Fitness, Life

Exercise Isn’t About Burning Calories

“The reason I exercise is for the quality of life I enjoy!”

~Kenneth H. Cooper

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen a live story that I posted the day before Thanksgiving about calories and exercising. If not, here’s the gist.

How many times have you said or heard someone say, “I gotta go workout so I can eat that pie” or “I will do an extra workout tomorrow to burn this off.” People… listen to me on this one… exercise isn’t about burning calories!

You may read that and think I’m nuts, but hear me out! Just like so many things in the health and fitness world, false misinformed strategies have been engrained in our head. The notion that we exercise to lose weight or get skinny is rough around the edges, to say the least. I believe these ideas are a large contributing factors to why a lot of people (women specifically) have an up and down relationships with exercise. Yes, part of the benefit of an exercise program is to keep our body weight in check, but that is just a side effect of what is actually happening. And, let me note, if exercise is done incorrectly, it can actually make us gain weight (and not the lean muscle kind). Let me explain.

We exercise to become stronger, fitter, healthier humans. We exercise to gain something, not lose something. When we lift weights we make our muscles stronger. When we perform cardiovascular activity we are making our heart and lungs stronger. When we play sports, we are improving our athleticism (balance, coordinations, speed, agility). When we exercise we are literally changing our brain chemistry as well.

Note: I am not a brain chemistry/hormonal expert (yet!) and I’m not about to pretend to be, but I am going to dive into the basics of the three main types of exercise and how they each effect us.

Heavy weight lifting increases dopamine which is referred to as the “reward drug”. Basically, it helps to stimulate motivation. Ever feel like you’re in a mental funk? Go do some squats and see where your brain goes.

High intensity/metabolic conditioning (metcon) increase adrenaline, cortisol and growth hormone to help give you a “pick-me-up” when feeling a bit sluggish. Hence why you feel jazzed after some hard sprints or an intense CrossFit style workout.

Cardiovascular activity increases serotonin. That whole thing called a “runners high” is the real deal people. Serotonin is considered a natural mood stabilizer and helps to regulate depression and anxiety. It also helps with sleeping, eating and digesting. (*Note, you don’t have to run… improve mood with walking, swimming, biking and low intensities).

Now, with that said, the caveat I mentioned about “if exercise is done incorrectly it can actually make us gain weight (and not the lean muscle kind)”. I’m SUPER guilty of this and something I work on often. I can’t tell you how many times I’m feeling exhausted from several days of intense work and my stress levels are already high, but I go do a metcon because I know it will make me feel more alive. Well it does, like I can conquer the next task. But it also can put me in a chronic state of high cortisol. This can lead to fat gain around the middle, higher stress and actually defeating the purpose of the exercise bout in the first place. This is true with all forms of exercise… when done in the incorrect state, you can mess with your brain chemistry and hormonal make up sending you in the opposite direction that you set out for.

So, back to where we started… exercise isn’t about burning calories. Exercise is about moving our bodies in a way to improve our overall health and to do that we have to understand how our body reacts (on a basic level), why we would do a certain type of exercise depending on how we’re feeing and mentally we have to get over the idea that we exercise to burn calories and lose weight!

Exercise of the Week

1/2 Turkish Get Up

This is building into one of my favorite exercises! Great for core strength and shoulder stability. It also shows glaring weaknesses in hip and shoulder mobility if unable to perform.


Recipe of the Week

Pork Divan 

I was feeling super nostalgic for a recipe I grew up eating… Chicken Divan.  So last night I decided to make up my own.  And it was BOOOOOMB!


  • 2 cups brown rice (cooked)
  • 3 cups chopped up pork loin (left overs)
  • 1 large head broccoli (chopped small)
  • 1 leek (sliced)
  • 1 Tbsp fresh squeezed lemon
  • 1 cup full fat coconut milk
  • 2 Tbsp curry powder
  • 1 Tbsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 3 oz goat cheese (crumbled)


  1. Preheat oven to 350°
  2. Steam broccoli and leeks together until soft
  3. In a large bowl mix rice, pork, broccoli and leeks
  4. Stir in lemon, coconut milk and spices
  5. Mix in 2 oz of cheese
  6. Pour mixture into 8″x8″ baking dish
  7. Sprinkle 2 oz of cheese on top
  8. Bake for 20 minutes

4 thoughts on “Exercise Isn’t About Burning Calories

  1. Great article Jenny! The point about training under stress is very interesting. I had a chat with my coach a while ago about cortisol possibly being a reason I was still holding belly fat even after 7 years of crossfit (4 or 5 days a week from 3 initially) and 5 years of a paleo diet. I’ve been traveling for the past 6 weeks and training sporadically and losing belly fat finally! I thought it was just the shift in eating (less calories but still mostly paleo) but it’s probably also the cortisol decrease because I still feel really good and when I do train I feel great! I guess I will dial it back a bit when I return to a more regular schedule 🙂

  2. Jenny, Your words are so very transformative. I read this post yesterday and have frequently thought about it. I have often used exercise to “take away”. Not so much in terms of calories, but rather, emotional states – take away my “anger”, “frustration”, etc. You name it. It is perhaps fine, at times, to use exercise as an emotional outlet. Your post, though, made me think that although exercise may provide a way to “remove” these emotions- what was it adding? Rather than exercising compulsively, where could I find joy? love? compassion? How could I seek something that may add those states of awareness rather than using exercise to compensate and hide? thanks for helping me re-envision some behaviors and thoughts.

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