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Your Body's Energy Crisis

Nov 28 2020
7 min read
Woman smiling while eating blueberries outside.

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 we consumed far fewer calories and moved in much more physically demanding ways. Today, though, our lifestyle is so different that we have to make more of an effort to regularly raise our heart rate, use our muscles, and push our bodies to work hard for what they are receive 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 movement 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 ways, 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 make an effort to move our bodies and to prioritize the ways we will burn calories.

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).

Find an activity. Suggestions? Jog on a treadmill, lift weights, take a fitness class, walk outside with a friend, take the stairs instead of the elevator, work in your garden, or ride 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.

Plentiful 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 almost too many choices. Experts say this can lead to the American habit of over-buying and over-consuming. And this trend is growing (with our waist lines) in the United States. For instance, superstores offer larger quantities, restaurants now 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 that packs a caloric wallop — even when you aren’t really hungry. 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.

Solution: Become mindful of your food choices and what you actually consuming. Smart supermarket shopping, along with savvy snacking and making wise decisions about eating out/take-out, and holiday eating can make a huge difference. 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.

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, extra work projects, 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.

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.