Does my 2 mile walk still count if I walked all the way to breakfast tacos?

I saw this post on Facebook the other day, and it gave me pause. It brought me back to a mindset that I had for, most of my dieting career. I remember when I believed that I had to earn my food. I had these rules around when I could and couldn’t eat. I could eat if and only if I knew that I could create enough of a calorie deficit by the end of the day to ‘work it off’. ‘It’ being the food that my body needed to live.

Maybe it’s the calories in versus calories out approach, but diet and exercise are inextricably linked. And so it’s not a stretch to see how I could  easily get caught in the trap of having to earn my calories – especially around the holidays when there are no shortage of memes that get passed around about how much you need to exercise to burn off your holiday meal:

  • ‘One piece of pumpkin pie = 50 minutes of jumping jacks’
  • ‘1/2 cup of stuffing = 25 minutes of running’

I don’t know. I’m just making this sh*t up. But someone knows.

But it translates into our daily/weekly lives. Monday is typically the busiest day in the gym.

‘Gotta burn off that pizza and beer I ate last night.’

And it’s true. After we exercise, we need to replenish our muscles with nutrients to support our physiology. The cells in our body depend on us eating healthy foods to keep working efficiently.

But this perspective can have drastic effects on the way that we perceive food and exercise. Either we feel like we need to punish our body for eating too much, or the flip side of that is having to earn the right to eat though exercising.

Earning your food

I was completely in this mindset for most of my weight loss journey. And the calorie trackers that I used reinforced it. If I exercised, I got to eat more – the application would glow in green if I was under my calorie limit – as if to say, “You are doing SO fantastic! Keep Going!” But those same tools would turn all red & mean if I went even 1 calorie over, “Whoa! Don’t you think you should stop now? You’ve really had enough.”

It almost turned into a neuroses. I would move until I hit an arbitrary target that I had set for myself so that I could eat a fair amount of food.

And you know what’s interesting about this way of thinking is that it creates its own vicious cycle:

Exercise Hard -> Stress Body -> Stress Hormones Increase -> Increased Hunger Signals -> Eat More -> Mental Freak Out -> Exercise More & Harder

And so it goes…

Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.
Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.

Two things happen when we equate eating with working off the calories that we’ve eaten,

  1. We feel bad about ourselves; that we didn’t earn the right to eat what we ate.
  2. We start to look for more intense versions of exercise. ‘What exercise is going to burn the most calories?’ Because we have a life. We don’t have 5 hours to walk off those Oreos.

But what happens when we increase our intensity is that we only do it a little. The intensity that we can perform an activity is in direct response to the duration that we can do that activity drops. And we can only do very intense exercise for short bouts of time. So, we get stuck in this middle ground of intensity that we can do a long time – running and cycling.

So, where walking is fantastic, it takes a LONG time to walk 6 miles. The high intensity equivalent of walking would be sprinting. And you just CAN’T sprint 6 miles. BUT you can run 6 miles (Okay – maybe you can’t run 6 miles today, but there are lots of people who can, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility to run a 10k or even a marathon.)

Long duration moderate exercise (running long distances, in this example) can lead to more stress on the body. And women over the age of 35 tend to produce more stress hormone in response to chronic long duration cardio. What happens when we put too much stress on the body is that we stop burning fat efficiently.

When I was in the height of my earning food phase, I was running 6-7 miles a day, 3-4 times a week. If I wasn’t running, I was either in spin class, or cardio kickboxing. Then, I would strength train on top of that!

The problem gets compounded when our metabolism fights back. I was ravenously hungry. All. The. TIME! There wasn’t enough food around to satisfy the hunger. And it was scary.

I knew that my level of activity wasn’t sustainable, but I felt powerless to stop it. My hunger was out of control.

I couldn’t stop exercising. I needed to burn of those calories that I was sure to eat, otherwise, I would surely gain 25 lbs overnight!

And I felt terrible about myself because I felt powerless to stop eating. Here I was a fitness pro, and I felt like my worth was wrapped up in my weight.

It was a vicious cycle that I couldn’t see how I get out of it.

Stop the Cycle

I needed to change the way I viewed exercise; to not view exercise as a way to burn calories, but as a way to move – a way to celebrate my body and the things that it can do. I needed to change the way I looked at food; not purely as fuel, nor as good and bad, but as a direct impact on how I would feel later, and how I would be able to perform.

I separated food and exercise as being two different sides of the equation.

After so long of denying my hunger signals, I started paying attention. And then I started honoring them. This took a LOT of practice. It’s something that still takes practice. But the more I reinforce eating only when I’m hungry, and stopping when I’m satisfied (not full), the easier it gets.

I also stopped beating my body up every day by doing long bouts of exercise – just to keep my weight in check.

As a result of me listening to, and taking care of my body, an amazing thing happened. My body responded by reducing my hunger levels – I was no longer eating everything in sight!

You neither have to punish yourself, nor earn your food

No doubt you’ve heard the saying, “You can’t out train a bad diet.” When you’re 20 years old, this saying isn’t true. As teenagers and young adults, we can pretty much eat anything we want, and our body will bounce right back. But as we age, the saying becomes truer and truer. As we age, the quality of our diet becomes more important because our body becomes less forgiving of our less than ideal choices. And so it becomes more and more important to NOT punish yourself with more exercise, but rather, eat foods that make you feel good right from the start.

Think of your body as a rebellious teenager. If you’re trying to punish it, and beat it into submission; restricting calories, not giving her what she needs/wants, and expecting to mentally think your way to success. Rebellious teenagers are emotional beings. If you try to reason with her, she’s going to ignore what you want and get what she wants anyway.

And this is when you find yourself elbows deep in tacos. Because by hell or high water, she is going to get the calories that you have been denying her, whether you like it or not.

If you’re in the mindset of having to earn your food, or feeling like you’ve been bad and have to ‘work off’ your over-indulgence, try separating those two thoughts. I know that these two concepts are so tightly connected. But if you can think of both eating and movement as ways of thanking your body for all that it does for you, instead of ways to keep it in line, your mindset is along the right way of thinking about it.

It’s all in how you position your argument to your teenager.


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