Your Mind, on Exercise--Or--Why Exercise Won't Turn You Into a Cookie Monster


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
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This blog is the second half of my personal response to TIME’s recent article on “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.” In my last blog, I talked about the biological relationship between exercise and fat loss; here, we’ll be looking at whether there’s any truth to the claim that exercise causes excessive appetite and “compensatory” overeating, making fat loss more difficult.

For those of you who like to cut straight to the bottom line, my answer to this question is: No.

There’s really no reason at all for you to be afraid of exercise if you want to burn fat and lose weight. Just the opposite, in fact. You will need to make sure your meal plan is right for your activity level and weight loss goal, and then stick to that amount of eating as well as you can. But exercise is simply not going to turn you into someone who can’t control your own appetite and eating behavior—unless, of course, that’s what you expect or want it to do.

For those of you who like to know more about the nuts and bolts, read on about the “soul of success”, and find out what can help you stay in charge of your eating no matter how much you exercise.

The Soul of Success

By soul I mean…a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself. This perspective is reflective; it comes between us and events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment—and soul-making means [claiming] this middle ground as your own.

--James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology

My reason for bringing the concept of “soul” into this discussion is not to introduce religion into the picture here, but simply to emphasize the point that we human beings come from the factory equipped with accessories that make it possible for us to manage our own impulses and appetites, instead of being managed by them.

This perspective is notably and unfortunately missing from the TIME article, which discusses the research on exercise and eating as if the exercise necessarily causes compensatory eating. That’s not what the research actually says—it just demonstrates a relationship between increased exercise and increased eating, not that one causes the other, or that exercise leads necessarily to overeating.

The S-O-R Model of Human Behavior.

Mainstream psychology has recognized for many years that, for us humans, the relationship between a stimulus (like hunger, or the sight, smell, or taste of an edible substance) and the response (eating or, in this case, overeating) is neither direct nor automatic. Between the stimulus (S) and the response (R), there is an organism (O) that is capable of formulating goals, learning from its own experience, and adjusting both its environment and its own behavior accordingly.

That Organism would be you.

This learning and adjustment happens all the time, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not. Over time it leads us to develop regular patterns of thought and behavior that we usually refer to as “habits.” The more aware we are of this process, the more we can shape our own habits to suit our goals.

Habits are made up partly of innate biological “imperatives” (hunger--we need to eat), partly of natural preferences (sweet, salty, and/or rich foods taste better to us), and partly of learned associations (food X gives me pleasure and/or energy). Individuals differ somewhat in which of these elements are experienced as most compelling or rewarding—for some, a “sweet tooth” may be just a mild preference, while others experience it as almost a craving. These differences also are caused by a combination of biology and experience/learning, which means that to a large extent, even strong cravings can be consciously managed, and even long-standing habits can be changed.

One simple way to think about all this is to remember that there is a difference between hunger (our biological need for nutrients) and appetite (our preferences for particular foods, based on experience and habit). We may need glucose to replace the fuel our exercise has used up, but we don’t have to get it from large blueberry muffins with way more calories than we need. And it’s just not possible to be born with a craving for chocolate, despite how it seems sometimes. Even chocolate is a habit that has to be learned—and can be unlearned.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have a built-in nutrition regulator which lets us know when we’ve had enough of each specific nutrient we need to keep ourselves healthy and fit. Or a junk food detector that would let us know when what we’re eating is triggering our preferences but not offering much that we actually need. These would be really handy in a food environment like ours, which routinely produces and markets nutritional nightmares like the Twinkie, and makes obsession with body size and shape seem "normal."

This means we have to put some effort into learning what we need to know and into making good choices. It’s not fun, it’s not glamorous or exciting, but it can be done and it doesn’t take superhuman will power. It can even be rewarding and pleasurable in itself, especially if you can give it some personal meaning beyond the number on the bathroom scale.

And that brings us back to the business of soul-making.

