Food Is Not a Reward for Exercise

I spent last weekend at the Delta Kananaskis. As usual, I woke up long before my wife was ready to face the world. Having some time to kill, I grabbed a cup of coffee and a banana then used the well-equipped gym to lift weights for an hour.

After that I went for a 12K run.

After that I was hungry.

I dragged my wife out of bed and we made our way to brunch. I figured a nice hotel like the one we were staying at would have a good brunch. A big brunch. A greasy brunch. With lots of awesome food.

Was I ever right. Gluttonously foodtastic, it was. I oinked to the point of belt loosening — and then some.

I don’t do things like that very often. In fact, rarely do I ever eat out (one of my primary rules for staying lean is to get the vast majority of my calories from the grocery store). However, we were away and had been planning on this brunch so I figured I would spend two hours exercising my butt off in an effort to mitigate the hoovering of eggs Benedict, bacon, smoked salmon, lamb curry, sausages, bread pudding (covered with some kind of sugary goop) and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember.

I try not to use the word “epic” too often because its overuse has made it lame (actually, the word “lame” is starting to get lame). But this was an epic pig-out.

Regardless of all of the exercise I had done before digging in, my inhalation of greasy calories more than wiped out the caloric deficit I had created. The thing was, I knew it and didn’t care.

So why am I telling you this? The reason is many people use food as a reward system for exercise. It’s not uncommon for someone to think, “Well, I did 30 minutes on the elliptical, so that means I can have cheesecake for dessert.”

Bad idea. Chances are that cheesecake has double the calories you burned off on the elliptical. There are a number of people who believe, because they exercise, they can eat whatever they want.

To use me as an example, I like being pretty lean. I exercise at a high-intensity for at least eight hours every week (that number can climb to 12 in the summer). Yet I still have to watch what I eat or I’ll lose those little lines on my midsection that my wife seems to like.

Conversely, I knew an Olympic rower who had to eat an entire pint of Häagen-Dazs each evening for fear she’d waste away. She was training for over 30 hours every week. She was an Olympian; that was her job.

Now ask yourself, how much exercise do you get? My guess is it’s nowhere near the point where you don’t have to worry about your diet if weight loss is your goal. Exercise contributes to weight loss, but gluttonous feasts can undo many days of intense activity. You must be careful. So don’t believe, if you exercise, you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight — that’s simply not the case.

James S. Fell is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a middle-aged family man with a desk job and not much free time. Still, he’s able to keep in shape because he loves exercise and doesn’t mind eating healthy. He is the author of ‘Body for Wife: The Family Guy’s Guide to Getting in Shape.’

A Review from our Editor:

I appreciate you so much for stressing the same points that I have been making in arguing against the “exercise is useless for weight control” crowd. Most of the research that this viewpoint is based on is when persons do only 1 to 3 hours a week of exercise. You have beautifully stated that it takes more than this for weight control. I agree that exercise does not usually enable persons to eat all they want- at least not very often.

However, I have also been fairly sedentary at times and I would add that without exercise, many persons can hardly eat anything at all. When I was sedentary, I would *never* get away with eating quite a bit without gaining weight- I also found it very difficult to diet away the weight I gained. I would usually gain about 20 pounds during the holiday season when I was less active. Since becoming far more active almost 2 years ago, I have found at *times* I have been able to get away with eating all that I want and not gain weight if I exercise everyday.

During the holiday season, there were some days that I ate a lot of food and I hardly gained any weight- I made sure there was absolutely no days that I did not exercise less than an hour. I would often make sure that I did extra exercise after I overindulged as well. I did make an effort to limit the number of days that I overindulged during the holiday season. But last week, I overindulged on two consecutive days, and did gain about a pound or two and still have not lost the weight. We had that snowstorm and I rode the stationary bike instead of my outdoor biking.

I suspect the stationary bike burns fewer calories because going up hills on a regular bike is a better calorie burner than even increased resistance on a stationary bike. I also was not able to go the extra mile of exercise. I will continue to exercise everyday by bicycling and am confident I can lose the weight. I do also count my calories and know that my maintenance calories with all the exercise I do is about 3400 calories a day. It is helpful to know just how many calories I can eat before I gain weight. On that number of calories, I can enjoy foods that I like. I would like to ask those persons who argue that it takes very long to burn off overindulging if it actually takes less time when they don’t exercise at all. Are they all going to skip all the desserts during the holiday season and not exercise? It is more realistic to increase one’s exercise and do it everyday, enjoy the desserts on the actual holidays, but limit the days one overindulges.