Energy Balance

In this edition of our "First things First" series, where we will focus on aspects of Wellness and Nutrition, we will look at the ideas behind energy balance and how it pertains to bodily functions.

When some people think about energy balance they chalk it up to a rather simple equation of "calories in versus calories out".  While that statement is indeed TRUE, it is a bit over-simplistic. There are many factors that can impact energy balance in our bodies, including environment, hormone responses, digestive/absorptive capacity of the individual, and activity level.  

This blog will tend to focus more on our environment and activity level. 

At the end of the day, however, creating proper energy balance based on your goals is the key to success.

Energy Balance:  Environment and Exercise  

Despite our own desires and goals the body will always seek balance first. In other words, regardless of what you are doing, it will try to adapt.

If we exercise more, and eat less our appetites will no doubt be bigger.  And rightfully so, we are using up our bodily storage and need to replace them accordingly to keep our engines running. 

The same can be said of the opposite relationship, only our appetites will get smaller.  This prevents us from over or under eating.  However, due to the fact (most of us) live in a society of abundance and immediacy, the walk to the refrigerator or kitchen usually only takes a few seconds and provides us with a plethora of options to consume on - most of it low in nutrition quality.  

This is why some scientists speculate the growing obesity rate in North American diets will continue to grow.  If we are not eating nutrient/caloric dense food, the body will your keep appetite high in an attempt to get these vital nutrients it craves regardless of how much or little we are moving.

The things that we keep in sight in our kitchen, will be consumed.  Try keeping food out of sight, particularly if it is not nutritious.  

The things that we keep in sight in our kitchen, will be consumed.  Try keeping food out of sight, particularly if it is not nutritious.  

If given the choice of adding body weight in the form of "fat" or "lean mass", we would probably lean toward the latter.  However, in order for the body to convert excess energy into lean mass there must be a potential for protein gain.

In other words, we need to be stressing the body in appropriate ways for our tissues to adapt. Simply eating more quality foods that contain protein, without adding force into the body would still result in the body turning excess food intake into fat storage.  

Just because you eat 3,000 calories of broccoli still equates to 3,000 calories.  Exercise, therfeore, is our most variable and controllable metabolic component.  In my opinion, the two most important things we can put into our body is food and force, but they need to work together.

So how can we get better at "force", aka exercise?  

For starters, you need to maximize your intensity in the gym.  This does not mean our goal every workout should be "survival", but it should be high enough that it makes you slightly uncomfortable.  

By working out at higher intensities (not the highest intensity) your body uses more energy per minute during your workout AND AFTER.    This is referred to as EPOC or excessive post oxygen consumption, and typically will equate to the same amount of fat burned as lower intensity exercise.  

If your 60 minutes in the gym is spent on the elliptical watching Ellen, you should try 20-30 minutes of something a little more demanding that requires your attention and focus.

Which leads us to our next point

Energy Balance and Bodily Functions

It just so happens our brains require a lot of energy - constantly.  So focusing your workouts to new movements/programs will require more energy consumption.   This is because you are not only working our your body but your brain as well.

To put this into perspective think about the drive to work you have done 1,000 times.  Have you ever had one of those moments where you thought, "How did I get here today?".  We all have. The only thing we can hope is that we did not commit any felonies on the way over.  

The more we practice a skill, the better we get at it - It becomes a habit/part of our program. Therefore, we do not burn, or need to use as much energy, which is going to result in a more difficult time losing weight.  

This also impacts people who are looking to add weight or improve performance as well.  We know that most gains in the gym during the initial weeks of training or attempting a new exercise are simply neurologically based.  Meaning, our muscles and bodies have not changed from a structural perspective.   

These initial connections are crucial to performance and exercise progression, hence why the best way to continue to add strength is to keep the brain involved to make these connections stronger.    

Energy In and Energy Out

So how do you achieve either a positive/negative caloric energy balance?

Firstly, it is not just about counting calories.  As Precision Nutrition points out so well, "Blaming weight gain/loss on calories is like blaming wars on guns."  So monitoring your food quality is important.  

Here are ways to create a "negative" energy balance:

  • Add another day of working out to your routine
  • Participate in higher intensity training activities
  • Increase "non-exercise" throughout the day - walk/bike to work, stand more, take the stairs
  • Eat at regular intervals throughout the day - To prevent over eating
  • Sleep
  • Eat more vegetables

Here are ways to create a "positive" energy balance:

  • Increase intake of food with shakes and liquids
  • Eat at regular intervals until you are 100% full
  • Eat more fruit

Remember, consistency is the best medicine. Our bodies are only meant to flux into positive or negative balances for short periods of time with specific goals in mind.  Once our goals are met, the best thing to maintain results is get back into a state of balance.

Until next time, Move Well - Be Well!