Picture this: You wake up early to go to the gym. You work up a great sweat during your workout. You hit the showers, then grab a bagel and Snickers bar on the way to the office, figuring a) you deserve the treat, and b) you’ve just burned way more calories than the Snickers bar contains.
Nope, says a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: People usually overcompensate for the calories they burn during exercise. That’s why it can be so difficult to lose weight through exercise alone. Researchers in the new study found that people on an exercise program ate about 90-125 additional calories per day. That’s not much -- just about four bites of most food. But it’s significant enough to stand in the way of weight loss.
“In effect, [study participants] felt that it’s O.K. to trade behaviors,” study author Dr. Timothy Church told The New York Times. “It’s the ‘if I jog now, I deserve that doughnut’ idea.”
However, balancing those “reward calories” can be daunting. Say you drink one extra soda a day when you work out. The equivalent of burning off a year’s worth of those sodas would require walking from Minneapolis to Fort Wayne, Indiana -- that’s about 150 miles past Chicago.
And so far, we’ve only been talking about the extra calories. Exercise can’t compensate for poor food choices, either. It does nothing to negate the chemicals in those sodas, or the preservatives in many baked goods and sports drinks. There’s simply way more to health than calorie control.
Of course, there are many fantastic reasons to exercise: Building fitness and strength, combating stress, improving confidence, staving off depression, even protecting yourself against dementia. Over time regular physical activity also raises your basal metabolic rate, making you a faster calorie burner, which is great for long term weight maintenance.
But if you’re looking to lose weight today, the most efficient way to get to your goal is with changing diet. (Have we mentioned we can help with that?) For example, if you consistently change out that plain bagel and Snickers for Step One pancakes and one of our bars, you will take in 180 fewer calories per day, allowing you to lose about 18 pounds over the course of a year – no walk to another city required!
My advice to all my patients is that when they start to work out, they should pay extra attention to their eating habits – especially if the goal is to shed some pounds. So plan your post-workout snack ahead of time (my go-to choice is one of our peanut butter bars ), and remind yourself of that walk past Chicago as a motivation to avoid unwittingly increasing your calorie intake. And always hydrate with water: It’s healthier than any soda and contains zero calories.