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Musing on the Relationship Between Exercise and Eating

A long time 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’ve been thinking about that recently now that I’m starting to get ready for my trip to Baxter State Park in a couple of months. I don’t expect to climb Katahdin, but I’d like to be able to do a little hiking, so I’m going on longer walks and doing more trails in the woods.

Jewell Falls, Portland, Maine

And since the Health app on my phone now tracks how many active calories I’ve burned, I’m seeing that I burn a few more calories on the days I go for these walks, or burn them more quickly than I would otherwise.

It got me thinking about how it can be easy to think of exercise as a way to earn the right to eat, or sometimes to punish yourself for eating. But it shouldn’t be either of those.

You don’t need to earn the right to eat

If you live in a larger body in our society, it’s very easy to slip into thinking that you need to do something to earn the right to eat, that you should justify eating somehow, like through exercise.

But that’s simply not true. You don’t need to do anything to earn the right to eat other than to exist.

All living things need nourishment of some sort, whether it’s plants getting nutrients from sunlight or animals getting nourishment from eating plants and/or animals. You need to eat something whether or not you exercise, period.

It’s true that you may need to eat more depending on how much and what kind of exercise you do, but even then, it’s best not to eat more simply because you exercised more. It’s still important to be mindful when possible and pay attention to your hunger and fullness levels, no matter how much or how little you’ve exercised. And you may notice that your hunger doesn’t exactly correlate to your activity.

Exercise should not be a punishment for eating

Another way people conflate exercise and eating is, unfortunately, to exercise strenuously as a means of punishment.

Actress Jameela Jamil talked about this in a recent interview: “And actually, because I had an eating disorder for 20 years, I never used to exercise unless it was to punish myself for what I’d eaten the day before. And I think a lot of us have that cycle….”

I feel grateful that I don’t have that mindset, although I fully believe that a lot of people do. It’s hard to avoid it because diet and exercise have become so tied together in our society. When you consider them part of the same thing, then it makes a kind of sense to use exercise as a way to “redeem” yourself for eating what you weren’t “supposed” to have or for eating too much.

Unfortunately, this approach not only perpetuates diet mentality and weight focus, but it also makes you forget that a lot of good can come from exercising, no matter your weight or size. I know that was true of me. When I felt like I had to exercise as part of dieting, I hated exercise. I couldn’t see anything good about it, even though I understand now that it has a lot to offer.

Exercise has many benefits regardless of diet

One of the biggest benefits of exercise is stress reduction. Most of us have plenty of stress in our lives, so having a way to relax and unwind is very important to mental health. And if you can exercise outside, it can improve your mood even more. I certainly notice a difference between days when I exercise indoors vs. outdoors.

Getting some regular physical activity can improve your sleep. Considering how many people have trouble sleeping these days, this is important. Sleep – or lack of sleep – impacts your mood, how well you function during the day, and more.

Exercise can also boost your energy. It feels counterintuitive because it seems like you’d get tired when you exercise, and certainly, you can get tired if you’re doing a heavy workout. But moderate exercise will actually give your energy a boost, something else most of us can use.

And as Jamil pointed out, those benefits of exercise aren’t long-term. You’ll start noticing them right away, if you’re able to pay attention to the exercise as something other than a punishment or a way to earn “points” for eating.

I loved how Jamil put it: “…the mental health benefits of exercise don’t take six months to achieve. They’re immediate…. And now that I’ve finally understood that, I’m no longer exercising so that I am appropriate to look at for someone else. I’m exercising myself for the immediate benefits.”

Sounds like a good plan to me.

Time to separate exercise from eating

If you ask people why exercise is important, many will say it’s to help with weight loss or weight management. But that’s not the best way to think about it.

If you’re focused on exercise as part of a diet, or a way to fit into certain clothes, you’re more apt to give it up when you fall off the diet, and you’re much less likely to appreciate what else that activity is doing.

When you exercise for yourself, though, for those immediate benefits Jamil mentioned, you’ll find that exercise improves your mood, reduces your stress, helps you sleep, and just makes you feel better. And something that gives you all that is worth doing no matter what you eat.


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