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Activity Settings vs "Eating Back" Exercise Calories

SilentpadnaSilentpadna Member Posts: 1,305 Member Member Posts: 1,305 Member
[Long Post – Apologies up front]

I’ve come across many posts in my short time regularly posting here that talk about doing things like:

1. Eating less than what MFP recommends, just to be safe
2. Not eating back exercise calories, just to be safe
3. Setting your activity level to sedentary, just to be safe


The purpose of this post is to challenge this notion - in the context of credit being given for steps in particular. I’m going to do so by using an illustration, and then asking a few questions. In both scenarios, let’s assume that logging intake is accurate. Well I’ll ask one question up front: in the context of weight loss, what does it mean to “be safe”?

As an example, I’ll play with some hypothetical settings (I need to set my initial weight higher to illustrate my point because of the 1500 calorie floor, i.e. at my starting weight, sedentary would not allow me to shoot for 2 pounds per week for this illustration).

First, I am a 54 year old male, hypothetical current weight 290 pounds. I’m 5’11” and I average about 11,000 steps per day without any logged exercise. If I was a newbie (which I guess I still kind of am and I did this at first), I would want to create the maximum deficit for the most weight loss in the shortest time possible. Looking at some, if not most of the advice on these boards, I would input my data and set my activity level to sedentary, despite my actual activity level.

Scenario #1 - Sedentary
Doing this gives me a recommended calorie goal of 1650. Now today I’ve already put in roughly 11,000 steps with probably 2000-3000 more remaining. My credit for exercise (as of now) is 1010 calories (adjusted for the difference in actual weight). Let’s assume it stays the same. So my overall MFP Goal is now 2660 for the day. But, because I “want to be safe”, I decide to eat 50% of those exercise calories, meaning I will end up eating 2155. Sounds reasonable right? That’s what a good portion of people do here on MFP.

Scenario #2 - Active
In reality, however, averaging 11,000 steps per day is not sedentary. If I classify as active, things change as follows: MFP Goal is now 2750. When compared to the above, if I eat my recommendations and do not eat my exercise calories at all (which there wouldn’t be any because I didn’t log any), I eat 600 more calories than I did under the setting of sedentary. Why? Because there is no exercise adjustment, or if there is, it is very small. And in this case, you are getting your 1000 calorie deficit because MFP is assuming this regular activity.

In Scenario #1, you are increasing your deficit closer to 1500 per day. Is that healthy?

So I have to ask some leading questions here.
1. Why do we want to lose weight in the first place? Is it to be lighter? Is it to look better? Is it to be healthier?
2. If we want to lose weight, why would we want it to be in any other fashion than the healthiest (or safest) way possible?
3. Are we actually being safe by setting our activity level lower than actual? Or are we short-circuiting our success by creating excessive deficits?


My position is that you should really try to match your activity level to what you do every day. Particularly and specifically when it comes to walking or gaining steps by being on your feet. Purposeful exercise is different, but gaining steps through regular activity should be fully counted. Further, even if you purposefully walk during your work day, as I do (I take one 20 minute and one 40 minute walk every day and just leave those in my step count), it should be part of your regular activity level.

How you classify your activity is more important than you think, especially if you are an active person. You can see in the example above that each scenario is for the same person with the same steps. Which one loses weight in the healthiest manner?
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Replies

  • SusanMFindlaySusanMFindlay Member Posts: 1,804 Member Member Posts: 1,804 Member
    I don't want to take away from your useful post. But to my mind, the difference isn't in the stated activity levels, it's in peoples' willingness to accept that they burn X calories through exercise if they claim to do so up front, versus their unwillingness to accept that they burned the same number of calories through exercise if they learn about it after the fact. In your example the numbers are very close to the same, until they're arbitrarily and capriciously adjusted by half. It's that adjustment that's causing the problem.

    The adjustment is indeed the problem, but my experience has been that the advice around here (with a few notable exceptions) is always "sedentary! sedentary! sedentary!" So, those people aren't willing to accept that they burn X calories up front either.
  • SusanMFindlaySusanMFindlay Member Posts: 1,804 Member Member Posts: 1,804 Member
    I'm definitely one of the people who insists on sedantary (but eating all exercise calories back and tracking steps) but that's because my activity level varies so wildly (on Sunday I did 600 steps, nope, not kidding; today I hit 10K by lunch time) - I can't think of a better method that doesn't risk wildly over or under estimating my exercise calories.

