My friend Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says three mealtime words that cripple weight loss are “because I exercised,” and he’s right. The reason so many studies show exercise is often ineffective for weight loss is because many people adopt a “reward mentality.” It’s just bad math to burn 300 calories exercising and feel it entitles you to a 500 calorie reward.
The major problem is not taking advantage of the power of exercise to make you a better eater. If you want to lose weight, you must ditch the reward mentality and instead focus on how exercise gives you the power to resist food rewards. You’re not a dog so don’t reward yourself with food. Find better ways to reward yourself for hard work.
Why intensity matters
High intensity exercise burns more calories. A lot of people hate to hear that running a mile burns more calories than walking one does, but it’s true. What’s more, intense exercise is shown to have greater appetite suppressing effects at the hormonal level than lower intensity exercise.
I’ll vouch for that. Going for a walk doesn’t seem to affect my appetite much. A hard run, however, dramatically reduces my desire for food. It suppresses appetite for the rest of the day. If I can posit a hypothesis, I think this is a survival mechanism from our early days — if you’re doing lots of hard running, it’s because your survival is at stake and your body doesn’t want to be slowed down by dealing with extra digestion.
But it does go beyond hormones. Exercise, especially more intense varieties, affects your brain and the choices you make about food: “Physical activity and eating behaviour are connected in the brain at the cognitive level.” says Dr. Miguel Alonso-Alonso, a Harvard University neurologist. “It’s the same mental processes.”
It’s because exercise enhances the brain’s “executive function.” Sticking to a healthy diet means sticking to a plan. It’s about adherence to goals. You have to resist urges too, but mostly it’s about following a healthy eating plan.
But what about exercise intensity and the brain? “There is a dose-response effect,” Alonso-Alonso says, “A fitter person is going to have greater improvements in executive function and therefore better control of what they eat.”
This doesn’t mean you need to go hardcore on day one, but if weight loss is your goal, know it’s all about what you eat, and gradually upping the intensity will not only help you become a better eater, but you’ll have a more sculpted physique to show off when the fat you want to lose is gone.