The case for counting steps

Image of person wearing orange trainers running up steps

Let’s look at the variables under our control that influence fat loss. Getting lean is the direct result of a calorie deficit. Calories in versus calories out. Over the course of a week, you need to burn more calories than you eat. That includes any weekend overindulgences! “Calories out” is the sum of your resting metabolic rate, physical activity and the thermic effect of food.

Resting energy expenditure

Your resting energy expenditure is, as the name implies, how many calories you burn when at rest. Picture yourself lying on the sofa binge-watching Netflix. A multitude of variables influence your metabolism (or RMR). These include age, height, weight and gender. Plus hormones (such as triiodothyronine, thyroxine and testosterone), body temperature and muscle mass. But, it would take months, or even years, to build enough muscle to impact your RMR. And that would depend on your training regime and how well you responded to exercise. Personal trainers often promote weight training as beneficial to increasing metabolism. The reality is that due to the sustained work involved, this can be misleading. The fitness industry has exaggerated the effect of weight training on RMR.

So what can you influence today?

Non-resting energy expenditure

This includes all physical activity, both classified as exercise and non-exercise. Plus the thermic effect of food you eat.

Thermic effect of food (TEF)

TEF refers to the calories used to digest, absorb and excrete different food groups. Protein comes out on top, having a far greater caloric cost than either fat or carbohydrate. The thermic effect of protein is 20-35% of the calories consumed. Whereas carbohydrate is as low as 5% (Westerterp 1999). Over months this difference could become significant.

I tell every new client to eat more protein at the expense of carbohydrate. I advocate a “balanced” diet. In the literal sense of eating (roughly) equal amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat. 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight is a good place to start. A higher protein diet improves the chances of adhering to a calorie deficit long-term.

Your state of fullness is also influenced by a wide variety of factors. These include taste, food volume, nutrient density, fibre content and glycemic index. A high-carbohydrate diet (especially refined carbohydrates) decreases satiety. The result can be an increased calorie consumption (Ludwig 1999). Higher protein diets also have the added benefit of lowering blood pressure.

Eat more protein.

Exercise

Exercise accounts for only 5% of your total energy expenditure. Data from the Sleep Cycle app showed that the average Londoner is awake for 16 hours 38 minutes a day. That amounts to 116 hours 26 minutes over a week. Even if you exercised before work every day, that would still only amount to 3-4% of the waking hours in the week. The amount of time we train is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But I’m not talking myself out of a job. Exercise has a host of other benefits beyond increasing energy expenditure.

Walk on a incline treadmill for 30 minutes.

Non-exercise activity (NEAT)

Non-exercise activity refers to all activity that isn’t training. This would include nondescript activities such as walking, typing, maintaining posture and fidgeting. Worth noting, NEAT amounts to three times the calorie expenditure of deliberate exercise. What you do outside the gym is more important than what you do in it regarding fat loss.

As you can imagine, there’s a huge disparity in physical activity between professions. Construction involves as much as five times the level of non-exercise activity as white-collar work (Church et al., 2011). Whilst farm workers do two to three times as much.

Even before training, my own step count doubles on the days when I commute to work. To save desk space, City professionals are being encouraged to work from home one or two days a week. Consider the dent in weekly calorie expenditure this working environment will create.

You cannot out-train a bad diet. And here’s another reason why. There is a compensatory response post-exercise. Without being aware, you will move less throughout the rest of the day. To make the point, it’s like going for a run in the morning and then spending the rest of the day on the sofa. By the end of the day you haven’t burned any more calories than on rest days. In fact, Kriemler et al. (1999) reported a 6% drop in calorie expenditure for two days after training. Your body attempts to recoup some of the calories expended before.

“When anticipating training, we subconsciously reduce our activity to conserve energy for the task ahead (Meijer et al., 1999).”

Reduced activity as a result of post-exercise fatigue makes sense. But there is also a pre-emptive response to evening training sessions to consider. Morning calorie expenditure decreases on days when participants intend to exercise later. So if you’re working out with a trainer twice a week yet still not losing weight that might be the reason why.

How do we counteract this compensatory decrease in calorie expenditure? Or the reduced movement when working from home? I recommend using a pedometer to track your activity. Step targets should be set according to your current level of activity. Start with 20% more than your average.

Take the stairs instead of the lift. Walk to the station instead of catching the bus. Leave the office at lunchtime and walk somewhere to get your lunch.

Calories out

Calories out

References

Church, T.S., Thomas, D.M., Tudor-Locke, C., Katzmarzyk, P.T., Earnest, C.P., Rodarte, R.Q., Martin, C.K., Blair, S.N. and Bouchard, C., 2011. Trends over 5 decades in US occupation-related physical activity and their associations with obesity. PloS one, 6(5), p.e19657.

Kriemler, S., Hebestreit, H., Mikami, S., Bar-Or, T., Ayub, B.V. and Bar-Or, O., 1999. Impact of a single exercise bout on energy expenditure and spontaneous physical activity of obese boys. Pediatric research, 46(1), pp.40-44.

Ludwig, D.S., Majzoub, J.A., Al-Zahrani, A., Dallal, G.E., Blanco, I. and Roberts, S.B., 1999. High glycemic index foods, overeating, and obesity. Pediatrics103(3), pp.e26-e26.

Meijer, E.P., Westerterp, K.R. and Verstappen, F.T., 1999. Effect of exercise training on total daily physical activity in elderly humans. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 80(1), pp.16-21.

Westerterp, K.R., Wilson, S.A.J. and Rolland, V., 1999. Diet induced thermogenesis measured over 24 h in a respiration chamber: effect of diet composition. International journal of obesity23(3), pp.287-292.

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