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Balancing Eating and Exercise

Note: Am I Hungry? is a mindful eating program – learn more here or at

Some years ago I worked with a man who both ate and exercised a lot. Eventually someone else asked him, “Do you eat so much because you exercise, or do you exercise so you can eat?”

He replied, “Mostly I exercise to eat.”

I couldn’t help thinking about this recently when, while visiting friends in Ireland, I noticed how my eating was changing due to increased exercise. It’s not that I’m particularly inactive at home – I often get some type of exercise or activity for at least an hour a day – but I’m certainly not in the league of my Irish friends. They’re both runners, for one, and they were also training for a 50-mile walk. Although I wasn’t up for anything of quite that magnitude, I did agree to a 14-mile walk one day, followed by 7.8 miles the next.

Consequently, I was eating quite a bit more than my norm. And oddly enough, the one day when I did almost no walking (due to rain and blisters) was perhaps my hungriest; I simply felt I had to keep eating because I was never satisfied.

In some ways this was fun, because it meant that I wasn’t overly concerned with all the eating out we were doing. On the other hand, it meant more money spent on food, which was okay for vacation but not something I want to do all the time. Plus, the bottomless pit feeling is always disconcerting.

My bigger concern, though, was adjusting back to my normal routine, where I’m only walking 2-4 miles on an average day. When I mentioned this to one of my Irish friends, he commented, “If I don’t exercise as much, I simply wouldn’t eat as much because I wouldn’t be hungry.”

It reminded me of the difference between someone who has always, in Am I Hungry? terminology, been an instinctive eater, versus someone like me, who’s had to relearn that ability. While it’s true that I can fairly easily go back to eating smaller amounts with reduced exercise, I do worry about it, not because I feel like I need the food, but simply because once I start getting used to having more, part of me thinks, “I ate so much the other day and it was fine, so why not today?” So the first few days after something like this I pay a little extra attention to my hunger and fullness cues, and what the little voices in my head are saying.

Still, at least I can do this now, and it’s something for which I am continually grateful. And I find I am also grateful that, much as I like eating and sometimes increasing my intake based on exercise, I do not feel the need to artificially inflate my appetite on a regular basis. I simply take what I need when I need it, however little or much it may be, and enjoy it.

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