Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Weight Problem- Part 3

In my original message to the BIL, this problem was the fifth big problem is calculating exercise calories. However, in the progression of the Weight Loss Series, it made more sense to bump this one up to 3rd place. I've already told you that your bathroom scale is not all that reliable. Whereas I'm pretty sure that the Calories In: Calories Out Theory of Weight Loss is just about perfect, there is no way to accurately figure out how many calories went in. Don't worry, the other half of the equation is just as unhelpful as the former. So much for perfection.

Helmet hair?
Calories Out Sucks Too
Let's forget for a moment that calories are a unit of heat. That's right, heat. Not mass. A semi-famous man named Albert Einstein (whom I'm pretty sure was a triathlete and I'll tell you about his SBR adventures in a future post) postulated that there is a direct relationship between mass and energy in his formula E=mc^2. Whereas his formula only loosely applies here, the concept that energy and mass are linked remains. Your body studied Einstein since long before you can remember and is rather adept at using the heat stored in food, AKA calories, as an energy reserve stored as mass, AKA you.

According to a lot of resources (which I am inclined to believe), one mile on your feet at just about any pace is about 100 calories =/- 25. You burn the same number of calories whether you walk a mile or run a mile. That's at least a 25% margin of error. Are you closer to the 75 mark or the 125 mark? I have no idea and neither do you. 

No pedaling= No calories
Trying to estimate your calorie burn on the bike is even worse. There are so many variables that affect biking to a greater extent than running. The wind and the terrain are at the top of the list. You probably burn the same number of calories at any effort per mile on the bike. The problem arises when you start coasting. How much you did NOT pedal becomes an important aspect in calorie estimation. Bikes are nice in that if you stop pedaling, your forward momentum keeps you moving. Coasting on the bike is equivalent to stopping on the run. You burn no calories but you still are working towards your distance goal. It's win-win, except if you are actually trying to burn those calories. 

Swimming is horrid. Calorie burn is mainly dependent on water temperature and stroke efficiency. The first is relatively easy to measure (if you are not sure how to find water temperature, please stop reading and go back to elementary school science). Cooler temperatures, to a certain degree (pun intended), are inversely proportional to the number of calories you burn. You body burns calories to cool you down via the sweat process. In cooler temperatures, your body doesn't have to expend as much energy on your air conditioning. Still, we don't know how much cooling you need nor how well your body runs the AC. All of this holds true as long as you keep swimming. Stop for a minute and the system shuts down, then reverses to a warming system. Seem complicated? That's because it is. The second variable, efficiency, is harder to define and impossible to measure.

We Can't Really Measure Calories
The biggest issue with measuring your calorie output in terms of weight loss is that we have no real convenient way to measure how many calories we burn during exercise. The most efficient way to measure calories in an object is through calorimetry. During calorimetry, an object is placed in a well insulated, sealed chamber and subsequently incinerated. The amount of heat released during incineration is used to calculate the amount of calories stored in the object because heat is conserved. In practice, scientists have found very few athletes who are willing to discover their calorie information via calorimetry, thus the sample set for this data is quite small. There are other less-efficient ways to measure your calories but these methods are expensive and can require the subject to be placed under excruciating conditions.

Indirect methods are needed and even they aren't that accurate. Many of you have seen the calorie burning charts on the treadmill at gym. You try to hit the cardio zone or the fat burning zone. How in the world does the machine know this? The calorie burning system varies from one individual to the next. Some of you out there may have a device commonly called a heart rate monitor that will give you a calorie estimation. The problem is that the makers of these devices have never met you nor calibrated their system to meet your specific output. These devices use an algorithm based on the preconceived average of the people that they have data on. None of them are you. Look at the chart above, using HR to calculate your calorie burn is at best 20% inaccurate.

So we have this genius of a formula- Calories In: Calories which will accurately predict if you lose weight. Burn more calories than you consume, viola! weight loss. Again, you and I have absolutely no idea how many calories go in to our bodies nor how many go out. Maybe I'll change my opinion on the formula from 'genius' to 'crappy'. How good is a formula that is 100% right but completely inapplicable to everyone in all aspects? How can we be expected to lose weight under these conditions? Why am I so fat?

In the next post, I'll tell you even more reasons why the weight loss gods are out to get you. When I am done with the series, I'll start a new series to show you how to actually lose weight. If you actually listen is up to you. It'll get worse before it gets better. Stick around.


  1. I find this intriguing as I was on a journey to lose weight, but I wanted to make sure it was FAT and not muscle which makes the task even more daunting....

    It can be done though, but it requires a lot of see my transformation...check here

    I think getting leaner has definitely made me a faster runner as I told you about my Turkey Trot Results over the years....

    I have thoroughly enjoyed these recent posts and look forward to more....

  2. Edit....wrong link

  3. Dude- You are a beast!
    P.S. Thanks for skipping right past the problems and on to the solutions. More on this to come.