How Exercise Conditioning Affects Calorie Burn and TDEE

exercise conditioning

It has never been easier to track exercise and calorie burn using our smartphone and wearable devices.

But, can that data be trusted to establish an accurate TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure)?

Establishing the most accurate estimation of your TDEE is the best starting point to use when counting macros or doing Flexible Dieting IIFYM. However, estimating your exercise calorie burn is perhaps the trickiest part of the calculation.

Why? There are a few reasons, but the biggest one is the (often overlooked) concept of exercise conditioning.

What is Exercise Conditioning?

Exercise conditioning is your body’s ability to adapt and become more efficient when performing the same exercise.

Example:

Let’s say a person decides to start running a mile each day.

  • The first day the person runs a mile, they feel like they are about to die.
  • The second day, they feels a little less like death at the end of the mile.
  • The third day the mile gets a little easier to run.
  • By the end of a couple weeks, running a mile isn’t a hard task at all.


The body has adapted to the exercise by becoming more efficient. The lungs have adapted, the heart has adapted, and the runner’s muscles have adapted.

Unfortunately the number of calories burned from running a mile has also decreased as the body adapted.

There has been research into this concept and one such review of research found marked muscle adaptations responsible for less energy consumption. 1

Another study showed a decrease in energy expenditure among 43% of the participants who used exercise to lose weight after a period of time. 2

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact amount of calorie burn decrease after doing the same exercise over and over again, we do know it’s less.

Why This is a Problem

If you’ve calculated your TDEE based on walking 3 miles a day on a treadmill or working out for an hour at the gym, you may be overestimating your calorie burn if you’ve been doing that same exercise for awhile.

This can slow your results and even possibly keep you from experiencing results with flexible dieting if your estimation is too far off.

How to Prevent Exercise Conditioning

You can prevent exercise conditioning by regularly switching up your exercise routine. Here are some examples:

  • Increase the distance you run/walk periodically.
  • Increase the speed you run/walk.
  • Change the course you run/walk to include more uphills.
  • Adjust the incline/speed of your treadmill regularly.
  • Regularly increase the weight you are lifting.
  • Regularly increase the number of reps you are doing when weight training.

You probably get the idea. Keep your body guessing and don’t allow it to fully adapt to what you are doing. Keep pushing yourself!

Establishing an accurate TDEE is vital if you want to get the most out of counting macros. Understanding how exercise conditioning plays a factor in this, and will help keep you from frustrating plateaus.

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The Illusion of Step Counting

Fitness trackers and smartphones use your movement to count steps. They then equate those steps into a distance and/or calorie burn.

However, it has been proven time and again by investigative reporting that these devices are highly inaccurate and can even overestimate your calorie burn by as much as double!

There’s more to measuring calorie burn than steps and exercise conditioning plays a big role here too.

If we look at a trusted exercise database like the one found on FreeDieting.com, we can see the difference in calorie burn an exercise like walking can have.

Example: Here we have a 165 lb, 5’5″ woman who walks for an hour. Here are just some of the different calorie burn scenarios that could result:

calorie burn for different types of walking

Crazy, right?! It ranges from a burn of 126 to as much as 618! Most step trackers can’t possibly tell the difference between different types of “steps”.

Instead of counting steps and using that information to factor your TDEE, you should be tracking specific types of exercise and if walking, this includes three factors; distance, speed, and elevation change.

If you don’t do this then you may find yourself extremely frustrated as to why you aren’t losing weight with counting macros or IIFYM.

Another Example:

Let’s say your maintenance TDEE is 1800 calories.

We then deduct 20% for a safe weight loss calorie deficit which brings your TDEE to 1540 calories.

Your step tracker is telling you that you burned 500 calories with you steps throughout the day and you add that to your TDEE for a total of 2040 calories.

In reality your casual walking throughout the day only burned 200 calories. This means your true exercise adjusted weight loss TDEE is 1740 calories.

This makes a huge difference in the speed of which you’ll see results.

By accounting for exercise conditioning as well as double checking fitness trackers with other tools, you’ll be well on your way to success with flexible dieting.

Need More Help?

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    References:

  • Holloszy, John O., and Edward F. Coyle. “Adaptations of skeletal muscle to endurance exercise and their metabolic consequences.” Journal of applied physiology 56.4 (1984): 831-838. link
  • Melanson, E. L., Keadle, S. K., Donnelly, J. E., Braun, B., & King, N. A. (2013). Resistance to exercise-induced weight loss: compensatory behavioral adaptations. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 45(8), 1600. link

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