    Then it makes sense for you. As long as you're not preaching to people with more consistent activity levels that they MUST choose "sedentary" no matter what, you're not who I'm talking about.
  • everhereverher Member Posts: 909 Member Member Posts: 909 Member
    [Long Post – Apologies up front]

    I’ve come across many posts in my short time regularly posting here that talk about doing things like:

    1. Eating less than what MFP recommends, just to be safe
    2. Not eating back exercise calories, just to be safe
    3. Setting your activity level to sedentary, just to be safe

    1. I've never heard number one. I've seen a lot of people claiming to be eating their recommending MFP calories, but still not losing weight and then varying advice being given based upon that but I've never seen someone recommend eating less than MFP recommends just cause.

    2. MFP's exercise calories seem to be notoriously high. I can't vouch for this as I have a fitness tracker so I don't use MFP's calorie burns, but from what I've read from other posters they do seem higher than they should be. Hence people recommending not to eat all of the exercise calories back because most likely they are not correct.

    3. I kinda don't want to touch this one, but if I'm being honest I think a good deal of overweight/obese people are sedentary. I also think people are more likely to overestimate their activity level than underestimate it, at least in my experience.
    edited June 2017
  • SusanMFindlaySusanMFindlay Member Posts: 1,804 Member Member Posts: 1,804 Member
    everher wrote: »
    [Long Post – Apologies up front]

    I’ve come across many posts in my short time regularly posting here that talk about doing things like:

    1. Eating less than what MFP recommends, just to be safe
    2. Not eating back exercise calories, just to be safe
    3. Setting your activity level to sedentary, just to be safe

    1. I've never heard number one. I've seen a lot of people claiming to be eating their recommending MFP calories, but still not losing weight and then varying advice being given based upon that but I've never seen someone recommend eating less than MFP recommends just cause.

    I regularly see posts from people claiming to eat "under" MFP's recommendation rather than eating the recommended amount.

    To be clear, I fully agree that "sedentary" is the correct choice for many people. Even when I suggest that people would find it easier to increase their daily activity level enough that "lightly active" would become appropriate, I usually recommend a pedometer or step counting app to keep them honest. But I regularly read advice suggesting that it's the correct choice for *everybody* - which is patently untrue.
  • SilentpadnaSilentpadna Member Posts: 1,305 Member Member Posts: 1,305 Member
    Maybe a better way to put this is:

    Each scenario is the same person with the same activity level in reality. #1 sets their activity level lower and eats back 1/2 of their step calories (credited to them as exercise), resulting in a bigger deficit. #2 sets their activity level in accordance with what they actually do.

    By setting the level at sedentary, #1 doesn't trust MFP's settings for higher activities. Why would they be accurate for a sedentary person, but not an active one? The only difference is that #1 counts their steps as exercise and discounts them; #2 includes them and trusts the initial setting.

    Why trust MFP at all if you don't trust their initial settings?

    In my experience, as I'm a bit of a numbers geek and have used the different settings, they track very well. Again, specifically with respect to daily activity and the burn you get from your steps.

    For those with inconsistent activity levels, I totally get the idea of a lower setting. But I think that really only works when people know what they are dealing with.

    There is a large number of people on this site, who seem to be looking for ways to increase their deficit under the (false) impression of trying to "be safe". As a result they run the risk of getting undernourished, and hitting the wall because they can't sustain that.
  • PAV8888PAV8888 Member Posts: 7,922 Member Member Posts: 7,922 Member
    Thank you @Silentpadna and @NorthCascades

    Both of you are spot on.

    and of course people should adjust 3-4 weeks later (4-6 weeks for pre-menopausal female) based on their actual weight trend results as derived through the use of a trending weight app or web-site.
  • Poisonedpawn78Poisonedpawn78 Member Posts: 1,146 Member Member Posts: 1,146 Member
    It is meant to give people a starting point to work from. From there they have to adjust to personal levels. its not a one size fits all T-shirt.
  • nosebag1212nosebag1212 Member Posts: 621 Member Member Posts: 621 Member
    This is why I just think using the TDEE method is the best way as long as you have regular workouts and activity levels. MFP's method requires too much micromanaging and putting 'trust' into their workout database which for an over-zealous weight loss noob looking to have the fastest results possible might not be good. TDEE and tracking your weight for 3-4 weeks and THEN making adjustments takes all the guesswork out of it.
    edited June 2017
  • NorthCascadesNorthCascades Member Posts: 10,285 Member Member Posts: 10,285 Member
    Here's a hypothetical question for those who eat back 50% (or whatever number they use): if you have a -200 calorie reduction, do you reduce your intake by only 100 calories?