Soul-making is not the same thing as will power or self-control. It’s not about making yourself do something you don’t want to do, or avoid something you do want to do. Those are both things we really do have a pretty limited capacity to be good at or consistent at, as mentioned in the TIME article.

Soul-making is more about learning what you really need, and training yourself to want what you need, instead of just reacting to whatever might be in front of you at the moment. It starts when you begin to acknowledge that it’s YOU who makes decisions and takes action, not your genes or your circumstances, and certainly not the exercise or the food itself. Soul-making picks up momentum when you start curbing all your negative self-talk and verbal self-abuse about how weak or imperfect you are, and start listening to yourself instead of lecturing yourself. This frees up some room in your mind where something worth learning can come up. Once you’ve got your internal soul-making space cleared of all that conditioned garbage, all you really need to do is stop for a moment before you act, and ask yourself: “What do I really need and want right now? What will make me feel better after I'm done eating it?"

This will help you establish communication with your real self, instead of the conditioned self the food, diet, and beauty industries want you to be. Once this happens, soul-making can move on to its next task. That’s the task of re-engineering your daily life so that, as much as possible, what you really need is readily available to you, and you don’t have to constantly fight temptations or go way out of your way to get it.

In short, soul-making is about spending your energy on becoming more fully who you are and who you want to become—not just on fighting your conditioned behavior. One of the great ironies when it comes to changing habits is that you have to accept yourself where and as you are first. This isn’t easy in an environment that seems to constantly pressure and reward you for being something other than who and what you are—but, again, it can be done. It will probably take the support of some fellow-travelers. And lots of patience with yourself and others.

There are lots of practical things you can do to help yourself down this road, but I don’t have room here to talk about many of them. SparkPeople has a 10 Step Program that can help you with this, and any good book on practicing Mindfulness or a similar topic will be full of them.

For me personally, exercise is one of those practical things—a very big one, in fact. It’s when I’m out riding or hiking that I have the time to think about this kind of stuff, look at where I stand, and really get more into my body, which seems to know a lot more about what I really want than my head does, most of the time. So, I guess I could say that exercise does increase my appetite, but not just for food—for learning more about who and what I really am, what floats my boat, and how doing the best I can with what’s in front of me makes me feel better than any number on the scale or my calorie tracker.

And as long as I feed these hungers along with my physiological hunger, my eating and weight tend to take care of themselves pretty well. It's when I count on eating to satisfy one of these other hungers that I get into trouble.

What about you? What helps you stay mindful of what you really want and need, and avoid mindless eating?

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  • 13
    I don't always want what I need unless I'm backed into a corner and need to make a change for the better. THEN I'm willing to let go of what does not work anymore (as if it ever did), such as not eating food to get and stay healthy. Which is what I am doing with the Spark diet. - 8/14/2009   1:23:53 AM
    When I was in my early thirties, I lost 43 pounds in five months on a well-known diet program. I worked, had children, and had little time for exercise. I did it through careful eating.

    However, for most of my life, I have exercised--mostly lifted weights and jogging. I have always found that exercise makes me hungry. When I burn more calories, my body requires more calories. This does not mean excessive eating, just that I need more food, especially when trying to build muscle, which is difficult without more calories.

    My health keeps me aware of healthy eating, especially at my age--71. When I quit working five years ago, I began a steady weight gain, from 172 pounds to 207 pounds, which I weighed about a year ago. I lost about twenty pounds on my own, then I got stuck. Losing fat is still difficult, especially since I still workout and still try to gain muscle.

