energy you burn to digest.

While every food has it’s own specific thermic effect on your metabolism, some generalisations can be made:

Protein has a high Thermic Effect

Foods high in protein cost the body approximately 30% of the energy consumed to absorb. To look at this another way, if you ate 100 calories of protein, you would spend around 30 calories to absorb it, giving you a net intake of only 70 calories. Protein takes a long time to digest and therefore keeps you full longer. For these reasons, it would make sense for someone who wants to create an energy deficit to include more protein in their diet.

Whole foods have a higher Thermic Effect than highly processed foods

Consider eating an apple versus drinking a glass of apple juice. The apple requires a myriad of enzymes and acids along with chewing to break it down into it’s digestible components. It also contains fibre which will, among other things, slow digestion down. While we will predominantly absorb carbohydrates from a whole apple, our body has to work hard to get them and will therefore burn more energy. 

Now consider the apple juice.

We may consume the same amount of calories in the juice as we did from the apple, but the body does not spend the same amount of energy to break it down. This means that although we may consume the same amount of calories, the net calories absorbed will be greater than the apple.

If you apply this rule to all the food you eat throughout the day, your total energy expenditure will be as much as 10% higher if you focus on whole foods rather than processed foods.

It would make sense to focus on a diet higher in whole, minimally processed foods if you wish to increase your energy expenditure.

Spices, Caffeine and Alcohol

Foods such as chillies, cayenne pepper and caffeine increase your TEF. The predominant reason for this is the stress response they cause in your body, with adrenaline secretion increasing your metabolic rate. While this may not be a great strategy overall (honestly, who needs to increase their stress?) a cup of black coffee or tea in the morning prior to exercise will give you a little metabolic kick start.

Alcohol also increases your TEF, however it also contains a high number of calories, delays muscle protein synthesis (recovery from exercise), leads to making poor food choices and increases stress. Those looking to reduce body fat should certainly be avoiding alcohol.

What Should You Do Today?

  1. Focus on eating a diet rich in proteins and whole foods.

  2. If you are aiming to restrict your calorie intake, aim for lean meats, fish and eggs along with plenty of fresh vegetables, nuts and legumes. Throw in some spices here and there to kick your metabolic rate up a notch

  3. Avoid starchy carbs, all processed foods, all soft drinks and limit alcohol consumption.

  4. Keep up your daily cup of black coffee or tea if you don’t have sensitivity to caffeine.

So there you have it folks. 

As with any exercise or nutrition advice, you should consult a doctor prior to starting a new regimen. If you have any special conditions, some of these general guidelines may not be suitable for you so speak to professionals who can point you in the right direction.

Always remember: Be Consistent!

Ryan Mountford

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