More is BetterOne of the less obvious costs of staying at home is that it may cost you significantly fewer calories to go about your day. Even among BLOC clients who have continued to train hard at home—with or without barbells—many people are experiencing unexpected weight gain and are concerned over becoming less healthy during the lockdown due to a change in their energy balance.
More is Better: Increased Activity When You are Stuck at Home
Do you know how many calories you burn while lifting? It’s a difficult question to answer. In the grand scheme of the 24-hours of your day and the seven days of your week, lifting is a significant but not overwhelming amount of physical activity. (Read more here). Calories burned from an acute bout of exercise is much less than the caloric cost of daily life—breathing, eating, and living. When we train, we boost our energy expenditure significantly, but a significant shift in how we spend our days can overcome the health benefits of training with a loss of activity levels from all the other things we are used to doing.
This is bad news if, for example, you suddenly stop working out of the house, getting groceries, hauling kids around, and being generally more active. (You know, hypothetically speaking.) One of the less-obvious costs of staying at home is that it may cost you significantly fewer calories to go about your day. Even if you have continued to train hard at home—with or without barbells—you may be experiencing unexpected weight gain, or you may be concerned with being less healthy during the lockdown. A lot of issues arise due to energy balance.
While the hours you spend in the gym add an incredible dimension of health benefits to your weeks, months, and years, day-to-day most of your fuel goes to just doing stuff. For a sedentary person, 50-60% of their calories are accounted for in their resting metabolic rate (doing nothing). The other sources of caloric expenditure come from eating and activities beyond those necessary to keep your heart beating and your lungs breathing. (Poehlman 1989) When faced with less daily activity, you need to consider the overall effect on your health level and take steps to reclaim some of the lost energy expenditure.
There should be little mystery here. If your activity level decreases, your caloric needs also fall. Then you are faced with a problem of energy balance: energy in vs. energy out.
Energy is the capacity to do work. (“Work” in this case is the Newtonian definition—the product of a given force acting through a given distance: Work = Force x Distance.) For our purposes, we are concerned with energy as the fuel to support our essential living functions (breathing, continuing to pump blood through our bodies, converting food to more energy) and to produce force through skeletal muscular contractions. The last, our activities, include every interaction we have with our environment, from getting out of bed to lifting weights; everything requires energy.
Our bodies’ machinery does not create energy. It only converts from one form to another. When you take in energy (food), store it (in various forms such as fat and glycogen), and convert it to usable forms (like ATP), the energy goes through various changes. These changes are inefficient. They produce excess amounts of unusable energy in the form of heat.
We can classify the energy you spend during any given period in one of three categories: resting, feeding, or activity. Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the measure of energy you spend doing absolutely nothing. This is in the realm of 50-60% of a sedentary person’s daily caloric expenditure. (But see McMurray et al. 2014) Eating costs you about 10% of your daily energy expenditure, depending on what you eat. The thermic effect of carbohydrates and fat are similar, while it takes more energy to convert protein to energy.
The most variable source of energy expenditure is activity. The thermic effect of activity accounts anywhere from 15% to 30% of a person’s daily energy expenditure. Several factors affect this percentage, most of which you can’t help but a few that you can, such as your activity level and the amount of fat-free mass on your body. Happily, training for strength positively affects both of these factors, requiring more energy to keep you doing what you want to be doing.
More Energy is Better
The traditional view of controlling body weight is one of the First Law of Thermodynamics and the relationship between all forms of energy. If you consume more energy than you expend, you will gain weight. While that is true, there are other factors to consider. The lower a person’s energy needs, the more difficult it is to reduce your caloric intake. Studies suggest (and everyone who has dieted knows) that the more you cut calories, the higher a “reward” your brain makes food. Meaning it becomes more difficult to control your nutrition the more you have to reduce your intake. So, while managing your energy balance is a big part of good nutrition habits, your activity level is another; we ignore either side of that equation to our detriment.
The more energy you give yourself to work with, the better control you have over your energy balance; the more energy you create, use, and move, the easier it is to regulate your nutritional needs. High levels of activity with a large amount of lean body mass make the best system for regulating your nutritional needs for health, fitness, and body weight. (Hume, Yokum, and Stice 2016)
“Nutrition” should start to mean less about calorie restriction and more about the eating habits that accompany an above-average active lifestyle. Responding to that reality our nutrition team has recently launched the Barbell Logic Nutrition Club as a response to the significant life changes you may be experiencing right now. (Learn More about Diet Coaching for the New Normal here)
Back to the problem at hand. You are not going to work, you are socializing through Zoom.us, and you may be having all your food delivered. Your activity level has taken a hit. So, even if you are managing your food intake, you are operating from a lower base of energy usage each day, making it more difficult to meet your demands and take control of your energy needs. Let’s look at some ways you can increase your activity level and maintain a “high flux” of energy while stuck at home.
