You consider yourself an active individual but for one reason or another you’re just not working out right now.
Perhaps you can identify with one of these situations:
You’re an athlete on your off season
You’re recovering from an unfortunate injury
You can’t access the gym due to your personal circumstance
Whatever the reason, when you decrease your activity level, eating habits generally tend to stay consistent. This means you tend to eat the same amount of food despite being less active.
Rather than trying to blame yourself for potentially packing on some extra pounds, give yourself some credit. You have hard wired habits associated with how and when you eat.
As a nutrition and fitness expert with over a decade of experience, I created a scientifically researched step-by-step guide for how to eat when you are not working out:
Redefine your reason
Cut calories to current needs
Skimp on snacks (but don’t skip meals)
Practice portion control
Fill up on fibrous foods
Focus on fluids
Stick to solid sleep
Add alternative activities
Take the first step in your new life direction by reading how to shift those stubborn habits…
Redefine Your Reason
When you’re used to hitting it hard on a daily basis and get that taken away, you may experience a period of ego and identity loss.
As a result, you may feel sadness, lack of motivation, and downright low at times. You could also be losing a group of people that you’re used to being around.
When drastic changes occur in your life, it’s normal to feel a bit lost. But break through barriers such as obstacles to exercise or adjusting nutritional needs, it can be helpful to hone in on your “why”.
Your previous goal helped you achieve a deeper-rooted need, called your value. Values are what influence the daily decisions and habits you do. So take a minute and think why you were working out?
Maybe you wanted to connect with like minded people. Or maybe you thrived on accountability and wanting to be a respected individual in your fitness community.
So when it comes to continuing healthy eating habits when you’re not working out, what if you were to find a Facebook group with friends and former athletes in the same situation as you.
Related: How To Stop Boredom Eating (8 Science-Backed Tips)
Cut Calories to Current Needs
In general, the key to weight control is the balance of calories in versus calories out. Meaning if you want to maintain your weight, you want an equal balance between how many calories you’re eating, verus the amount of calories that you’re expending.
When your fitness level drops, so do your calorie needs.
To get an idea of how many calories per day you burned while exercising, versus how many calories you currently burn when you’re not working out, you can use the Harris-Benedict formula.
DETERMINE YOUR CALORIE NEEDS
This is what the formula looks like:
Women: Base metabolic rate (BMR) = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years).
Men: Base metabolic rate (BMR) = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years).
Then you want to add the amount of activity per day that you do. Start with how much you used to work out, then calculate how much you’re burning now.
Sedentary (little or no exercise): x 1.2
Light activity (1-3 days/week): x 1.375
Moderate activity (3-5 days/week): x 1.55
Active ( 6-7 days/week): x 1.725
Very active (difficult exercise 6-7 days/week): x 1.9
Don’t feel like being a mathematician — I don’t blame you! Here’s an automatic calculator from MayoClinic.
Once you have the difference in calories per day, you can determine an estimate of how many calories to shave off for your non-working out days.
DETERMINE THE CALORIE DIFFERENCE
So say for instance when you were athlete status, your estimated calorie burn was about 3,000 kcal per day. In your current sedentary lifestyle, you calculated that you burn about 2,500 kcal per day.
This means that in order to maintain your weight when you’re not working out, you should aim to decrease your calorie intake by about 500 kcal per day.
An easy way to reduce your calorie intake is to avoid these 16 Healthy Bulking Foods For Hard Gainers.
Move Around Macros
Your macro recommendations vary slightly when you’re working out versus when you’re sedentary. Say you were eating to bulk up, your macros should have landed around:
Protein: 25% of total calories
Carb: 40% of total calories
Fat 35% of total calories.
Here’s a breakdown of macro differences for athlete status versus stationary time:
Protein is important for many body processes including building muscle, strengthening tendons and creating enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
Protein comes in the form of essential and nonessential amino acids. The essential ones have to be obtained through your diet. You may be familiar with a popular fitness amino acid: creatine, which is known for its energy and performance enhancing abilities.
The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. As Harvard Health explains, for a relatively active adult, a daily protein intake to meet the RDA would supply as little as 10% of his or her total daily calories.
Even though the needs aren’t as high, if you want to lose weight, the National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM) recommends that you aim to have 0.73-1 grams per pound (1.6-2.2 grams per kilogram). This is because protein can help you feel more satisfied.
In general, athletes should consume about 15% to 30% of total calories from protein. NASM recommends 1-1.5 grams per pound (2.2-3.4 grams per kilogram) for athletes and heavy exercisers.
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel for your brain and muscles. They are also the main energy source during activity, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Not all carbs are treated equal. The better types of carbohydrates, especially when working out less, are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes such as beans and lentils.
According to research and fitness authorities, athletes should consume about 1.4-2.3 grams per pound (3-5 grams per kilogram for light activity and upward of 3.6-5.5 grams per pound (8-12 grams per kilogram) for intense training.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults consume about 45 to 65 % of calories from carbohydrates. So for weight maintenance or loss, it may be wise to aim closer to 45% carbs per day.
When it comes to low carb, MayoClinic explains that very low carb diets may lead to more short term weight loss but most studies show that this doesn’t have a longer term effect. A 2015 review found that higher protein, low-carb diets may offer a slight advantage when it comes to weight loss.
Fats are essential for many different processes in the body including maintaining your cell structure, allowing for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, hormone regulation, and brain health.
Fat requirements for athletes are similar to those for nonathletes. Dietary fats should come from healthy fat sources and compromise about 15% to 20% of total calories.