    I marked this as "awesome," and I'm sad the system won't let me mark it as "insightful" too.
  • Muana1005Muana1005 Member, Premium Posts: 172 Member Member, Premium Posts: 172 Member
    My activity varies so set it to sendentary and then eat back 100 percent of the exercise calories. Still losing.
  • TacklewasherTacklewasher Member Posts: 7,131 Member Member Posts: 7,131 Member
    This is why I just think using the TDEE method is the best way as long as you have regular workouts and activity levels. MFP's method requires too much micromanaging and putting 'trust' into their workout database which for an over-zealous weight loss noob looking to have the fastest results possible might not be good. TDEE and tracking your weight for 3-4 weeks and THEN making adjustments takes all the guesswork out of it.

    Highlighted the important part. I don't use TDEE for just that reason. I'm very inconsistent in what I do. I'm trying to get better, but summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the streets and what I do is weather dependent. Raining tomorrow so I'm not going to do much, but I ran to work today.
  • hesn92hesn92 Member Posts: 5,882 Member Member Posts: 5,882 Member
    I prefer to set mine to sedentary and then eat back my fitbit calories. Works for me.
  • fbchick51fbchick51 Member Posts: 240 Member Member Posts: 240 Member
    By setting the level at sedentary, #1 doesn't trust MFP's settings for higher activities. Why would they be accurate for a sedentary person, but not an active one? The only difference is that #1 counts their steps as exercise and discounts them; #2 includes them and trusts the initial setting.

    Have you considered that it's not that they don't trust MFP's settings, but rather they may have no real idea what "lightly active" might mean in terms of actual activity. Given that A) Our TDEEs are truly just rough estimates based on simple mathematical equations that were based off of random samplings of populations that lived 20-50 years ago. and B) people notoriously over estimate the calories they burn and underestimate the calories they consume. It makes a lot of sense to me that replies to posts complaining about NOT losing weight (or not losing enough) would illicit the response to lower ones activity level to the lowest setting and track upwards (ie enter the exercise you actually do). It's far easier to be more accurate that way.

    As to why I only eat back roughly half my exercise calories? I'm not really trying to make a larger deficit occur, rather I'm acknowledging the human condition of underestimating what I eat. I'm far too lazy and my lifestyle a bit to chaotic to weigh/measure every morsel that I put in my mouth. I don't track the small trace amounts of oils I use in cooking and I tend to guesstimate exactly how much mayo I put on my sandwich or how much dressing I add to my salads. Plus I noticed that food databases tend to use much smaller fruit sizes then what I find at the store. Because of this, I simply assume I eat 200-400 cals more then I actually log. Half my exercise calories tends to fall in the 200-300 cal range, so it tends to even out my failings.
    There is a large number of people on this site, who seem to be looking for ways to increase their deficit under the (false) impression of trying to "be safe". As a result they run the risk of getting undernourished, and hitting the wall because they can't sustain that.

    There's a large number of people (not just this site) who want to try and lose the weight as fast as possible without spending hardly any time and energy learning basic health and nutrition knowledge. While I agree that these same people run the risk of constantly yoyo dieting and learning habits that are more detrimental to their overall long term health, I highly doubt a change to the activity level on MFP is going to fix that.

  • peaceout_alypeaceout_aly Member Posts: 2,018 Member Member Posts: 2,018 Member
    I agree with the vast response of people not understanding the difference between lightly active and sedentary. People think if they go to the gym after sitting for 8+ hours a day at an office job (plus commute) that they are lightly active, and then go ahead and log their exercise on top of that. Not the case. I work out for 2+ hours x day between at home dumbbell/band work/stretching, cardio and in-gym machine/barbell work and I still have my settings at sedentary because what do I do the rest of the day? Sit at my computer and do my job. If I were a construction worker or something like that it'd be more reasonable to have lightly active as a setting. People just need to grasp that concept. So when taking that into perspective it may be good for them to do stuff "just to be safe"
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