Dr. Dhurandhar’s Fat-Loss Diet


Overestimating Energy Burned During Exercise: A Hidden Barrier to Weight Loss

Losing weight can be a challenging process for many individuals, especially when they are following a strict diet and exercise routine. One of the primary reasons you may not be seeing results, despite your hard and earnest effort, can be the overestimation of the energy burned during exercise. This overestimation can lead to consuming more calories than required for weight loss, ultimately hindering the progress. In this blog, we will discuss some common mistakes people make while estimating their energy expenditure during exercise and how to avoid them for effective weight loss.

1. Estimating Your Energy Needs for Weight Loss

To successfully lose weight, it’s essential to correctly estimate your energy needs at your current weight. Once you have a clear understanding of your energy requirements at your current weight, you can subtract 300-500 calories from that amount to create a calorie deficit. This is what produces weight loss. However, if you overestimate your energy expenditure from exercise, you may not arrive at the right calorie amount for weight loss.

For example, if your daily energy requirement is 2,500 calories including exercise estimated at 500 calories, but you actually only burn 300 calories, you may start consuming a 2,200 calorie diet for fat loss instead of the more optimal 2,000 calories for weight loss. Since your calorie deficit is low, your weight loss is slow or non-existent. And it becomes easy to get frustrated when you put in so much effort but see no results, and give up. 

2. Mistake #1- Counting Total Time at the Gym as Exercise Time

One common mistake people make is considering the total time spent at the gym, or in doing a specific activity, as exercise time. As one example, time at the gym may include time spent changing, showering, and talking to friends. In reality, only the time spent actively exercising should be counted towards your energy expenditure. If you are at the gym for an hour but only spend 20 minutes on the treadmill, only those 20 minutes should be counted as exercise where you are burning calories at a rate that is above and beyond normal.

Similarly, be careful about estimating your energy expenditure for other activities like playing tennis or basketball.  Tennis is full of sprints but also lots of stops and recoveries.  Therefore, maybe 50-70% of time during a tennis game is actually high intensity activity. The rest is standing or walking. The same is true for basketball, and during basketball you may even have bench time where you aren’t playing.  So it’s important not to count the bench time as exercise time. 

Keep track of the time actually spent on each exercise to calculate your energy expenditure accurately. Use a stopwatch at first until you get a better idea of your actual time exercising.

3. Mistake #2- Misconceptions About Weight Lifting and Energy Expenditure

Many people count weight lifting as part of their exercise energy expenditure. However, weight lifting programs primarily contribute to muscle growth, which actually results in weight gain (the good kind). Additionally, weight lifting usually isolates specific muscle groups. And, those groups do intense lifting for a short amount of time. So overall, a typical weight lifting session does not burn many calories.

That is not to say that weight lifting is not beneficial during weight loss.  It is important to maintain or grow muscle, and to maintain a higher metabolic rate.  But, it does not contribute meaningfully towards energy expenditure. For that, focus on incorporating other forms of exercise, such as cardio, to contribute to your calorie deficit when calculating the calorie needs for your diet. 

4. Mistake #3- Relying on Inaccurate Tools for Estimating Energy Expenditure

Common tools used to estimate energy expenditure from exercise often overestimate the calories burned for people trying to lose weight. Those estimations are usually taken from people who are eating a normal diet, not a weight loss diet that gives a calorie deficit. So if you are getting an estimate of your exercise energy expenditure from your Apple Watch, or your treadmill or exercise device, take it with caution. 

One reason that this is an issue is because individuals who exercise for weight loss are often seasoned exercisers, and their bodies become more efficient at performing the exercise. When the body becomes more efficient at an activity like running, running burns fewer calories. So one technique to help this is to change up your exercise routine often so that your body has to keep changing, adapting, and working. 

Moreover, there is scientific evidence that when the body is in an energy deficit, such as is required to lose weight, it may send physiological signals to reduce energy expenditure. This includes the energy burned during exercise. This is a natural defense mechanism to preserve mass and resist weight loss. 

This defense mechanism comes from a different time when such adaptations were necessary for human survival. A time when we lived a very different hunter-gatherer lifestyle that included frequent famine and a need to cover long distances and do hard physical labor. Unfortunately, this means that the readings from tools like treadmills may not be accurate when you are in a calorie deficit. And this inaccuracy can lead you to consume more calories than necessary.

5. Relying on Intense Exercise Instead of Consistent Activity

Another common mistake is the belief that intense exercise a few times per week can replace consistent activity throughout the day, every day. Exercise feels like a big commitment and a lot of work, so it feels as if it should justify a large energy burn.  But in reality, especially when you are just starting out, intense exercise sessions may only burn 200-300 calories.  If you are only doing those 2-4 times per week, that does not add up to very much. 

And importantly, doing an intense exercise session that burns 200-300 calories, 1-4 times per week, cannot burn as much energy as consistently achieving 10,000 steps per day, every day.  10,000 steps per day is doable for most people, every day, and it can burn 500 calories per day for the average person. That’s 3,500 calories per week! Whereas 3 exercise sessions burning 200 calories each only burns 800 calories per week.  And often, feels like a bigger commitment to keep than just walking for 45 min- an hour a day.

Doing high intensity exercise can be good for strength and stamina.  But those are not the same as weight loss. To maximize your energy expenditure and weight loss, focus on incorporating both intense exercise and consistent daily activity.  Both matter.


In conclusion, accurately estimating your energy expenditure during exercise is crucial for successful weight loss. Avoid common mistakes like overestimating the time spent exercising, misconceptions about weight lifting contributing to energy expenditure, relying on inaccurate measurement tools, and neglecting consistent daily activity. By being mindful of these factors and making the necessary adjustments, you can create an effective weight loss plan and achieve your desired results.

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