Skimp on Snacks (But Don’t Skip Meals)
When you’re training, you may have gotten in the good habit of having a pre- and post-workout snack or beverage to keep your energy up and your muscles properly recovered. When you’re not working out, an easy way to reduce total intake is to reduce the number of snacks you have each day.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s good to eat every three to four hours. This is because your body has broken down the meal and your blood sugar levels begin to drop. Preventing blood sugar crashes can prevent cravings and energy dips. It also helps keep your metabolism revved up.
When you’re not working out, you can remove those pre- and post-workout snacks. So say for instance, when you workout, you eat two to four snacks per day. During your sedentary times, reduce them to one to two per day.
Practice Portion Control
It’s normal, and healthy, to eat more when you’re training. Exercise burns calories, builds muscle, uses up glycogen stores, and stimulates appetite. Especially for those of you out there who love eating (I’m with ya!), you may be used to going back for seconds or thirds.
One easy way to reduce the amount you eat to reduce the portion size. So skip the buffets, limit desserts, and stop going back for seconds.
Try using smaller plates which is a trick to help you feel more mentally satisfied. Take your time when you eat since it can be about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you’re full.
Check out the Dairy Council of California’s guide which includes handy real life portion size examples such as comparing your fist to a 1 cup serving: Serving Size Chart.
Fill Up on Fibrous Foods
Fiber is the part of plant-based foods that can’t be digested by your body, but your healthy gut bacteria love to munch on it as fuel. As a result fiber helps keep your gut healthy and can serve as a way to feel full without extra calories.
Since high fiber foods, such as vegetables, are typically lower in calories, you can eat big portions of them without gaining weight. Just be careful with higher calorie fibrous foods such as nuts and seeds. If your aim is to decrease calories, look for the non-starchy vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower) instead of ones like corn.
Focus on Fluids
Sometimes the signal for thirst can be confused for hunger. Plus, if you’re used to sweating a lot and drinking while you exercise, you may not feel as thirsty during the day. But this doesn’t mean that you should stop drinking water.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that daily fluid intake should be about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids for men. About 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women. This of course increases if you’re in a hot environment or sweating more.
You may be used to drinking sports drinks or electrolyte drinks. However, keep in mind that if you’re not exercising, you won’t have the need for the sugar boost and calories added to those drinks. So best to switch them out for water.
Cutting sweetened or calorie containing beverages can be one of the easiest ways to cut back on calories. Be careful when it comes to little additions to the day such as beer or creamers in your coffee.
Stick to Solid Sleep
The trouble with moving less is that it can have a negative impact on sleep. But getting some solid zzz’s can determine the state of your health. Getting adequate sleep (about 7-9 hours) can help keep your hunger at bay and weight staying put.
The National Sleep Foundation created some helpful tips to help you get a good night’s rest:
Stick to a sleep schedule: aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This helps regulate your body clock.
Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual: a relaxing routine (hot bath, easy stretches, soft music for example) before bed that allows you time away from work or tv, can decrease stress and anxiety and get you prepped for bed.
Regulate light exposure: expose yourself to natural light in the morning and daytime. At night dim the lights and give yourself a couple hours before bed in order to increase the sleep hormone melatonin.
Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, heavy meals in the evening: these can all disrupt sleep. Eating a big meal before bed can cause discomfort. If you can, try to avoid eating a big meal two to three hours before bed.
Add Alternative Activities
Depending on the reason why you’re not exercising, it’s possible to supplement with alternative activities. Let’s review a few different reasons why you may not be working out these days and solutions for how to stay active.
It’s very important to listen to your body. When you’re injured or have a medical condition, make sure to check with your physician or physical therapist before working out. Use their advice as your number one guide. They may allow you to modify and exercise or recommend that you stop completely.
Once you have their ok, you can consider doing exercises that don’t interfere with your injury. Say for instance you have a knee injury, you may be able to work with your upper body.
With Fitbod you can build custom-fit workouts according to specific muscle groups you want to work.
SPORTS OFF SEASON OR RETIREMENT
It’s very common when you’re an athlete, sports player, or professional bodybuilder, going from working hard to eat enough every day to a complete slow down in nutritional needs.
When you’re used to games, practices, and competitions which burn hundreds and sometimes thousands of extra calories per day, and a structure that’s set for you, it can be all too easy to pack on the pounds.
If you’re feeling lost, restructure physical activity into your day. Perhaps you can replace the time you used to workout with gym time. Having someone, or a group of people to be accountable to can help keep motivation up. Reach out to friends for accountability or start an in person or online exercise group.
NO GYM ACCESS
Maybe you’re working from home and not able to make it to your local gym. Whether this lifestyle is new to you or not, it shouldn’t be an excuse not to workout.
The good news is that you can get fit all in the comfort of your own home with at-home-workouts. If you’re thinking about how the heck you make space for it in your apartment, or time for it with kids running around, check out these tips: Overcoming Obstacles To Exercise When You’re At Home.
When you’re working out, you need to stay appropriately fueled by eating extra snacks, eating bigger meals, and drinking sports drinks when necessary. But when you stop or take a break, if you keep eating this way without adding alternative activities, you’ll probably gain weight.
Everyone is different, so find the above habit changes that work best for you and your lifestyle. And if you’re able to keep moving, do!
Fitbod tailors workouts according to the type and amount of equipment you already have while keeping sessions fresh and fun.
Give bodyweight workouts a try today: Fitbod
About The Author
Lisa is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with over 15 years of experience in nutrition, fitness, and mental health coaching and education. She studied Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and earned a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition at Hawthorn University.
Having certifications and experience in group exercise, intuitive eating, coaching and psychotherapy, and digestive wellness, she’s enthusiastic about the relationship between the body and mind.
She’s dedicated to helping people understand how to implement healthy habit change, while gaining a deeper understanding of what makes them feel their personal best.