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Hunger and Exercise

The last thing I want to do is deter anyone from exercising. In one form or another, I engage in it daily and strongly believe that activity is an integral part of mental and physical health. So the conclusions of an article in the May 2009 issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter came as a surprise and were, I confess, a bit of a downer.

“Exercise? I’m Hungry” sums up a study reported in the journal Obesity. Here’s what it has to say: ”If a clever experiment in college students holds up, just seeing advice to exercise might make you eat more. Scientists showed roughly 50 students posters with messages to exercise (like ‘Go for a walk’) or other messages (like ‘Make friends’). Those who saw the exercise ads ate more from a small bowl of raisins than those who saw the non-exercise ads. In a second experiment, students ate roughly 25% more M&Ms, raisins, and peanuts after they were exposed to action words (like ‘go’ or ‘active’) than neutral words (like ‘pear’ or ‘moon’).” The article ends with the words: “Exercise. No. Don’t exercise. No. Exercise. No…Could words like ‘go’ elicit a subconscious urge to eat so you’ll have fuel to move? Who knows?”

The study’s conclusions (which, of course, at a later date, may be proven false) cut right to the point of exercise: Do we do it for health reasons or weight loss, which are not one and the same. It makes sense that the primitive part of the brain might connect preparing for engaging in heavy activity with an increased desire for food. But does that mean we have to fuel up just because we’re planning to jog for 30 minutes on the treadmill? Can’t we ignore signals from the brain? We do it all the time when we restrain impulses which are not in our best interest (like not ignoring the alarm clock, not going through red lights, etc.). Moreover, aren’t the health benefits of exercise so essential to quality of life and longevity that being a little hungry or eating a little more of nutritious foods might be worth it? The article doesn’t say that you have to eat a hot fudge sundae because you’re about to exercise. Even if you’re physically hungry after a run or a workout, you can choose healthy foods to replenish your body. And if you eat until fullness due to exercising more, that means you don’t have to eat again so soon.

I’m blogging about this study because some people will find any reason not to exercise, and it pays to have your head on straight regarding your motivations. If they’re healthy intentions and you feel better doing regular exercise (as most folks report), then you’ll make sure that even increased hunger won’t deter you from staying active. Better yet, draw your own conclusions. Experiment to see if exercise increases your hunger level.