Sounds like a stupid question doesn’t it? We all know the answer. Exercising in and of itself will not make you fat. However, the side effects of exercising can encourage behavior that will make you gain weight. Unless you understand how you mentally react to exercising, it is easy to get in a situation where your rituals around exercise can make you put on the pounds instead of shedding them.
Most people tend to treat self-control as a finite commodity. In other words, if they exercise self-control in one area, they will lessen the self-control they apply in another area. Some of this is a mentality of trying to reward yourself for good behavior. So if you exercise for 30 minutes, you may feel justified in taking an extra helping at dinner, grabbing a sugary snack or splurging on desert. If you spend some time exercising, you may reward yourself by taking the elevator instead of the stairs, or sitting in front of the television for a few hours that you’d normally be more active.
While there is nothing wrong with trying to reward yourself, make sure that you don’t use rewards that completely offset the activity you are trying to reward. What many people do is akin to an alcoholic who gets drunk to celebrate 2 weeks of being sober.
Food has more calories than you think
At least the food that you try to reward yourself with has more calories. An 8 oz can of Dr. Pepper has 100 calories. A 12 oz bottle of Gatorade has over 300 calories. And those are just drinks! A big mac has 540 calories and a large fries is another 610. A milkshake can easily be 650 calories or more. A blueberry muffin at Starbucks is 380 calories.
Most average healthy people need somewhere between 1500 to 2500 calories per day to maintain the same body weight. Most people probably don’t want to drop their caloric intake much below 1200 even if they are trying to lose weight. (Obviously, this varies depending on your height, weight, exercise and physical activity level. Ask your doctor if you have questions about how much you should be eating.)
But look at how quickly those numbers add up. A Big Mac, fries and milkshake are already 1,800 calories. That is as many calories as many people need in an entire day–and that is just a single meal. This is the same amount of calories as eating 29 oranges, 40 cucumbers, or 60 carrots.
The point is, you can consume a large number of calories very quickly. So how long does it take to actually burn those calories?
Exercise burns fewer calories than you think
Our bodies are extremely efficient at converting food into energy. If you eat a blueberry muffin at Starbucks, it will take 1.5 to 2 hours of exercise doing moderate walking to burn off an equivalent number of calories. An hour of a friendly volleyball game will only use about 2/3rds the calories in a bottle of Gatorade. And don’t think you can burn off our example McDonald’s meal with an hour of exercise at the local the gym. It would take you about 6 typical hours exercising on a stationary bike to burn an equivalent 1,800 calories.
In fact, to burn 1,000 calories per hour you’d generally need to be a professional athlete or in very, very good shape. For example, for me to burn 1,000 calories per hour, my heart rate would be around 175 beats per minute. This is beyond the zone of what is considered the optimal target heart rate for my age. Even if it was within an optimal range, that would be a grueling level of exertion and not something I’d be able to keep up for an hour of exercise.
Of course the better shape you are, in the more efficient your heart is at pumping blood, so you could probably train to get to a point where you could burn 1,000 calories per hour, but it would take a lot of work. Personally, I’ve found that a heart rate around 140 is something I can maintain for at least and hour at a time. I could probably do two or three if I push myself. At that rate, I burn approximately 700 calories per hour.
Exercise makes you hungry
One of the reasons we tend to want to reward exercise with food is that exercise makes you hungry. This is a natural response and it is our bodies’ way of trying to get back some of the calories we’ve burned. The problem comes when people respond to this urge with extremely high calorie-food or drinks. Here are a couple ways to help control this:
- Exercise in the evenings after dinner. If you are going to bed after exercising, you may be less likely to feel like you have to eat a lot of food.
- Drink water. If you are exercising at a level that will do some good, you will be sweating. Water will help replace the liquid you’ve lost. It also can help keep you from feeling as hungry.
- Eat something healthy. Eating fruits or vegetables is a good idea as they are often high mass and low calories.
- Know the calorie count. Understanding how many calories you’ve burned and how many calories are in various foods can help you keep from negating the benefits of exercise.
- Plan an activity after exercising. If you just sit around, you are going to just feel hungry. Find something to do. Sitting in front of the television probably isn’t the best activity right after exercising.
Longer exercise sessions
Aside from eating more calories than they are burning, the other reason people don’t see more benefits from exercise is that they simply don’t do enough of it. Going to the gym for 30 minutes once a week is good, but you probably aren’t going to see a tremendous difference in your weight.
Anything you can do to make exercise something you enjoy and look forward to will help you extend the time you exercise. Here are simple steps that will drastically increase the amount of time most people exercise:
- Move the couch out from in front of the TV – No more sitting to watch television or movies.
