It seems rather intuitive that cranking up your exercise helps you lose weight. After all, if you’re burning more calories and eating the same way that would be the case. The problem that exists, that I refer to as “marathon syndrome” is that for some people feel they deserve a reward for their exercise efforts and that reward is often edible. When I look at food journals, for clients training for a marathon, the day of their long run is usually when I see the pancakes or cookies. And in case you’re tempted to explain this based on appetite, the same workout rewards have been observed with lighter workouts.
The May issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter, interviews one of my nutrition heroes Dr Brian Wansink. Wansink wrote the book “Mindless Eating” and this interview focused on cues that affect our eating. My post on the connection between color and appetite was an example of one of these cues. Regarding exercise, Wansink summarized an experiment conducted with participants on a retreat. Before dinner, the group was divided in two. One group was told they were headed on a scenic walk around a lake. The other group was told they were going on an exercise walk. Both walks were easy and paced similarly. When they returned and had dinner the “exercise” group ate more. They also estimated they had burned more calories.
Another study, with postmenopausal women, divided participants up in groups and prescribed varying amounts of weight loss. Women doing the most exercise did not lose the most weight. There was more food compensation in this group than the low or medium exercise group. An association was seen between increased exercise and increased “rewards”.
In some cases it’s not even the exercise but thinking about exercise that can trigger reward behavior On her blog Herbal Water, Dr Ayala discussed a recent study in the journal Appetite. Participants read a passage about a 30-minute fun walk or a 30-minute exercise walk (not unlike the Wansink experiment). After reading, those who had read the passage and answered questions were presented with snacks and candy. They were allowed to scoop as much as they wanted into bags to take home. Those who had read about exercise scooped 52 percent more.
If you’re exercising to release stress or for your health, this sense of entitlement may not be a problem. However, if you’re interested in losing weight because Memorial Day is about three weeks away that’s another story. I work with clients on their self-talk. If we can see fitness, leanness or slimming down as the “prize” sometimes we can skip the post-workout pancakes. Another tool is to pre-plan food on more intense workout days to avoid impulsive decisions. It also should be pointed out that there’s nothing wrong with having a treat as long as it isn’t presented as a workout reward. Love handles aren’t that rewarding.
Do you find yourself feeling exercise entitled? Do you eat differently on workout days? Why do you think there’s this “I ran so therefore I eat” connection?
Speaking of rewards (ha) the winner of our Sweet Riot giveaway is EA The Spicy RD.
Speaking of rewards (ha) the winner of our Sweet Riot giveaway is EA The Spicy RD.
This was one of the most fascinating articles I have ever read from Nutrition Action, and that says a lot! I was just amazed with all the information in that article. I am planning several posts that will include some of this information. I specifically thought it was interesting how people perceive "healthier restaurants" to have fewer calories. And of course, the never-ending wings…that was so interesting!! I wonder if that would be me?? Who knows.
Normally I dont reward myself for working out. I have my 8oz whey fiber protein icee thing post workout and have a small snack. Lately ive found myself running around more at work (the pedometer said 10 miles last night after work.) because we are getting ready for our busy season to start. I feel like I have needed to up my calorie intake because i feel "hangry" around 4pm. So I see myself saying "whatever it's 80 calories for that mini luna bar" or it's 100 calories for that yogurt pal. but in reality i shouldn't be jamming those added calories into my day. I know my eating cues are usually from long hot days at the stove and added duties which trigger me getting hangry and anxious because I cant get out of the kitchen to actually eat something. so later on i make bad decisions.
I have just finished Mindless Eating, what an awesome book! Totally blew my mind!
I can second your recommendation of it!
Last year I worked out at a high intensity six days a week, and I also ate more. I felt hungry all the time, but I'm also wondering whether some of that "hunger" was in my head… I still work out every day, but I've found that more moderate workouts with plenty of yoga, barre-type workouts, etc. work better for me than lots of high cardio sessions (which lead me to eat a lot more). Great post!
Andrea good point and there is that place where psyche and physiology intersect, the dredded double whammy of emotional and physical hunger.
Hi Lauren! I am so excited to try the Sweet Riot chocolate covered cacao nibs. Thanks! I was actually thinking about them this morning 🙂 Interesting research on the workout reward connection. I've had "Mindless Eating" on my To Read list for awhile. I definitely want to read it now. Oh, and I will try not to eat ALL the Sweet Riot nibs after my next workout!
I read that article in Nutrition Action as well and the research was so interesting. I liked the part where he mentioned that we have a "health halo" for certain foods. One research example was that people assume a food item was lower in calories if it was labeled organic than if it wasn't. The same can be applied to exercise – if we have exercised that day we think we can eat more calories. I also agree that there is a fine line between exercising to help create a caloric deficit and over exercising where your appetite gets increased and you end up eating the extra calories you burned. It is important to tune into your body and find the right balance.
Great post, Lauren. And sort of reinforces my strategy of having my clients reframe "exercise" as simply "movement." No idea if it helps them eat less afterwards though…will have to do an unscientific study of my own.
As for me…yeah, I'm a pancake girl after long runs. I admit it. 🙂
Ha. I totally used to do this to myself. I would go on long runs. Come home and eat half a container of ice cream as a reward for working out. Those were the crazy college years. Now, I go on walks with my kids, but instead of thinking of it as "exercise" and for purposes of "losing weight," I do it for "enjoyment" and stress reduction. Thanks for the reading suggestions. I would love to read the book on mindful eating!
I find that when I run regularly, I feel more inclined to eat more healthfully. Being healthy is like an "all or nothing" deal for me in this way.
The one possible exception is after running 10 or more miles. When I run a half marathon, for example, I literally can NOT fill up. I try to eat healthy foods, and for the most part do (again, because I'm feeling good about myself for running and want to take care of myself), but when I'm just THAT hungry sometimes a pizza or burger is the only thing to truly fill me up.
YES! This is such a huge issue for so many people. I am well aware of the "trap" of rewarding my efforts wiht either something edible or drinkable and I am trying to UNlearn this habbit! My goal for this weekend is to exercise for my health and keep my eye on the "leanness" prize! Thanks for the reminder.
Im going to have to pick that book up! Sounds really interesting. I do think this is such a huge issue with most people. I never reward myself with food. I try to always eat mindfully and eat with a purpose. One thing that has helped me is my HRM. When I see that it takes me 'X' amount of hard, HARD working out to burn say 500 calories. Its easy to quickly eat those back in a matter of minutes. I always keep that in mind.
I think overall diet is key when reaching your goals and you should always be mindful of it no matter what.
Have a great weekend! thanks again for yet another AMAZING post!
great post seems to be a big issue have seen it myself as an RD, thanks for coming to Scotland with me :0)
Good ideas everyone, the key seems to be not grouping exercise and eating together. Dr Ayala used the word "decoupling" love that.
Great post, Lauren, and thanks for the mention! I love your practical, experienced advice. Happy Mother’s day!
This used to be a serious problem for me…I'd exercise so I could eat more because I was starving because I exercised! A vicious circle. But now I've cut back on the intensity of my exercise and my appetite responded accordingly. I feel SO much better now.
Happy Mother's Day Lauren! I hope you had a lovely day today.
It's interesting, but I actually eat less on workout days. I feel like working out puts me in "health mode" and I'm more likely to eat less and make healthy choices. Perhaps because I don't want to undo my hard work…