Burn or balance?
After Thanksgiving and Christmas comes New Year’s Day — the perfect time to set exercise resolutions and burn off all those extra holiday calories, right? Not so fast, says Mark Blegen, associate dean of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.
“People tend to rationalize eating more if they exercise — or if they are going to exercise,” explains Blegen.
In fact, research shows that even the perception of harder exercise can cause people to eat more, including one collaborative research study that Blegen conducted with students. Participants who thought they were exercising at a higher intensity took more snacks with them. Even those seemingly benign 100 calorie snack packs can add up over time — with startling results.
“Do the math. If we consume just 100 extra calories we don’t need every day, that’s 10 pounds this year that we’re going to gain,” says Blegen. The good news is that the converse is also true.
“One hundred calories isn’t much. People think you have to go to extremes or make these huge changes, but that’s not necessary,” he explains. “We’re starting to see that exercise in and of itself isn’t enough to lose weight. Rather than ‘burning it off,’ what if we created strategies around nutrition that would make it more difficult to eat in excess.”
Sometimes it’s as easy as eliminating the known food triggers in your environment.
“Cookies get me. They are my downfall. So I stopped buying them altogether. Sure, I went through a period of seeking them out. But if they’re not there, I can’t eat them,” he says.
What about those exercise challenges that health clubs offer around the holidays – are they motivating, or a recipe for weight gain? Depends on the person.
“The holidays are difficult if you’re trying to eat less and exercise more,” says Blegen. “The prevalence of food everywhere and the decreasing amounts of time to exercise conspire against us.”
Research published in the New England of Medicine suggests that we are at our lightest, weight-wise, in early October and we slowly gain weight until the beginning of January.
“If you’re a member of gym there may be added pressure to fear the holidays,” notes Blegen. “May work for some, but not for others.”
It’s more important to understand what kind of exercise routine works for you specifically, rather than buying into the latest fad or challenge. He cites a study by Claude Bouchard and Tuomo Rankinen from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, where 720 people did the exact same moderate intensity fitness program, with strikingly different results.
“Some people actually got worse. Some got a whole lot better. There’s everything in between,” Blegen says. “So if I’m engaging in exercise for six months and my fitness gets worse — guess what? I’m pretty upset.”
The concern then is that people will stop engaging in exercise.
Blegen’s best advice? Listen to your body. Figure out what kind of exercise plan works. Be aware of the environmental and psychological triggers that lead to unconscious eating — or overeating.
“One food, one diet, is going to impact me one way and you in a different way. One form of exercise will affect you differently than me,” explains Blegen “There’s genetics at play, and I don’t think we fully understand why.”
Photo by Rebecca Zenefski, By Rebecca Studios
Listen to your body. Figure out the exercise plan that works for you.