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Run, Eat, Don’t Repeat*: Breaking the Exercise-To-Eat Cycle [Plus, what the research says about the relationship between e

Posted Jan 23 2014 1:18am


I think this guy is on to something: he just condensed the whole eat-exercise cycle down to one picture-perfect moment of glory!

“Oooh I did not expect that!” My friend and I were discussing all the different ways we were sore from our awesome circuit workout on Monday. It was the first time she’d done a HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout with weights and even though I’d tried to warn her that despite its deceptive shortness (30 minutes in-n-out!) the metabolic effects can be rough, she was still surprised by the fatigue, soreness and, most of all, the hunger. “I don’t know how much good it did,” she sighed. “I felt like I couldn’t get enough food all day – I just kept eating and eating!”

I knew exactly what she meant. Exercising – especially the high intensity variety – makes me starving too. And the worst part is that I’m not usually starving for chicken breasts and sweet potatoes but rather straight up sugar to replace all the glycogen stores in my torched muscles.  It’s one of those things about fitness that everyone knows but yet we all seem to forget in the moment – exercising makes you hungry. So you eat a lot. And then, if you’re not careful, you get caught in an endless cycle of exercising to eat. We’ve all heard it before: “I have to run 6 miles today – I ate three slices of cake last night!” or the positive version: “I love to eat! Cake is delicious! That’s why I run, so I can eat three slices of cake if I want to!”

And is there anything wrong with that?

You need to eat to live. You also need to exercise to live. But do you eat and exercise to live or do you live to eat and exercise? Silly question but it’s a fine line, easily crossed. Especially for those of us compulsive types who tend to think that if some is good then more must always be better. You don’t have to have read this blog for very long to know that I have struggled for years with finding this balance. My friend’s remarks made me think of this e-mail I got from an anonymous reader:

“hey…you probably won’t read this but if you have time i hope you can help me. i run a lot. people think that i love running because i run all the time but i hate running. hate hate hate. basically i run because i eat too much (well i think i eat too much) and this way i can eat dessert. i just have to run it off later. but sometimes i have to run in the dark or twice a day though and i know that’s not good. how do i quit eating-running-eating-running-eating…you know? p.s. i love your blog!”

Dear Anon/e e cummings,

First, thank you! And second, boy howdy do I know where you are coming from. I too used to be stuck in the same cycle of eating, feeling guilty about eating and then exercising to relieve the guilt (and the calories). Sometimes I’d even up the ante and run a little extra so I’d have permission to eat something “bad” later on. Eventually the math got really confusing though, trying to remember if I was running to atone for a dietary sin or running in anticipation of one, so I just figured I’d run as much as possible (and then some) to cover all my caloric bases. Oh and I’d better throw in some weights too because I don’t want to lose muscle! And yoga, everyone says yoga is good for you! And kickboxing, because it’s fun!

And that, friends, is the short version of how I ran myself into amenorrhea, hypothyroidism, gaining 10 pounds and insanity. Oh and I also ran myself right into eating disorder treatment. Don’t be me. Seriously, don’t.

And don’t be Courtney Thorne Smith either. The actress of Ally McBeal fame and also that show with the dumpy husband and the hot wife that I never watched but somehow still know of its existence but apparently not enough to know its name or care to look it up, shared a similar experience in  Fit Pregnancy :

“I used to run 8 miles a day, then go to the gym, do weights and then yoga, until I realized that I was so hungry and tired all the time. So I stopped doing all that and started just walking. I feel so much freedom now: I don’t have to stay in a hotel with a gym and I’m never so hungry that I panic. A lot of women are in a crazy exercise cycle; they’re so afraid they’ll gain weight if they stop, and it’s especially hard when they get pregnant. What they need to realize is that if you’re not exercising so much, you don’t have to eat so much, and your body adjusts. It sounds so simple, but you really do have to listen to your body.”

Sound familiar? See, even famous people get caught up in the same cycle! But even though we treat celebrity anecdotes like gospel, what about the cold, hard research? There’s actually a lot of controversy on the subject with some studies showing increased hunger after working out and others showing the opposite. New York Magazine ran an article by the ever-fascinating-yet-controversial Gary Taubes called  the Scientist and the Stairmaster  addressing the controversy. He goes over the research from the past 60 years and talks about some of the paradoxes and what he thinks the possible causes are. The article is rather long but definitely worth reading. If you are time crunched though, here are the high points:

- Exercise alone (without modifying one’s diet) has not been shown to lead to consistent weight loss in any studies. I know this seems contrary to what all the exercise professionals have been telling us – but it is true. Exercise is correlated with helping maintain weight loss and is also linked with weight loss when used in conjunction with diet. But alone? Nope.

- The more you exercise, the hungrier you will be and, unless you tightly control your food intake, your weight will maintain. And it’s really not a matter of a willpower as much as it is hormones. (Although separate studies have shown that aerobic exercise can temporarily decrease appetite for 1-3 hours after a workout it does seem that the effect levels out over the course of the day as the body strives to balance its intake with its expenditures.)

