[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?