- Pick up a used elliptical, treadmill, ski machine or exercise bike off CraigsList – A couple hundred dollars can get you a $1000 piece of equipment that someone only uses as a coat hanger and wants to get our of their bedroom. If you watch closely enough, you can even find nice equipment for free.
- Buy, borrow or rent DVDs of a highly addictive television show – Lost, 24, The Office — whatever you think you’d enjoy, but haven’t seen. It helps if it is a series where each episode ends in a cliff-hanger to make you want to watch the next one. You can buy DVDs used off Amazon and then turn around and sell them once you’ve watched them.
- Get busy exercising – Of course you have to keep your commitment to only watch TV while exercising. Having no place to sit is a good start.
If you run, jog or walk, think about getting some captivating books on tape to listen to. The point is to find ways to pair your exercise activity with something that will keep you coming back and hold your attention so you aren’t focused on being tired or bored.
Exercise won’t make you fat, but you have to pay attention to your entire range of behavior. Make sure you aren’t responding to exercise with negative behaviors that negate many of the benefits of exercise. If you are going to put effort into getting into shape, you don’t want to be taking 10 steps forward and 9 steps back.
Greg Strosaker says
Thanks for the very informative post. Even as a marathon runner, I find it necessary to watch my diet even in high mileage weeks – many people cannot lose (or even maintain) weight by focusing on just one of the other. Sure, you may have a little more leeway with diet if you exercise, but it is easy to get carried away for all the reasons you mention (not knowing calorie counts, not keeping track of how many small snacks you are eating, etc.).
I am amazed at the number of people who lug around a container of Gatorade worth several hundred calories during their so-called “workouts” at a fitness center, and end up burning less calories than they actually consume over that one hour period.
Mark Shead says
I think people tend to practice actions that they think make them look good to others rather than really understanding the concepts behind what they are doing. In high school I remember seeing people drink a tremendous amount of Diet Coke because it was “diet”. I don’t think they realized that drinking Diet Coke will not make you lose weight. There aren’t diet molecules in it–just less calories than what you’d get in a can of regular Coke. But if it has twice the calories and you drink twice as much, you really haven’t accomplished anything.
Diet coke has essentially no calories in it. You would have to drown yourself to get a bad amount of calories from it
However, Diet Coke (and other “diet” sode pops) are worse for you that normal Soda pop in many different areas.
Can’t see what happened to my last comment so I apologize if this is a double post.
How are they different? What sources did you get that from?
Excellent list Mark and oh so true.
I do recognize the pitfall of rewarding yourself with high calorie food.
Personally I don’t like to exercise after diner, I just feel stuffed and my performance is always considerably worse than on other moments. I guess that’s a personal thing.
I agree with most of this article. The prescription is this: High intensity exercise 3-4 times/week. Eat natural foods such as lean meats, lots of veggies, nuts, seeds, and plenty of good fats thrown into the mix every day/week. Call Dr. Jimmyj to refill prescription as needed. Thank you.
Excellent article with points well explained. As for the Diet Coke question: the phosphoric acid in Diet Coke (and most other sodas) affects your thyroid gland causing your metabolic rate to slow. This means you burn calories more slowly, so Diet Coke actually can cause weight gain!
Re the diet sodas could cause weight gain. Has this been proven? have their been studies done that i could read up on this? As i drink only diet drinks and no added sugar drinks and wouldn’t go near sugar, as i thought i wasn’t gaining any calories. But please let me know how you know this to be true and it will help me to change my habit.
I haven’t been able to find any studies that show phosphoric acid has an effect on the thyroid. The only studies I’ve seen were on bone density and CKD (Chronic Kidney Disease), and they go both ways.
Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com says
I know what you mean. Exercise DOES make you hungry. I imagine if you exercised daily and then stopped you’d still mentally be used to eating that amount and might get fat. This is why it is so essential to stay exercising daily.
Juuso Palander says
The most important thing in training is to raise your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) which means the amount of calories burned without any workout. You can raise it by getting more muscle mass which is the most efficient way to lose weight in a long run if your diet is anywhere near healthy. I think most of the people don’t know that and they keep burning both fat AND muscles by jogging or doing other low intensity activity.
I have been struggling at the gym, i am losing 700 calories a day at the gym five times a week eating around 1200 calories on a weight watchers diet but do not seem to lose any weight
This is ridiculous. OFCOURSE you’re hungry after exercise; because you’re burning energy of what you are before the workout or during the day. There’s no way in hell that you could get fat from exercise unless you replenish afterwords with an entire cheesecake. All you have to do is EAT HEALTHY. Don’t get so damn scientific with calories and metabolism “boosts”. I lost thirty pounds just by running 3 miles a day. No diet.