Does Exercise Make You Hungrier?
There have been a lot of reports recently that, contrary to popular belief, exercise does not always help melt away the pounds to reveal the stick-thin super model hiding beneath. Losing weight, the theory goes, almost always involves zipping your mouth and consuming fewer KFC Double Downs.
What? That’s like saying that chocolate can be good for you (it is to a certain extent) or that you will have fewer athletic injuries if you wear cheaper shoes (quite likely). Believe it or not, I support the theory that working out will probably not help you lose weight — if you are not realistic and sensible about both your eating and workout strategies.
Scientists say the basic problem with exercise is that although it burns calories and burning calories is the key to losing weight, it also stimulates hunger so you tend to eat more which negates the weight loss benefits you might have otherwise realized.
Last year, one study widely publicized in a Time magazine cover story randomly assigned more than 450 overweight women to one of four groups: one group did not exercise at all while the other three worked out with a personal trainer for 72 minutes, 136 minutes or 194 minutes, respectively. None of them changed their diets but were asked to fill out monthly questionnaires detailing their health habits.
After six months, the investigators were stunned when all of the groups lost about the same amount of weight, including the women who sat around not doing much of anything while the other women were working their butts off; and in fact, some women from all of the groups actually gained as much as 10 pounds.
Yes it is true that people, especially women, are pretty pathetic at both burning calories and shedding body fat, but the investigators who ran this study concluded that the main reason the exercising subjects did not lose more weight than the sedentary subjects is simply because they ate more to compensate for their additional activity. Either they were truly hungrier after pressing the stop button on the treadmill and exiting the gym, or they felt a sense of entitlement, which Katy Bowman, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute so eloquently refers to as the “burn to earn” effect.
“This is when you measure food and exercise in terms of calories and in your mind a bout of exercise grants you “permission” to eat an extra portion of food,” she said. “This extra caloric intake is less induced by the body’s demand for food and more about the mind’s desire to eat it.”
Translation? I earned a big ol’ piece of cake today by going for a run.
Bowman said that easiest way to overcome burn to earn syndrome is by being aware of it and then not giving into it. It may help to keep a food and exercise journal where you tally calorie intake and burn side by side. Calorie burn from exercise will never come close to wiping out a full day’s worth of eating, but when you see that half a Starbucks muffin wipes out a 30-minute run in three bites, you may think twice before placing your order.
“For non-athletes or those who work out less than 75 minutes of exercise a day, I usually recommend steering clear of appealing ‘quick fixes’ like energy bars or ‘rehydrating beverages’ that often contain added sugar, a ton of empty calories and other things your body doesn’t need,” Bowman advised.
Bowman also said that what you sometimes think of as hunger can often be thirst, so before you make a beeline for the candy counter or bakery, drink up. “If you feel you’ve had enough water and still feel hungry then opt for a high calcium, unflavored yogurt with some fruit and naturally fatty nuts post work-out. Make that your meal — not a snack.”
And personally I don’t think studies that are being widely quoted tell the entire story. The investigators of the aforementioned study never did report differences in body composition such as fat-to-muscle ratio which would have been interesting and important to know.
Also, I’d like to see studies done on groups of hardcore exercisers versus people pressed into action for just six weeks or six months. I’d bet my sneakers autographed by Alberto Salazar that dedicated runners, cyclists, hikers, climbers, gymnasts or any other group of seasoned exercisers are almost always far thinner than groups of TV-watchers, Internet-surfers or video game players.
Of course, it could be that if you run marathons you also have a tendency to reward yourself with a new micro-fleece running top rather than a piece of red velvet cake, or if you care deeply about your cycling performance you don’t frequent fast food joints or certain super market aisles. It would be interesting to explore these questions, just as it would be interesting to hear your opinion on these matters.
As always, post what you think here or tweet me please.
And if you’re hitting the gym to see results, not just food rewards, find out how long it takes to put on a pound of muscle.
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