Here's the skinny on treadmill calorie counts, "fat genes," the 100-calorie-a-mile myth, and more.
Q: Are the calorie-burn readouts on machines accurate?
A: Not always. If you run on a treadmill, glide on an elliptical, or ride a stationary bike, the number of calories you actually burn can be 10 to 15 percent lower than what's displayed, says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. Most machines don't take into account percent body fat, height, sex, age, resting heart rate, or whether you're holding onto the handles, which reduces workload. That doesn't mean you should totally ignore the stats on the exercise machines. Use the calorie readout as a barometer of your progress. If the number goes up from one session to the next for the same workout, you know you're working harder toward your weight-loss goals.
Q: Am I doomed by genetics to battle my weight?
A: No. It's true that some people are predisposed to having a slower metabolism, and others put on weight more easily or carry extra pounds in certain areas. Even so, staying slim is not a hopeless battle. You can outsmart your genes and maintain a healthy weight. Case in point: A 2009 Finnish study published in the International Journal of Obesity tracked 16 same-sex twin pairs (chosen because they had the same genetic makeup) for decades and found that the twin who had been more physically active over a 32-year period accumulated 50 percent less belly fat than the twin who didn't exercise. The takeaway? By running and exercising regularly, you're already a step ahead in winning the battle against the bulge.
Q: Does extra walking help that much with weight control?
A: Taking extra steps each day can have a cumulative calorie-burning effect, says McCall. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that healthy adults who were car-happy gained up to 15 pounds more over 15 years than those who walk more often to get around. So park your car a bit farther away than you need to; take the stairs instead of the elevator. To motivate yourself to walk more, invest in a pedometer and aim for at least 10,000 steps daily. That's two and half miles of walking, which means you'll burn about 250 extra calories every day.
Q: What's the best way to keep the weight off once I lose it?
A: Regular exercise is key. In a recent study, researchers discovered that overweight subjects who had slimmed down over two years required an average of 40 minutes of exercise per day to sustain a loss of 10 percent or more of their initial body weight. And that was in addition to closely watching what they ate. Those who committed less time to sweating it out were more likely to be back where they started. "Weight loss is not something that happens and then you're done with it," says kinesiologist Greg McMillan, an online coach at mcmillanrunning.com. "That's why quick-fix programs hardly ever work long-term." To stay motivated, join a running group, sign up for cooking lessons, or splurge on a trainer who can refresh a stale routine.
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Q: Is the bathroom scale the best way to measure the fitness I'm gaining and the pounds I'm losing?
A: No! Many people get frustrated when they step on the scale after weeks of exercising only to discover they're the same weight. What they're forgetting is that they very likely have gained muscle and lost body fat-a more positive health change than simply losing pounds. There are other, more telling ways to track your progress. You can use inexpensive calipers like those from AccuMeasure to track body-fat changes. Take the measurement about one inch above your right hip. Taking your waist, hip, and thigh measurements on a weekly basis will help you quantify exactly how many inches you've lost. And how are your jeans fitting? Every so often, try on that old pair-the ones you wore when you were at your feel-great weight. Once they fit, you'll know you're at a healthy weight. And use a belt. Counting the extra belt holes you cinch up is an easy way to get daily feedback on your weight.
Q: I started exercising regularly, but I'm actually gaining weight. What's going on?
A: This is not uncommon. Newbies are often surprised to discover how easy it is to put on pounds even when you start exercising. Many people go wrong by changing their diets (and not for the better) along with their mileage, or because other factors, such as hormonal fluctuations, come into play. Starting an exercise routine almost always requires more mileage, which boosts the number of calories you burn as well as your appetite. "Your body is trying to help fuel your increased activity," says Jenna Bell, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition consultant and coauthor of Energy to Burn.
It's worse for women: Researchers at the University of Massachusetts discovered this heightened sense of hunger is stronger in women than men because exercise accelerates the production of appetite-regulating hormones, prompting them to eat more; men, it turns out, aren't as susceptible to these changes. Pay attention to whether you're hungry, thirsty, or simply giving in to cravings or feelings of entitlement. "When your body truly needs food, you'll experience fatigue, a rumbling stomach, or hunger pangs that accumulate over time," says Leah Sabato, M.P.H., R.D., a nutrition expert specializing in obesity treatment and prevention.