Increasing Your Activity Level
As a trained person, your RMR is likely higher than it would be if you hadn’t been logging all those hours in the gym. And having built lean body mass through strength training means that when your metabolic rate falls due to a decrease in activity, your body is still running a bigger engine than it would be if you were less muscular. You have “muscle in the bank” since lean mass has a higher caloric cost to maintain. (Withers et al. 1998) There are two levers to pull when it comes to the type of activities that will help you recapture the benefits of your normal activity levels. (1) general physical activity and (2) maintaining your muscle mass.
Maintaining Your Muscle Mass
If you have strength training equipment at home, then you are covered here. Keep doing what you have been doing: squat, bench, press, and deadlift. But consider adding some of the other activities below to help recapture some of your daily activity levels. Keeping a higher metabolic rate overall will help you build and maintain muscle mass by allowing you to each more protein and keep a higher state of energy flux.
If you do not have a barbell and rack at home. Then the best bet to maintain muscle mass is through higher-repetition, hypertrophy style training. Even with a full set of dumbbells, it is impossible to load your body with the same intensity as you can with a bar and rack. But with minimal equipment, you can train your muscle groups in the eight to twelve repetition range and hold onto much of the mass you have built with the barbell. Using what is essentially accessory work as your primary driver of strength isn’t going to add to your 1RM, but it can help you hold onto muscle mass.
Like most accessory work, this means that your training has to be very hard and operate close to muscle failure. For example, if you have dumbbells that are heavy enough to train your overhead press but too light for your bench press (or floor press), then you will have to organize your chest training like a bodybuilder: multiple exercises that work the same muscle groups in different ways, right up to muscle exhaustion. Your chest training might include a circuit of dumbbell flys, floor presses, and wide-grip push-ups, moving from one exercise right into the next to help induce fatigue.
There is a lot of fitness advice that applies to sedentary people that we tend to ignore as strength athletes. These recommendations come from a useful baseline of activity for people who are, generally, inactive. For example, the 10,000-steps-per-day goal is not just an arbitrary number. Sedentary to low-active people exhibit a deficit in threshold levels of activity that promote good health. Most people’s daily activities will not yield ten thousand steps, making it an ambitious goal to push people to change behaviors. A step goal is a proxy for being more active. (Choi et al. 2007) If you are already training daily, whether barbell training or using other at-home workouts, you are getting a good dose of activity toward a daily goal. Training plus a 40-minute walk is enough additional activity for most people to reach an equivalent of 10,000 steps worth of activity. The benefits of increased activity are well-established.
Anything more vigorous than walking will cut down the amount of time you spend trudging around your neighborhood, but keep in mind that we aren’t trying to become endurance athletes or chronic exercisers. Instead, we are trying to remedy the problem of low-activity levels. If you’ve been stuck on the couch and have finished Netflix, it’s a good idea to start accumulating lower intensity, steady-state activity.
Being more active is not complicated, but it may be something you aren’t used to prioritizing outside of your regular training. If you find yourself without a barbell—now or in the future—you can receive our Home Training Guide for free here. Otherwise, pay attention to the possible changes in your daily activities and the effects they may be having on your health needs. Get outside if you can. And make your family members move a little bit more, too.
Choi, Bernard C. K., Anita W. P. Pak, Jerome C. L. Choi, and Elaine C. L. Choi. 2007. “Daily Step Goal of 10,000 Steps: A Literature Review.” Clinical and Investigative Medicine. Medecine Clinique et Experimentale 30 (3): E146–51.
Hume, David John, Sonja Yokum, and Eric Stice. 2016. “Low Energy Intake plus Low Energy Expenditure (low Energy Flux), Not Energy Surfeit, Predicts Future Body Fat Gain.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.127753.
McMurray, Robert G., Jesus Soares, Carl J. Caspersen, and Thomas McCurdy. 2014. “Examining Variations of Resting Metabolic Rate of Adults: A Public Health Perspective.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 46 (7): 1352–58.
Withers, R. T., D. A. Smith, R. C. Tucker, M. Brinkman, and D. G. Clark. 1998. “Energy Metabolism in Sedentary and Active 49- to 70-Yr-Old Women.” Journal of Applied Physiology. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1922.214.171.1243.