But I would be remiss without saying it’s not quite as simple as exercise = hunger as two studies in 2012 found that high intensity training can actually lower hunger over 24 hours and more moderate workouts increase hunger. They also found that the amount of body fat the subjects carry also influenced hunger levels as higher fat is correlated with resistance to leptin – a hormone that tells you you’re full – so the heavier subjects didn’t get the hunger-dampening effect as much.

But you didn’t ask me to go on a research bender! You asked for advice, bless you. Here are a few tips that have helped me break the eat-run-repeat cycle (and I hope my readers will offer theirs as well!):

1. Stop weighing yourself. You didn’t mention a scale but I’d bet the $200 I didn’t get not passing go that you are weighing yourself once a day, minimum. Those numbers are a) crazy and b) will make you crazy. Your weight can fluctuate by pounds in a single day and exercising to keep the scale happy is a losing proposition. There isn’t any easy way to do this one except to just do it.

2. Realize that you do not need permission to eat. You don’t have to earn your calories. You’re a beautiful person worthy of eating just by virtue of existing. Even if you do nothing but sit on your butt, you have earned the right to eat and to eat food that is enjoyable.

3. Eating is not good or bad. It’s a survival skill. Despite what all those yogurt commercials say, you are not a sinner for eating a piece of raspberry cheesecake. Nor are you a saint for eating a salad.

4. Eating can make your body feel good or bad and it’s that sensation you need to learn to listen to. Intuitive Eating (Geneen Roth style) was a life-saver for me but there are lots of ways to do this.

5. Exercise is not punishment. I’m not telling you to stop exercising. I’m just saying there’s no benefit – and a lot of harm – in overdoing it. You should find a way to move your body that you enjoy. While no exercise is 100% fun 100% of the time, I’m convinced everyone can find a way to be active that is challenging, fulfilling and mostly fun. If you hate running, please don’t run! (And to my readers who love running – you keep on running, I don’t mean you!) Dance, hike, bike or join a synchronized swim team (and then tell me how they get all that makeup to stay on in the pool!) but find something you love.

6. Be gentle and loving and kind with yourself. It can be much harder than it sounds! But those negative thoughts build up, even (especially?) when it’s us saying them to ourselves.

I have done all 5 of these things myself – sometimes multiple times (yay for slow learners!) – and I can tell you that you absolutely can escape the vicious cycle that you are in. It will mean tolerating a certain amount of pain and anxiety as you adjust to this new way of thinking but you can do it and it’s worth doing. You don’t realize how captive you are until you are finally free! Trust me. It’s more beautiful on this side of things than I ever could have imagined. Oh, and because I know you are thinking it, I did not gain a bunch of weight when I quit over-exercising.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out this sweet comment a reader left on my post about my Rachel Cosgrove Experiment . (In case you forgot, it entailed dropping 90% of my cardio, all of my running and focusing on lifting heavy. It worked wonders for me! And I only ended up working out 30-45 minutes a day.)

She writes,

I would like to thank you for all these experiments and especially for your “oversharing”–which has helped me more than you can know. I am just finishing Month 1 of the Rachel Cosgrove plan and you are the reason I decided to give it a try. I was deathly afraid–and I mean terrified–of dropping steady state cardio. If I ran less than 6 miles I thought it was a lame workout and I’d run AND do a cardio class on most days. After reading your blog I thought, well, I’m sort of crazy about exercise but I’m not as crazy as HER (no offense), and if she did it then it’s worth a try. So thanks! I am a convert! Dropping steady state cardio did not result in a 10lb. weight gain–actually, I haven’t weighed myself (so who knows) but my clothes fit so much better that I don’t care. Major difference in butt and thighs even after just Phase 1. I do the weight plan 3 days a week and do Tabata sprints on two of the off days and I still do my kickbox/bootcamp class 2x week on off days as well.

I also swtiched my eating up to incorporate some of Mark Sisson’s ideas, but I would say my plan is basically, “eat more of what Mark Sisson says to eat but don’t forbid my favorites”. I still eat Gummy Bears once a week. So far this has been very satisfying and seems sustainable–unlike my previous plan of starve for 2 months, look great for 2 weeks and then slowily gain the weight back over the next 2 months and . . . repeat cycle. . .. all the while increasing the amount of cardio I was doing and the time I spent at the gym which means less time with my kids.

It took your example of taking this leap to give me the courage to try it and I am fairly certain that it was probably harder for you to take this leap than most people. So thanks again.”

If anonymous made me cry a little out of sadness then this one made me weep a little from joy! I love it when people find a healthy way to eat and workout that works for their body. Also I’m totally not offended – I wear my crazy on my sleeve and will totally own being nuttier than most squirrels. And I love gummy bears almost as much as I love jelly beans!

In the end, I think exercise and eating are supposed to enrich our lives, not take them over. So now I ask you guys – what advice do you have for anonymous? Anyone else get stuck in the run, eat, repeat cycle? What have you noticed about your hunger in regards to fitness?

*I am aware that there is a running blog with a name similar to this but this post in no way references that blog. I’ve never read it and this is not a commentary on it. Side note: I think there should be a random blog name generator that spits out three fitness related words in an eat-pray-love effect. It’s like Mad Lib for health bloggers!

P.S. I did a fun little interview over at Cranky Fitness where I discussed everything from blowing a Lego out of my son’s nose (oh yes I did) to what I hate most about the fitness industry. Check it out!

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