What Should I Do If My Activity Levels Change Drastically?

It depends on the size of the change

There may be times when your activity levels change drastically. For example, you might start a more active job, move to a more sedentary job, sustain an injury or contract an illness and need to reduce your activity levels, start a new exercise program (or dramatically increase your volume of exercise), or go through a temporary deload as part of your exercise program.

When one of these things happens, should you do anything special in MacroFactor to account for this change?

Unfortunately, as discussed in this article, these are the types of scenarios that MacroFactor doesn’t handle optimally, at least in the short term. However, we do have some general advice.

When the change in activity levels isn't THAT drastic

Ultimately, it’s usually perfectly fine to just wait it out, not do anything, and keep following your recommendations in MacroFactor. It takes MacroFactor’s algorithms about 3-4 weeks to price in the impact of significant lifestyle changes. So, if your actual energy expenditure changes very rapidly because of changes to your lifestyle or exercise program, your nutrition recommendations will “catch up” to those changes within a manageable period of time. Furthermore, most of those changes likely won’t impact your total daily energy expenditure as much as you might expect, for two reasons:

1) Most forms of exercise don’t burn quite as much energy as most people would expect.

For example, running a mile only burns about 100 Calories for an average-sized person. Or, for another example, lifting weights only burns about 6 Calories per minute in total, or about 5 Calories per minute in excess of basal metabolism. In other words, if you jog 9 miles per week, or lift weights for one hour, three times per week, you’re probably only burning an additional 900 Calories during your workouts. That’s certainly not nothing, but it’s also not a night-and-day difference. To illustrate, if you had a goal of losing a pound per week (which requires a weekly energy deficit of approximately 3500 Calories), and your weekly energy expenditure decreased by 900 Calories, you’d still be losing about 0.75 pounds per week. If your rate of weight gain or weight loss changed by 0.25 pounds per week for 3-4 weeks – the period of time it takes for MacroFactor to accommodate changes in activity levels – you might not even notice, given the normal intra-individual variability in rates of weight change.

2) Due to the dynamics of energy compensation, changes in active energy expenditure have a somewhat muted impact on total energy expenditure.

As discussed in this article, research suggests that changes in active energy expenditure don’t have a direct 1:1 impact on changes in total energy expenditure. If your active energy expenditure increases or decreases by 1000 Calories, your total energy expenditure may only change by 500-700 Calories. The reasons for this dynamic are multifactorial (and beyond the scope of this article), but the basic takeaway is that exercise and lifestyle changes generally impact total energy expenditure a bit less than you’d expect, even if you did accurately estimate the direct impact of those changes on your active energy expenditure.

So, for most people, most of the time, you’re probably fine to just ride it out. If you’re going to be assuming a more sedentary lifestyle or exercising less, your rate of weight loss may slightly decrease, or your rate of weight gain may slightly increase for 3-4 weeks, but the impact would likely be quite small. Similarly, if you're going to adopt a more active lifestyle or start exercising more, your rate of weight loss may slightly increase, or your rate of weight gain may slightly decrease for 3-4 weeks, but the impact would likely be quite small. In total, you'd likely gain or lose about 1-2 more pounds (or 1-2 fewer pounds) than you otherwise would have, over the span of 3-4 weeks.

When the change in activity levels IS quite drastic

However, there are certainly exceptions to the recommendation of simply riding it out. For instance, if you have a very active job, and you either can’t work for a period of time due to injury, or you transition to a sedentary job, your total energy expenditure could very well change by >500 Calories per day. The same applies to endurance athletes – if you're a competitive runner whose mileage decreases from 100 miles per week to 30 miles per week (or you have to take some time completely away from training), your total energy expenditure will drastically change. So, just “riding it out” for 3-4 weeks very well could throw you significantly off course, or lead to significant under-fueling (if your exercise volumes or activity levels rapidly increase)

In that scenario, we’d recommend trying to pre-empt MacroFactors algorithms. If you know your energy expenditure is going to drastically increase, you could simply eat significantly more than MacroFactor recommends for 3-4 weeks. Conversely, if you know your energy expenditure is going to drastically decrease, you could simply eat significantly less than MacroFactor recommends for 3-4 weeks. You can use your exercise calorie calculator to roughly estimate how much your energy needs will change. After about 4 weeks, MacroFactor will have priced in your changes in activity levels, so its recommendations should be accurate and appropriate again. Since MacroFactor is adherence neutral, it’s not a problem to deviate from its recommendations in scenarios where you know its recommendations will be inaccurate for a period of time.

Deload weeks in your resistance training program

Finally, this is the most common question in this general genre that’s asked in our online communities (our Facebook group and subreddit): What should you do when taking a deload week in your resistance training program?

Our general advice would be to take a maintenance week (or a one-week "diet break"). If you have a weight gain goal, you can’t force-feed your way to gains in the absence of a robust training stimulus. If you have a weight loss goal, a deload is supposed to help you significantly mitigate the fatigue that may have accumulated as a result of your training program; being in an energy deficit is an independent stressor, so removing that stressor for the week is in line with the goal of the deload week.

To take a maintenance week, you could change your goal from “gain” or “lose” to “maintain” for a week. But, doing so will reset your goal progress chart. That’s certainly not the end of the world, but if you’d like to preserve your goal progress chart for the duration of your weight gain or weight loss goal, there’s a simpler solution: just pay attention to protein intake and total energy intake for the week, and use your expenditure as your energy intake target. If your expenditure is 2600 Calories, and you changed your goal from “gain” or “lose” to “maintain,” your maintenance goal would start you off with an energy intake target of 2600 Calories per day. So, rather than bothering with changing your goal twice in order to accommodate a one-week deload, don’t change your goal in the app, and just treat your expenditure as your energy intake target for the week.

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