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New Research: The Afterburn Effect is Real! [Do you workout to eat or eat to workout?]

Posted Mar 17 2011 6:54pm

The fountain of youth. The holy grail. Amelia Earhart. The second gunman. My electric sandwich maker that disappeared from my apartment freshman year leaving nothing but a trail of crusty cheese in its wake. There have been many epic searches throughout history but none have been more enticing and enraging for fitness freaks than the search for the EPOC. Pause for the clouds to part and the angels to stop singing. Okay then.

Excess post oxygen consumption, also known as the fabled afterburn effect, has long had exercisers chasing after its lure of calories burned in your sleep and metabolisms revved for hours - nay days! - after a hard workout. The gym lore credits the almighty afterburn with everything from eating an entire pizza in one sitting to " metabolic reactions " to pumps increased literally overnight. Hardcore exercisers would rhapsodize about how one night it came to them in a dream and they awoke to rock-hard abs and custom Nikes hand-stitched by elves.

Despite anecdotal evidence, for years it has remained in a murky world of research that seems to indicate it exists and yet is rife with contradictory data. That is until now. Amby Burfoot reports on the new research from Dr. David Nieman, the scientist renown for his work in exercise and immunity (and also his spot-on impersonation of Inspector Clouseau at departmental picnics, seriously go look at his pic!). According to Dr. Nieman and his handy-dandy $1 million metabolic chamber in which participants lived for 24 hours so their every breath could be recorded, not only does the afterburn exist but it's even better than we dreamed! Exercise done right, that is 45 minutes at 70% of your VO2 max, increases your calorie burn by 37% for 14 hours after you fall off your spin bike into a pool of your own bodily fluids.

And it isn't just top athletes that can reap the benefits of the afterburn effect. The study included exercisers at all levels including three that were obese. Saith the good doctor ,
"the good-news aspect of this study, that they [all] could do a stationary bicycle workout for 45 minutes at 75 percent of their vo2 max. They were working hard, but they could handle it. And then they got this quite-high calorie burn for 14 hours after the workout. They exercised before noon, and they were still getting the extra calorie burn at 2 am when they were asleep. And if people will do a workout like this just twice one week, and three times the next week, they're going to lose a pound of body fat in two weeks."
Extra calorie burn while I sleep? A pound of body fat in two weeks? Sign me up!

But. There's always a "but" isn't there? Dr. Neiman adds,
"Of course, they have to be careful not to overcompensate in their eating. You always have that. People always have to practice some restraint in their food consumption."
Oops. Well this explains why despite doing exactly this type of workout for nearly a decade - if he'd added a stripper squat with an uppercut to the jaw* he would have been describing TurboKick to a T - I haven't personally noticed the EPOC. Well technically I have. I just didn't recognize it because it registered in my brain as increased hunger.

Which is when my epiphany occurred. A few years ago I would have been ecstatic over this study but now I'm closer to just tickled pink. One of the biggest lessons I've learned since my blog tantrum last June is what a fine-tuned machine my body is. If I workout more, my appetite increases. If I workout less, my hunger is less.

While I have known many people who subscribe to the mantra of "I workout to eat" as evidenced by such statements as "I ran 5 miles, I earned this cake!" and "I'm a foodie. I workout this much so I can eat what I love." and I don't think there is anything wrong with this school of thought, I've grown to prefer the opposite. I eat to workout. It's been remarkably freeing to not be ruled by a nearly insatiable appetite. Let me tell you that after a 3-hour trail run hunger feels like an emergency. There were times I would have been tempted to eat my own young except they're so quick. (Okay, and too cute.) You may remember my love affair with jelly beans - heck it's how Jelly Bean got her nickname - well I haven't had a single jelly bean in months. Why? I haven't wanted any. It turns out the only time I really want bags of sugary candy is right after a long, intense cardio workout. I'm no research scientist but for me jelly beans = EPOC.

(Before you think I've gone all perfect on you, let me 'fess up to plenty of cravings - chocolate when I'm PMSing is not just a stereotype here - I've just lost the overwhelming need to slam a bag of gummy worms.)

So yes, the afterburn effect is real. Your body burns significantly more calories in the hours after an intense aerobic workout in an effort to regain homeostasis. But this EPOC is a two-edged sword. More calories burned means that your body wants more calories in as well. At this point you have two choices: count your calories and maintain a deficit to lose weight or eat to your hunger and maintain your weight. And from my personal experience (again, just ME here), trying to maintain a calorie deficit while working out hard is an awful feeling. I'm not just hungry, I'm STARVING.

Maybe this is because I'm already at a healthy weight for my body (sadly "healthy" is not my "ideal" weight - still working on that one!). Perhaps for people who are overweight, the hunger wouldn't hit them as hard? I kinda doubt it though. There's a reason why exercise alone almost never makes people lose much weight.

This is what I learned about myself from this study: I don't workout to burn calories. I exercise because it's fun. Because I want to get stronger and faster. Because I like feeling healthy. Because it makes me a better mom and a saner human being in general. I don't workout to eat. I eat to workout.

What's your philosophy: do you eat to workout or workout to eat? Does having scientific proof of the Afterburn Effect change how you are going to structure your workouts? Anyone else lose something forever ago that still bugs you to this day?

*In TurboKick world strippers are very violent - I feel an Angelina Jolie movie coming...

Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!
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