Every moment of the day and night our bodies are using (or storing) the energy we get from the food and drinks we take in. While small actions—brushing our teeth, pouring a glass of juice—and minimal movement, like watching TV or sleeping, require some calories, we have to move a lot more intensely to burn what we eat and drink to maintain a healthy weight.
Centuries ago, we could use up all that energy much more quickly because not only were most of us consuming far fewer calories, we were moving in much more physically demanding ways. Today, though, our lifestyle is so different that we have to put more effort into making sure we’re regularly raising our heart rate, using our muscles and pushing our bodies to work hard for what they are receiving in return—namely calories.
Here are three key reasons why it can be so much more difficult to expend our energy (i.e., burn calories) these days:
We simply don't need to move as much. Once upon a time, humans had to work a lot harder just to get food, water and shelter. We had to use muscle strength and endurance to tend to crops and carry heavy objects—baskets full of the harvest, buckets of water. All of that burned calories.
Today's technology, transportation and system of economics make getting around and finding what we need a lot easier, so many of us don’t have to move our bodies in the same laborious way, of course. We drive to the grocery store, put our items in a wheeled cart and only lift them when loading the car and bringing them into the house. Home grocery delivery requires even less effort, bringing every ingredient right to your door with a few clicks of the mouse.
We expend fewer calories in other ways, too—talking to friends through text message or video chat instead of visiting them, sitting at a desk for work instead of using our physical strength to get a job done, buying furniture instead of building it, throwing the laundry in the washing machine instead of scrubbing it ourselves and so on. Many of the ways we live today are conveniently wonderful, but they mean that we have to be more aware of moving our bodies and prioritize the ways we will burn calories.
More: Take 10,000 Steps a Day
Solution: Get your heart pumping and challenge your muscles in some way every single day for at least 30 minutes (you can even break up the time; three 10-minute periods of activity are just as effective). Whether it’s a session at the gym (jogging on the treadmill, lifting weights, taking a fitness class), walking outside with a friend, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, working in your garden or riding your bicycle, burning calories (and fat) and building lean muscle are essential to maintaining a healthy weight and helping you accomplish daily tasks with ease.
More: 5 Strength Moves for Everyday Life
We have all-too-available food choices. Not only is it easier to stock up on food these days, there is an endless number of options. From produce, grains, meats and dairy to cookies, cakes and lactose-free, gluten-free, sugar-free and more, we have so many foods to choose from, giving us the opportunity to buy and consume far more than we actually need. Superstores offer large quantities, restaurants plate bigger portions and fast food chains tempt us with inexpensive high-calorie meals. Vending machines, food trucks, drugstores and coffee shops make it easy to pick up a snack—even when you aren’t really hungry. There are plenty of "energy-dense" foods nowadays, too, meaning those that pack a high number of calories (energy) into a small amount of food, as with ice cream. So even if you're limiting portion sizes it can be easy to consume more than you think, requiring you to work hard to use up that energy.
More: Your Guide to Reading Food Labels
Solution: Being mindful of food choices and consumption is crucial. Smart supermarket shopping, along with savvy snacking and making wise decisions about eating out/take-out, holiday eating and so on, all affect our health. And because there are so many choices, we need to understand how the foods and amounts we’re eating affect body fat, metabolism, body composition and body mass index—all important to maintaining a healthy weight. Spend a little time tracking how many calories you consume (write down what you eat and drink throughout the day for a week or two to get a sense of your intake) and how many you burn (calculate your metabolic rate here) on an average day. Starting there, you can begin planning your meals and exercise routine in a way that strikes a better balance between the energy you're taking in and what you're burning.
More: Understanding Belly Fat
We're always in a hurry. An over-packed schedule is something we all seem to live with, but it can be a big barrier to moving our bodies in challenging ways regularly and expending our energy effectively. While being busy can definitely keep you moving from one thing to the next (carpooling, running errands and so on), that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re burning as many calories as you would by engaging in more physically demanding activities—especially if you’re grabbing food on the go, which is likely packed with more calories than you might consume if you had time to plan healthy meals.
More: 15 Tips for Exercising More
Solution: Exercise needs to be challenging, but it doesn't need to take ages; even fast workouts can be efficient. Block off 20 or 30 minutes several times a week to work out at home; target multiple muscle groups with a quick strength workout during your lunch break; research local fitness studios that offer 30- or 45-minute classes (interval or circuit classes are often shorter and help you burn more calories) or weekend options; ask a friend to go on a bike ride instead of meeting for coffee. Postponing a task or asking for help with your to-do list may make it easier to make movement a priority; after all, burning calories efficiently not only helps you control your weight but also improves your mood by releasing feel-good endorphins, making all those things on your schedule seem a little more doable.