We’ve all done it — eaten that extra piece of cake or slice of pizza, planning to “work it off later.” But burning enough calories to manage our weight may not be as easy as we think.

While exercise is an essential part of staying fit and healthy, a recent study shows that when we exercise, our bodies automatically compensate for 25% of the calories we burn — up to 50% for people with a higher percentage of body fat.

So, despite what our health trackers tell us, we’re probably burning fewer calories than we thought, and exercise alone is not enough to lose or maintain our weight. And, burning off calories can take a lot more work than most of us think. That Starbucks toasted white chocolate mocha? At 420 calories, a 180-pound adult would need to walk at 2 mph for two hours and 35 minutes to burn it off.

"No matter how hard we try, we can’t out-exercise a bad diet,” said Paige Macauley, North Carolina director of dietetics at CoreLife Novant Health. “While nutrition is crucial and exercise is crucial, there's no single component that reigns as king for weight loss or health.”

Recently, we talked to Macauley and her colleague Zach Livengood, North Carolina director of fitness at CoreLife Novant Health to find out how we can best harness nutrition and exercise to manage our weight. Their answers may surprise you. (Hint: Building muscle gives you a secret superpower.)

CoreLife, which has several locations in the Winston-Salem region, plus one each in Greensboro and Salisbury, is expanding to Charlotte with the opening of two locations in January.

Nutrition — it's all about survival

Why are our bodies so stubborn about losing weight? Survival.

“At the end of the day, we’re still essentially cave dwellers,” Macauley said. “Our bodies don’t know if we’ll be able to kill a woolly mammoth or collect enough berries, so they store and preserve energy.”

The body can grow accustomed to a certain “set weight,” resisting weight loss below that number. So, if you gain 20 pounds, your body may become metabolically comfortable at that higher weight — and try to maintain it as a safeguard against starvation.

One fact is clear: You can increase your set weight relatively quickly. Decreasing it seems to require a longer transition.

Small goals = big wins

Overcoming our bodies’ resistance to weight loss requires a patient, gradual approach. That way, it’s possible to reach a comfortable, healthy weight without triggering the body’s survival response. And weight lost slowly is more likely to stay lost.

“When we gradually lose weight through tiny little shifts, those tiny little shifts are going to become much more habitual,” Macauley said. “So, it’s not about needing to lose an overwhelming 50 pounds. It’s about focusing on a few little changes instead of the end result.”

That's why Macauley and her colleagues celebrate every fraction of a pound their patients lose. Those “little” losses quickly add up.

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Registered dietitians help us make good choices.

You can do it!

Where healthy eating comes in …

When Macauley works with patients to make changes in the way they eat, she favors one approach above all others: the Mediterranean diet. This ancient eating pattern is based on cuisines common to countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It includes:

  • Beans, legumes (like lentils, peas and peanuts), whole grains and potatoes.
  • Unsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts and avocados.
  • A variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Poultry (skinless is best), oily fish (like salmon and sardines), shellfish and infrequent red meat.
  • Low-fat dairy, including cheese and plain or Greek yogurt.
  • A moderate amount of red wine (one glass a day for women or two for men).

The Mediterranean diet is a great foundation for weight loss and offers major health benefits, such as reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. It is ideal for vegans and vegetarians, and is simple and affordable.

Macauley's tips for gradual weight loss

  • Focus on realistic actions, like adding in one or two pieces of fruit — which contains dietary fiber to help you stay full — each day.
  • Plan ahead, shopping (and perhaps) batch cooking on weekends to make eating healthy more convenient. Focus on lean protein, whole grains and colorful produce.
  • Aim for balance, by managing stress and getting enough sleep.Stress is going to affect your sleep,” Macauley said. “Sleep is going to affect your hormones. And your hormones are going to affect your appetite and exercise levels.”

Exercise the secret weapon

“Exercise really has the ability to improve our daily lives,” said Livengood. “Not only does it help with weight loss, it also helps people feel motivated to work toward weight loss, because they just feel better.”

Resistance or weight training, in particular, builds and maintains muscle tissue. For anyone in the process of losing weight, whether through lifestyle changes or bariatric surgery, this is especially important, particularly if weight loss is happening rapidly.

“Even if you’re losing weight by focusing on great nutrition, when you lose more than two pounds a week your body starts tapping into muscle as well as fat. And, among other roles, our muscles support and protect our joints, helping us avoid injury.”

Feel the afterburn

There’s another reason to include muscle-building activities in your life — the afterburn effect.

“When you do weight or resistance training, your body keeps burning additional calories for 24 hours after your workout is over,” Livengood said. “That’s known as the afterburn effect.”

Afterburn, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, also known as EPOC, occurs while the body recovers and repairs itself following a workout. During this recovery period, the body’s oxygen consumption and metabolism are increased, so even at rest you’re burning more calories than before your workout.

Cardio is cool, too

Minute for minute, cardio workouts generally burn more calories than resistance workouts, Livengood said. Cardio does offer less of an afterburn effect than muscle-building sessions, but it improves cardiovascular health and releases endorphins (the “feel-good hormones”).

Getting your heart rate up also boosts sleep hormones like melatonin. A better night’s rest can have a significant impact on physical and mental health. And you can reap these rewards from as little as 30 minutes of walking a day, while enjoying the fresh air and getting a dose of vitamin D.

Consistency is key

For most, exercise is not a replacement for a healthy diet — nor should we rely solely on working out to lose weight.

However, with consistent cardio and — especially — resistance training, our lean muscle will increase, which can help decrease joint pain and boost overall energy. With improved strength and endurance, we can add more resistance, reach for heavier weights or go on longer walks. And, our bodies will naturally start burning more calories, positively affecting our metabolism.

“That weight loss is going to happen if you're consistent with your nutrition and your exercise,” Livengood said. “But you're also going to feel better and move better. It all goes hand-in-hand.”

Livengood's advice for starting an exercise program

  • Start slowly. Just 30 minutes a day has proven effective. If that’s too much, try two 15-minute walks instead.
  • Mine the internet for at-home workouts. Bodyweight exercises count as resistance training. Or try Pilates or yoga, which help build strength and flexibility.
  • Learn what foods to reach for after exercise. Poor nutrition can sabotage your good efforts. Post-workout, choose a combination of protein and carbohydrates. And stay hydrated with water.