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To keep cravings at bay, remove temptations from your sight-if Doritos aren't on the counter, chances are they won't call your name. You can also try a diversion, such as taking a walk; studies have shown that a brisk 15-minute walk reduces chocolate cravings. Or use your stopwatch as a tool: Force yourself to wait 20 minutes before giving in. Usually after 20 minutes have lapsed, the urge is no longer as strong. And try to avoid falling into the "I deserve it" mind-set. A 30-minute walk does not entitle you to inhale an entire pizza. To limit overcompensation-that is, eating above and beyond what you need for recovery and erasing the calorie deficit achieved during a workout-make smarter food choices all day. Eat mostly whole, minimally processed foods rich in carbs, fiber, and protein. The latter two take longer to digest, keeping hunger at bay and helping you avoid eating more than you should. High-fiber foods (vegetables, fruits, grains) are often low in calories but filling, making them great for weight control.
Don't fill up on carbs from processed grains and sweets. Instead, carb-load with whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, which are more filling and nutrient-dense. And be sure to track what you eat: In general people tend to vastly overestimate the number of calories they burn, and underestimate the number of calories they consume.
Q: If I eat healthy during the week, can I splurge on weekends?
A: Saturday and Sunday represent about 30 percent of the week, so too many slipups will put you on bad terms with the scale. Dieters in a 2008 study dropped pounds during the week but stopped losing weight on weekends because they ate too much. It's easy to cancel out five days' worth of healthy eating with a weekend food fest. Consistency is key, says Felicia Stoler, R.D., nutrition coordinator for the New York City Marathon. Consume a similar number of calories on Tuesday as you would Saturday, she adds. Weigh yourself Friday and again on Monday. Any weekend weight gain is a sign you went overboard. On weekends, be sure to eat breakfast. Studies suggest that people who eat breakfast eat fewer calories later in the day. And give in to a treat during the week, so you don't have the urge to splurge on Saturday.
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Q: Is it true that both walking and running burn 100 calories?
A: Not exactly. Running a mile burns roughly 26 percent more calories than walking a mile. Running burns roughly 2.3 times more calories than the same total time spent walking, according to an April 2012 article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning. Why is that? When you walk, you keep your legs mostly straight, and your center of gravity rides along fairly smoothly on top of your legs. In running, we actually jump from one foot to the other. Each jump raises our center of gravity when we take off, and lowers it when we land, since we bend the knee to absorb the shock. This continual rise and fall of our weight requires a tremendous amount of Newtonian force (fighting gravity) on both takeoff and landing.
Now there are some caveats to these calculations. They're derived from an "average" weight of the subjects; there may be individual variations. Also, age and gender make a modest difference. Your weight is by far the biggest determinant of your calorie burn per mile. When you look at per-minute burn, your pace (your speed) also makes a big difference. These calculations aren't meant to be precise. They are good approximations, and much more accurate than the old chestnut that you burn 100 calories per mile. Another caveat: the calculations only apply to walkers doing an 18:36 pace and runners doing a 10:00 pace. Running faster or slower than 10:00 pace doesn't make much difference in your calorie-burn per mile. (But has a major impact on your burn per minute.)
Walking is a different kind of animal. Increases in walking speed dramatically raise calorie burn per mile as well as per minute. Indeed, at about 12:30 per mile, walking hits a point where it burns about the same calories per mile as running. Walk faster than 12:30 and you will burn more calories per mile than running at 10:00 pace. However, except for competitive race-walkers, almost no one goes faster than 12:30 per mile. Most people walk in the 18:00 to 20:00 range.
Bottom line: Do what you can to burn as many calories as possible in exercise and daily living. That's the ticket to good health and weight.
More from Runner's World:
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Here's the skinny on treadmill calorie counts, "fat genes," the 100-calorie-a-mile myth, and more.