The exercise/food/weight loss connection: It’s bigger than you think.

Good nutrition is more than "an apple a day." But that's a great start. (Image courtesy of foto76 /
Good nutrition is more than “an apple a day.” But that’s a great start. (Image courtesy of foto76 /

This is a big topic. So big that there’s no one blog article that can really sum the whole story up, so I’m going to riff on this theme quite a bit in the coming days. It’s inspired by many things…

  • …The friend who says “I’m going to Zumba three times a week, but I haven’t lost any weight”…
  • …The marathoner who thinks running 20 or 30 miles a week means instant weight loss, but they “wind up” (note the disempowering language there) gaining weight during training instead of losing it…
  • …The person who wears an activity monitor that tracks calories burned and writes down everything she’s eating to figure out how to eat less than she’s burning, but doesn’t lose weight…

So, is exercise “worth it”?

How tempting it is, indeed, to write off exercise as a means for weight control! How tempting it is to think of exercise as a weight management device at all – it burns calories, right? Wellllll…isn’t that what you have to do to lose weight?

The science, and the real stories, are a little more complex. Not “I can’t do this” complex – just “oh, I hadn’t thought about that before” complex. Just complex enough that sometimes we read an oversimplified version of things in a magazine or newspaper article and think that all is lost – that we can’t possibly lose weight and keep it off, exercise or no exercise.

So, first of all, let me give you a one-sentence testimonial to the value of exercise:

I am convinced that regular, vigorous exercise is not only going to prolong my life, it is also going to prolong the quality of my life.

Losing weight and increasing the amount and intensity of my exercise have gone hand in hand. I’ve had audience members at my talks ask me which one was more important for my weight loss: improved nutrition, or exercise? I want to say “both” – and that’s 100% true, they really do go hand in hand – but finally learning about good nutrition, solid meal-planning strategies, and improving the environment around me so that I had healthy foods readily available, especially in times of stress, was a key moment.

Exercise and eating well are like being on the best kind of treadmill: one feeds right into the other. (Image courtesy of photostock /
Exercise and eating well are like being on the best kind of treadmill: one feeds right into the other. (Image courtesy of photostock /

When I eat well, I start feeling better immediately. That powers my workouts. Then I feel even better because of all those excellent endorphins, and I want to take better care of myself. So I eat better. Rinse. Repeat. Get it?

It’s the best kind of treadmill to be on, in other words. But food intake does matter – and calories alone may not be the best way to judge a food’s nutritional value. More on that in future posts.

I could have pulled a ton of studies out to demonstrate the value of exercise for feeling better in general…but here’s a quote from the abstract of just one of them. The study “The impact of lifestyle factors on the 2-year course of depressive and/or anxiety disorders” published earlier this year in the Journal of Affective Disorders examined the effects of physical activity, alcohol consumption (!), and smoking (!!) on the progression of depressive illness. And, drum roll, guess what they found?

Low physical activity, but not heavy smoking or alcohol consumption, was a strong and independent risk factor of an unfavorable course of depressive and/or anxiety disorders and may be an important therapeutic target in treatment.

In other words, exercise has major value in helping us feel better. And I think there’s a pretty big food/mood connection to explore here in coming days.

And having said all of that, remember: you are a laboratory of one. Figure out what works for you. What works in research studies may not be what works for you. Allow yourself to figure out what your own body and mind want, and then create a lifestyle that fits your needs.

Case in point: sometimes I eat more after I exercise, and sometimes less. I could say “uh-oh, exercise makes me eat more, so I shouldn’t do it if I want to lose weight!” But it’s more complex than that. Yesterday I took a 90-minute yoga class at 5 p.m. and you know what? I probably had a larger serving of dinner than I otherwise would have, but I’m not sure it was because of the exercise. It may have been (1) because we ate dinner while watching TV last night (yikes), and/or (2) because I was pretty darn hungry after my yoga class and could have had an apple to tide me over, but didn’t. So I was really hungry by the time dinner rolled around.

There are a lot of variables here. The key is to figure out which ones work for you. More on all of this in the coming week.

Recent #every48 workouts: Friday 5/2 – a 6-mile run without my running watch. I just wanted to get out there. Sunday 5/4 – a 90-minute Bikram yoga class. Boy did I feel like a pretzel rod out there. But it was refreshing to finally get in a good stretch and some quiet time too.

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