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Does working out make you eat more?

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on September 17, 2012

Woman wearing electrodes looks at pictures of food

Getting your sweat on early in the day may be one of the best ways to prevent overeating later on.

Yes, I know some of you are convinced that exercising boosts your appetite—and if you’re starving yourself while dieting, that could happen.

But assuming that’s not the case, some cool new research indicates that working out in the morning could actually make it easier to moderate impulsive eating behavior (you know—like going overboard on pizza or ice cream) throughout the day.

Here’s a summary of the findings. On one day 35 women—about half of whom were normal-weight and the other half obese—spent 45 minutes in the morning walking briskly on a treadmill. On a control day, one week later, the women did no exercise.

Then, while wearing an electrode-studded headpiece, the women looked at images of food and flowers. The flowers were just there as controls. What counted was how study participants’ brains fired when looking at delicious dishes.

The idea was to measure their brain activity and responses to the food images to see whether having spent those 45 minutes exercising had any effect on those responses.

In the words of one of the scientists, Michael Larson, “Our main finding was that on the exercise day, they had diminished response or attentional response to those pictures of food, so the brain responded less, so you can see why they had less motivation for the food.”

Well, that’s all very nice, but what does it mean for you? The study also measured the women’s food intake, and participants did not eat more calories on the workout day. On both days, they ate more or less equal amounts.

And since their exercise did not stimulate a desire to eat, they ended up getting the calorie-burning effects of the workout.

Huge caveat here: I know oodles of women who allow themselves to eat more when they’ve exercised, because, as they tell me, they figure they’ve burned a ton of calories and can accommodate whatever treats come their way.

The logical flaw here is that most women vastly overestimate the number of calories burned through exercise and underestimate the number of calories in that gooey cheese- or chocolate-covered yummy.

(Here’s a good source of info on calories burned through exercise.)

And just FYI, a 150-pound person walking at 3.8 miles per hour (the average pace used in the study) would burn about 250 calories during that 45-minute workout.

The bottom line: morning exercise can be a powerful weapon in your weight-loss arsenal. So if you burn 150, 200, 300, or more calories through your workout and don’t eat more than usual, you win.

Photo: A BYU student wears an EEG recording device to demonstrate how researchers measured neural responses to food after exercise. Photographer Mark A. Philbrick. Source: Brigham Young University

 

Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
I'm Mary Weaver, your weight-loss and body-transformation coach. My specialty is helping women get in the best shape of their lives with satisfying diet plans, effective fat-burning exercise, and loads of encouragement and motivation. Check me out on Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter!
Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Yolanda September 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I have noticed that on the days where I can get out early and do my run I totally eat less all day. On the days where I don’t exercise in the morning… I eat more and more often. There’s definitely something to it!

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Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S.
Twitter:
September 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Very cool—thanks for the feedback!

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Sarah Arrow
Twitter:
September 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Depends ont eh time of day, if it’s morning or afternoon I have no desire to eat any extra. But if it’s after 7pm… I could eat a horse… or a house… whatevers nearest…
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Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S.
Twitter:
September 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Note to self: Stay out of Sarah’s way after 7 p.m.!!! Are you eating enough earlier in the day?

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Emma Ewers
Twitter:
September 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I found throughout the school holidays (when not doing my hour round trip walking to school and back) I stuffed my face all day with bad foods, just couldn’t get enough! Now I’m back in routine and getting my walk at 8.30am 5 days a week my eating pattern is slipping back into a “normal” routine and I don’t crave half as much. I’m wondering is the exercise or the routine? Interesting reading none the less :)
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Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S.
Twitter:
September 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Emma, thanks for commenting!

I’m betting that both the exercise *and* the restoration of your routine are helpful. All good luck to you!

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Pamela Hernandez September 18, 2012 at 7:03 am

I think one healthy behavior begets another. We start the day with exercise, we want to live healthy the rest of the day. Thanks for the science to back it up.
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Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S.
Twitter:
September 18, 2012 at 8:43 am

Agreed! Sets a great tone.

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Angelika Davey
Twitter:
September 18, 2012 at 9:31 am

I agree that exercising in general makes me eat less, but I also totally agree with Sarah: during the day I’m not really bothered with extra food, but come the evening ….. although I draw the line at a house or even a horse ;-)
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Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S.
Twitter:
September 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Very common for the “munchies” to hit at night, Angelika! Make sure you’re getting enough to eat throughout the day—meals and snacks (all containing some protein) every two to four hours. That might help if you’ve been going without food for long stretches.

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Suzanne
Twitter:
September 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm

This is a great reality check Mary. I’m a strong believer that how much you eat should be in direct proportion with how much you exercise. And of course, science back this up!
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Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S.
Twitter:
September 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm

thanks!

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Shira September 18, 2012 at 8:22 pm

And there you have it Mary, the right balance is not overeating after that terrific workout. I’m going to an intense Blast 900 cardio/strength class at 5:45a tomorrow and plan to eat a heart but very healthy breakfast afterwards (love those egg white omelets) so I don’t over-indulge later in the day.
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Mary C. Weaver, CSCS, M.S.
Twitter:
September 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm

yum—I like your breakfast.

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