You Cannot Exercise Away a Bad Diet

How many times have you eaten a piece of cake, or box of donuts, or pint of ice cream because you think you “deserve” it after spending an hour working out? Or conversely, you allow yourself a succulent treat, using the rationale that you’ll simply work it off at the gym later that day.

But the notion that you can simply exercise away an unhealthy diet is one that I am constantly fighting off. Let me repeat: The average person (read: YOU) cannot exercise enough to “zero out” a bad diet. And this practice completely defeats any chances of weight loss.

Understand “The Equation”

A few months ago, I wrote about a concept that I think is extraordinarily important when it comes to weight loss. I call it “the equation.”

The equation is simple and pretty obvious:

Calories In – Calories Out (Burned) = Calories Stored

Here’s why this is so important.

One pound of body weight equals 3,500 calories. Let’s say you get into the habit of consuming 100 extra calories per day. After just one year of drinking or eating those 100 additional daily calories, you stand to gain just over 10 pounds. If you don’t believe me, do the math: 100 calories x 365 days = 36,500 calories added to your diet in a year. Then, 36,500 calories per year / 3500 calories per pound = 10.4 pounds.

Why does this matter? Because consuming an additional 100 calories a day is far easier to do than you probably think. Do you crave fast food fries? Only about 10 fries contain 100 calories. Other 100-calorie items include a 7.5-ounce can of non-diet soda; one large chocolate chip cookie; roughly three tablespoons of ice cream; five Hersey’s kisses.

Here’s the real problem though. How many people really stop at a couple tablespoons of ice cream? Not many. Most go for the entire pint…easily 800 to 1,000 (or more) calories in one sitting. And does anyone have just one chocolate chip cookie? I doubt it!

Can’t You Just Burn Those Excess Calories With Exercise?

You would think you could just exercise extra hard to burn off the hundreds of excess calories in cookies, cakes, or ice cream. But the sad reality is that, the only way the average person can do this is through extreme exercise. I’m not talking about an hour of fast running or intense interval training. I’m talking about hours upon hours of training every single day. This is essentially how professional athletes work out—and it’s totally unrealistic for the vast majority of us.

Moreover, studies have found that most people not only overestimate the number of calories they think they burn while working out, they underestimate the number of calories they consume.1-2

Naturally, if you underreport your calorie intake and overestimate your calorie burn, weight loss is impossible—and weight gain is inevitable. So you can see why exercise combined with a lousy diet is a pretty ineffective way to lose (or even maintain) weight.

I believe this is the major reason so many people enter the gym in January for their New Year’s resolution, only to stop going by the end of March. They feel they’ve made no progress in losing weight. And guess what, they truly haven’t because they haven’t paid attention to their diet, or even worse, “rewarded” themselves by eating “treats” post-workout.

The calorie in/calorie out equation has no favorites and applies to everyone. So you might as well embrace it.

Additionally, being conscious of your diet and calorie intake must be a part of your weight loss journey. I’ve discussed journaling in the past. Maintaining a food journal—whether it’s a paper diary or an app on your phone or tablet—is the ultimate reality check. Tracking your diet not only holds you accountable, but increases your awareness. After all, you tend not to think much about your caloric intake until you actually look at a detailed list of everything you’ve put into your mouth over a span of 24 hours. It can be quite shocking!

In summary, please understand that it’s so much easier to avoid high-calorie foods than to attempt to work them off at the gym or on the track. I wish it were not that way, but it’s the hard truth. So do yourself a huge favor and do not use exercise as your excuse for eating a box of donuts or chocolates. Those constant indulgences will eventually catch up to you.


  1. Willbond SM, et al. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2010 Dec;50(4):377-84.
  2. Asbeck I, et al. Public Health Nutr. 2002 Oct;5(5):683-90.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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