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Are Your Workouts Making You Eat More?
by Becky Duffett

You’re ramping up your active minutes, hitting those workouts, getting those steps in. Are you feeling awesome? A little lighter, leaner … or ready to eat the world? Cue the stomach rumble. Exercising more does have the tendency to leave you feeling extra hungry, but if you want to lose weight, you have to avoid eating back all those hard-won calories you just burned off. Here’s how to handle the hunger pangs, while still crushing your weight and fitness goals.

How Exercise Affects Your Appetite

“In general, your body does an excellent job of being its own calorie counter,” says Nancy Clark, RD, CSSD, and author of the best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “If you’re more or less active, your body will respond. Hunger is simply a request for fuel! So respect hunger, and listen to your body.”

That said, there are some disheartening studies, indicating that exercise can even lead to weight gain. High-intensity activity, like running, can suppress your appetite, at least temporarily. But low-intensity activity, like walking, can leave you feeling hungry right away. Clark points out that everyone’s body is different, and the way you perceive hunger is personal. “The real problem is that most people wildly overestimate how many calories they’ve burned at the gym! And don’t take the rest of their day into account.” Here are a few classic scenarios that lead to overcompensating with calories.

4 Ways to Avoid Overeating After Exercise

Your tracker says you burned calories—score! Time for a snack.

Wait a second—are you actually hungry? There’s a common misconception that activity gives you permission to eat. It doesn’t, especially if you’re going to be sitting for the rest of the day, or having a meal soon. Practice mindfulness, check in with your body, and wait until you’re really hungry to reach for a healthy snack.

After every workout, you grab a protein shake or energy bar.

If you towel off and immediately belly up to the snack bar, ask yourself a few questions. How long was your workout? And how hard was it, really? If you’re not sweating for more than hour at high intensity, you may not need a post-workout snack. Time your workouts to roll straight into your next meal—a healthy breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and balance energy-boosting carbs with muscle-restoring protein.

You worked out today, so you deserve a treat, right?!

On gym days, are you even more tempted to hit happy hour for a few glasses of wine, or to make reservations and order the cheeseburger? Unfortunately, even if you burned a few hundred calories at the gym, that’s not going to cover a thousand calories in the evening. You worked hard, and that’s awesome. But find other ways to reward yourself—without food.   

Late in the evening, your sweet tooth strikes.

So you managed to work out and eat a healthy dinner, but at the end of the day, there you are standing in front of the fridge, desperately craving chocolate. “Sweet cravings can be a sign that your body is over hungry,” says Clark. “If you feel tired, cranky, and crave-y, your body may simply need more fuel.” Instead of indulging with a few bites of sugary carbs, check that you’re getting enough good nutrition at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, earlier in the day.

A Few Bites Make a Big Difference

“The more you drive your car, the more gas you’ll need!” concludes Clark. “But check in with your body and how hungry you feel, and then look at your whole day, including how much you’ll be sitting, and how many meals you have left to eat. It’s deceptively easy to overcompensate with too many calories.” Keep in mind that if you burn 300 calories on the elliptical or stationary bike, it only takes one vanilla latte, two big handfuls of potato chips, or a donut to eat those back! The better way to think about it: Exercise is an added bonus, not an excuse to eat more. 

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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.