Chris McGrath by Chris McGrath

Running on treadmillPractical and pragmatic approaches rarely grab headlines, and they are almost never considered “sexy.” In fact, pragmatic thinking is more likely to be viewed as a “party pooper” than “cutting edge.” But fitness has long been a victim of oversimplified concepts and overglorified trends. Considering how many people seem to struggle with reaching their goals, perhaps a pragmatic approach is just what we need.

There may be nothing more pragmatic than to suggest exercise is NOT for calorie burning. For many, the primary focus of their workouts is on their caloric expenditure. And while exercise does burn calories, choosing this as the primary focus is an extremely narrow view and can easily divert your attention away from more important factors associated with fitness. If you have ever uttered a phrase that resembles, “I worked out today and burned 300 calories, but I ate a muffin after and ruined it,” you may need to seriously rethink your approach to exercise.

For starters, you cannot “ruin” or undo a workout that has already been done. Just as if you eat a couple of oranges a day, an order of French fries will not make you vitamin C deficient. Once you have “consumed” it, you own it. Clearly, nutrition complements workouts and aids in recovery, so this is not to condone or approve of eating junk food, but by no means would it negate the efforts spent exercising.

Here is the practical truth: Exercise is for developing fitness. Fitness is the enhancement of the physiological functioning and efficiency of the human body. When your body is more fit, it burns more calories (and fat!) than when it is less fit. Simple. Practical. Not sexy and not making it on the cover of any fitness magazines anytime soon. Yet it is very effective.

So, why should we be concerned about the practical approach? When you focus on improving function and efficiency, the benefits grossly outweigh how many pastries you might have burned off. We can create more precise goals that will lead to the results we want and eliminate unnecessary energy (including guilt) spent focusing on things that won’t help.

Not All “300-calorie” Burns are Created Equal

Measuring your calorie burn can be very misleading. Just as your scale weight can’t tell you your body composition (lean mass vs. fat mass), looking at how many calories were burned in a workout doesn’t reveal a) how much fat was used for energy; and, more importantly, b) what you did to contribute to advancing your overall fitness level.

Let’s assume a 60-minute walk burns 300 calories. Compare this with a 20-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout that could also burn 300 calories and you will be looking at very different outcomes. Differences will be found in the ratio of the substrates used for energy (fats vs. glucose/carbs), but even this can be misleading and mean very little in the bigger picture.

The most significant differences will be found in the contributions to improving your fitness level. In this example, both workouts burn 300 calories. But a one-year walking program vs. a one-year HIIT program, both burning the same amount of calories, will yield radically different results. In short, walking is generally more for health, while HIIT is geared toward achieving high levels of fitness. With fitness comes a higher round-the-clock burning rate, which completely changes how your body will burn off that muffin.

This is by no means to suggest that you abandon walking, nor is this an admonition to indiscriminately jump into a HIIT program. This example simply compares two extremes in exercise. All exercise activities and workouts can be placed on a continuum. To build fitness, you gradually move yourself along the continuum. Fitness improves and develops through the cumulative effect of progressive training strategies and cannot be erased by an after-workout treat.

So What Can We Focus On?

Fitness! Or to put it simply, improving your ability to do more “stuff”—and at progressively higher intensities. Does this mean paying attention to energy expenditure is pointless? Absolutely not. Accurate energy-expenditure readings can be a great way to compare and track workouts. Couple this with heart-rate measurements and exercise-performance improvements and you will have simple, objective parameters to guide your success.

And as for eating habits that may be interfering with achieving your weight-management goals, rather than beating yourself up for eating something you think you shouldn’t have, pat yourself on the back for doing a workout. Then create simple strategies to make small improvements in your dietary choices. And remember, you actually need to refuel after your workouts. When you create a clear focus for your fitness goals, you may find yourself naturally choosing healthier foods.