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Why You Shouldn’t Use Exercise as a Way to Recover from Overeating – and What to Do Instead

Last week, when I was visiting friends in Ireland, we went to a bike café for lunch called Pedals & Boots. It’s an interesting place that serves meals and also rents bikes. The menu even had a note that said something like, “If you eat too much, you can work it off – we rent bikes!”

It was funny, but it also highlights a potentially dangerous mindset. The idea that eating to excess is okay because you can just work it off with exercise.

Except it’s not usually that simple.

Energy drain

For one thing, if you’ve overeaten by a lot, odds are you won’t want to do much exercise.

These days, I don’t often overeat to this extent, but I did at one point on the trip. It happened on Friday morning before we went for a long walk on the beach. (As an aside, I joked that it felt like we were an ad for a dating site, where everyone seems to like walking on the beach.)

Since I had also done some hiking the day before, that morning I was unusually hungry. I ate breakfast when I got up around 6, and then I had a second breakfast around 9 when my friends were eating.

Unfortunately, this meant I ate too much. It made me sluggish and sleepy.

But I got lucky. We had a long drive to the beach, and I was able to doze on the way. Although even when we arrived, I didn’t have quite the energy I would have liked.

You might have experienced this, too, where you have every intention of working out after a big meal. Only to find motivation severely lacking. Instead, a nap or watching TV seems much more appealing. Which means the exercise might never happen.

Negative emotional impact

It’s not just the physical issues, either. Have you ever noticed that when you’re not able to do everything you planned, your mood gets worse?

At least, I know that can happen with me. Even after my nap, I was uncertain about the beach walk. On my own, I almost certainly wouldn’t have gone ahead with it – or at least, not much of it.

Because this was not the sort of walk that shows up on dating sites. No leisurely stroll into the sunset.

This was a walk in a gusting wind that gave us a good push when it was at our backs. But walking into it was far more difficult. It was a real workout… plus it started to drizzle on and off.

Fiona and I walking in extreme wind

Fiona and I walking in the wind.

I got lucky again, in two ways. One, being with my friends meant I went ahead with the 3 1/2 hour walk despite the challenges.

And two, after the first half-hour, I felt better. Instead of feeling like a little kid and wanting to whine about the weather and how hard it was, my sense of adventure kicked in. The wind became fun and invigorating, even when I was facing into it. Well, until towards the end when I got a couple of blisters on one foot – but that wasn’t anything to do with my eating.

Recovery may take a long time

Why do I call this lucky? Because a quick recovery from overeating isn’t a guarantee.

This situation was unusual for me, both the overeating and having multiple days of long walks. It meant I could bounce back without too much trouble.

But if you’re overeating a lot of the time, it can throw everything off. Same with eating too little for long periods. Your body – and emotions – may start to expect things to be this way, making it more difficult to regain your balance.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But you may have to be patient for quite a while. And patience can be hard to come by when you’re not feeling your best.

Go easy on yourself

So, what you can you do in these circumstances?

My first suggestion is to be gentle with yourself. Emotionally, don’t beat yourself up. Just recognize that it happened, and then let it go.

Physically, let yourself take some time for rest and recovery. Because forcing yourself to exercise heavily on a full stomach is not usually going to end well. And it’s certainly not the recommended approach.

For instance, one of my Irish friends was training for a marathon. She wanted to get in a 20-mile run on Sunday, and she needed an early start because of other plans for the day.

But this didn’t mean she sprinted off right after breakfast. She planned to get up early specifically so she could have two hours to digest before heading out.

Now, you’re probably not going to be doing anything quite that extreme. (Although if you want to run a marathon, good luck!) But regardless of what kind of activity you want to do, some level of down time after eating is important.

You may also want to ease into any exercise. Maybe start with a walk, or some stretches, to wake your body up and see how it’s feeling. Then decide from there if you want to do more or not.

Remember exercise isn’t meant to balance out overeating

And remember that notcarrying through with the activity is an option. At least, in most cases, though if you’re doing some kind of event, that changes things.

Even if you do go ahead, try not to think of it as balancing out your overeating. Ideally, you’d be doing the exercise because you think you’ll enjoy it and it will help you feel better.

If it doesn’t meet those criteria, you’re certainly free not to go ahead with it.

In either case, the best way to move forward is to return to being mindful and simply notice when you get hungry again.

And to remind yourself that everyone overeats now and again. it’s normal. It doesn’t make you a bad person, even if you want to reduce how often it happens.

I hope this helps give you some ideas of how to handle situations like this when they arise (note that I don’t say “if” they arise). And if you have other strategies that have helped you, I’d be curious to hear them.

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