    SparkPeople has made me more aware of proper eating, healthy eating. I'm having more trouble now than I ever have had in losing fat. But I WILL succeed. - 8/13/2009   11:11:46 PM
    Well done. We are more than the sum of our parts and each one of us feels and thinks differently. I like using exercise to relax and recharge; the repetitive motion is meditative. - 8/13/2009   10:21:47 PM
  • JMCCALL0908
    Awesome read!!! - 8/13/2009   9:52:44 PM
  • 9
    Good Stuff!!! - 8/13/2009   9:26:18 PM
  • 8
    "We are what we repeatedly do." What helps me stay mindful of what I really want and need, is imbedded in my power to create habits. If I do something multiple times (and I am mindful of it each time and how it achieves my purpose), I am more successful moving toward what I really want. - 8/13/2009   9:09:06 PM
  • 7
    First of all I can't believe Time would put that story on the cover. They want to create controversy to sell magazines I suppose. I read it as soon as it arrived in my mailbox this week. In today's society our children (and adults) need all the encouragement they can get to eat healthy and exercise. I can respect that the author, a male who weighs 163 lbs., has gut fat he says hangs over his belt when he sits even after a "grueling" workout schedule. Maybe he got paid enough for writing the article to get lipo in the "gut" area.
    I've dieted without exercise. I've exercised without dieting. (By dieting I mean eating healthier and watching portions.) I am seriously committed to combining the two with SparkPeople and I feel like it is working for me. Currently, I can not do cardio due to pain in my foot. So, I guess the article allows me to believe that I can still lose weight even though I can't powerwalk as long as I am careful about the calories I consume. That is good news. However, I believe we should be motivating our children to eat healthy AND exercise. Exercise increases endorphins and seratonin and makes us feel better. I think that helps me be less likely to overeat. Using the resources on SparkPeople also helps me avoid mindless eating. - 8/13/2009   8:48:32 PM
  • SUSAN3065
    this was a good read for me im always looking to learn new things that will help feel better and enjoy life - 8/13/2009   8:42:16 PM
  • 5
    I am a dietitian, and I'm always looking for ways to help motivate people to make healthy eating and exercise part of their lifestyle...not just something that they have to white-knuckle their way through. I was VERY ANGRY when I read this article that says that exercise is not all that important in TIME Magazine. Yes, taking the stairs, and parking farther away...yada yada yada...are all great ways to burn some extra calories, but there is something important and powerful about exercise...beyond just the number on the scale.

    So, thank you for writing this article. Its a lot of what I wanted to say. I am posting this on my facebook to counter all the posts of the TIME article. - 8/13/2009   8:27:06 PM
  • 4
    I'm allergic to wheat / gluten specifically, so thankfully I can't have many items that people eat without a thought process.

    Also, over the years I'm also sensitive to sodium so between these factors I have a tendency to watch what I eat and then also the quantity.

    Plus I love to exercise just not in the heat since losing a kidney (tomorrow will be 6 years since my rock climbing accident). So I tend to workout at home in the summer and then in the evening walk unless I go dancing a couple times a month its in an air conditioned facility.

    Good article. - 8/13/2009   7:51:58 PM
  • 3
    I loved these articles. Soul-Making seems so intricate at first, but really, when you get down to it, it's just the essence of the lifestyle changes a lot of us need to make to get to a healthier place.

    Oddly enough, puzzle games, like Tetris have become a meditative aspect in my life, and I often think about myself, my situations, where to go from there, etc. when I play them and allow my mind to wander. Normally, I think about situations relating to something I'm stressed out about though.

    When it comes to diet and exercise, blogging actually helps me. I'll type, and make excuses, and realize that they're excuses, and as I type, I ramble, but I figure out the solutions to not only the excuses, but the reasons behind the excuses, and come up with game plans. Often, if I'm faced with something that seems daunting (a meal with my in-law's, for example) my SparkFriends will give me a pep talk and help me make the best of it.

    - 8/13/2009   7:27:03 PM
  • 2
    This is one of the best pieces written on this site. Great thoughts~~ - 8/13/2009   7:24:19 PM
  • 1
    I like the concept of "soul-making." I call that treating myself with the love and respect I deserve. - 8/13/2009   6:04:27 PM

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