Learn to Burn Off Your Favorite Treats

Can You Make Up for That Weak Moment With Exercise?

By John Casey
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

The Italians have a saying about pasta: "A second on the lips, a lifetime on the hips." If the reality of exercise physiology isn't quite that simple, it's not far off, either.

Every calorie you eat that your body doesn't need for energy or to maintain bodily processes will likely be stored as fat. And those high-fat, high-sugar goodies we all love can pack a whole lot of calories into their tiny but tasty selves.

Consider the humble brownie, says Robyn Stuhr, an exercise physiologist and administrative director of the Women's Sports and Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

"A single brownie might easily have 300 calories," she says, sounding shocked. "To burn that many calories could mean an hour on an exercise bike. For one darn brownie!"

But she's realistic, adding that "every diet needs to allow for calorie-dense snacks here and there. You have to allow for the occasional cake or candy bar."

And of course, there are many ways to burn calories besides going to the gym. Some may find it less taxing -- if equally time-consuming -- to work exercise into their daily routines. While rates of calorie burning differ from person to person, for an average person weighing 150 pounds, that brownie might equal out to roughly:

  • An hour and 10 minutes of housecleaning (or, for that matter, playing Ping Pong)
  • One hour of washing the car
  • 35 minutes of playing touch football with the kids

Oh, and that Big Mac from McDonald's you just had? Its 560 calories would require some serious exercise time. That same 150-pound person would have to do:

  • Nearly an hour and 20 minutes of biking on a flat surface
  • An hour and 40 minutes of mowing the lawn (not with a riding mower)
  • 45 minutes of rock climbing (going up)

What about other common snacks?

  • If you like potato chips, a mere 20 minutes of water skiing erases a serving's 156 calories
  • A regular soda, at about 300 calories, will cost you one hour of pushing your child in a stroller
  • One large serving of french fries is worth two hours of horseback riding

A half cup of premium ice cream -- which is what manufacturers say is a typical serving -- will set you back about 250 calories. But really, who ever eats only a half cup of ice cream? So let's make it 500 calories. And here are some ways to burn off that cold and creamy indulgence:

  • Two hours of tai chi
  • Eight hours of watching television
  • Forty-five minutes of swimming

"A half cup of premium ice cream?will set you back about 250 calories. But really, who ever eats only a
half cup of ice cream?"

Sex, age, body weight, and other factors help determine both how many calories your body needs just to maintain its basic functions -- what physiologists call your basal metabolic rate, or BMR -- and how efficiently your body uses calories. One major factor is your lean body mass, which is the proportion of your body that's made up of muscle.

"Lean body mass is responsible for about 90% of a person's BMR," says Stuhr. "Generally we see a dropping off of lean body mass with age, and that occurs more quickly for women after menopause, when lean body mass and bone mass really drop."

Given the wide range in calories burned by various activities, it's easy to see why Stuhr says it's important to choose exercise that helps maintain lean body mass and efficiently burns calories. For that reason, she recommends adding strength training to any exercise regimen.

One effective weight-loss approach is to aim to slightly increase your daily exercise -- say, by upping the intensity of your workout or working out for a few extra minutes -- while also reducing your daily food intake by 150 to 200 calories, she says.

This is a more realistic option than trying to trade food for fitness activities, Stuhr says. A "modest reduction in daily calories and a modest increase in exercise is a better approach than trying to use exercise exclusively to work your way out of extra weight."

Originally published July 23, 2003
Medically updated June 6, 2004.


SOURCES: Robyn Stuhr, exercise physiologist and administrative director, Women's Sports Medical Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery, New York. FoodCount.com web site. The Calorie Control Council web site. McDonald's Corp. web site.

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