If I Exercise Enough, Can I Eat Whatever I Want?


“So what can I do for you?” I asked.

This was a few years ago in my clinical practice days. My client was about 30 years old, male, lean and wirey. He answered quickly.

“I need to run,” he said.

Now, I’m a word guy. I believe words matter. So, when you say something like “need to run”, that gets my attention.

Pause. Looks down. Looks right then left. Looks up. The says, “Well, I like to run.”

Not good enough for me.

“And why do you like to run?” I asked.

Another pause, shifting in the chair. Scrunching of the mouth. Wiggle. “Uhhh…’cuz I like the way it feels?” he says only this time in a voice that trials off in upward tone almost as if he’s asking a question.

You know where I’m going next, right?

“And why do you like the way it feels?” I asked.

This time the answer comes out more forcefully as if delivered with a nail gun.

“Because I can eat whatever I want as long as I can run as much as I want!” he exclaimed.

Now we’re getting someplace.

“Great. I get it. You run to eat. And now, since your knee hurts, you’re having to deal with the eating issue and you would rather not. You would rather run,” I said.

“I don’t have an eating issue. I have knee pain,” he replies.

“Uh-huh. I know. How much weight have you gained since you’ve not been able to run?” I asked.

“How did you know I gained weight? I just met you? Man…well, about 20 lbs over the last six months or so,” he said.

“And I’m guessing you don’t feel very good about that on top of how you feel about not running? Am I correct?” I asked.

This time a sigh. Big. Deep. Long.

“Yeah, this sucks. I love to eat, to be honest, and running has always allowed me that privilege and now…I guess…now..uhhh”

“Your body has failed you,” I interjected.

“Yeah, that’s right. That’s how it feels,” he replied.

Why Exercising So You Can Eat Whatever You Want is a Mistake

You’re not being honest with yourself.  Some people, like my client, use exercise to offset their food choices. They believe that by exercising and “burning calories” that they can then replace those calories with the food or beverage of their choice, maintain their ideal body weight, and all is good. And to an extent, this works.

Until it doesn’t. Like when you get hurt.

See, what’s really going on here is that you’re not eating whatever you want. Not really. You’re eating things that you think you shouldn’t and the exercise is how you pay the debt of guilt. So when you can no longer pay the debt, what happens? You eat more to make your self feel better, which of course it doesn’t, you gain weight, you feel worse, you eat more, and on and on. It’s similar to what happens to people who use shopping to make themselves feel better. They spend money then realize they spent too much and feel bad so they go shopping to feel better.

The purpose of exercise is to not to shape your body as much as it is to get your body in shape. Form follows function. And along with that is your food and beverage choice. What you eat or drink is fuel for the mind and body. Sure, we all have things we like to eat or drink that aren’t ideal.  That’s ok. But it’s a question of moderation. How often, how much, etc. In my client’s case, had had to run to manage his guilt over what he was eating because he was eating a lot of stuff everyday that,  in his mind, were foods that he shouldn’t be eating or at least not as much as he was. He wasn’t running to get into or stay in shape.

He was running to stay in control.

You can easily over train. When you exercise in order to eat what you want, you can easily exercise too much, too often, too hard and end up in the hurt locker. That’s basically what happened with my client. He started enjoying a few beers along with his pizza, noticed his weight was creeping up, so he increased his mileage and then played with speed and hill repeats. And then knee pain came to call.

How To Use Exercise To Optimally Manage Your Weight

You gotta’ have the talk. Part of the equation of successful “weight management” is using the right kind of fuel and the right kind of training. And before you even start down that path, you have to have the talk.

The talk is you being honest about what you’re trying to achieve and why. And you just do to yourself what I did with my client. Keep asking yourself “Why?” until you run out of answers. At that point, you’ll probably bump into the truth. And when you find the truth, write it down. It might be, “So I can feel better about who I am” or, “So I can wear those jeans that have been in my closet for three years and not be totally embarrassed.”

See, being clear with your truth will help you not make the mistake my client made. You’ll create an entirely different path to achieve your goal because the truth protects you from making subconscious choices that can wreck yourself.

There are subtle yet powerful differences between my client’s mindset (I’m running so I can eat what I want”) and a mindset created from truth (“I want to fit into my jeans and feel good about it and I will do that using a well thought out exercise and nutrition plan and be honest with myself along the way”). Both mindsets are after the same thing – weight loss – but the first is destructive (over-training, injury, frustration, anger) and the second is constructive (positive attitude, self-aware, and self-regulating).

Make small changes first in both your fuel plan and your training. Once you’ve had the talk, you’ll be really ready to go after your new plan. But things will turn out better if you start out slower. Start with one change each week. Then, take a look at your exercise routine and make sure you have a good blend of interval training and training that includes strength, balance and flexibility, core endurance, stamina, and power. If you train right, you won’t have to train as long to achieve substantial changes in your metabolism and with the right mix of fuel, you’ll be shocked at how good you feel and how much you can do.

Keep your metrics. Try not to worry about how much you weigh. It’s not as important as your body fat levels or waist or hip measurements. Also, keep track of what you can do. How much work you can get done over a certain duration in a training session is a better indicator of your general fitness than how far or fast you can run.

Avoid rewarding yourself with food for “working out”. No mocha lattes. Well, maybe once in awhile 🙂

Go easy on yourself. If you’re used to using exercise to give yourself permission to over eat and help manage your weight, this change will not be easy. You’ll have feelings from time to time that you need to exercise more. Try analyzing why you feel this way. Pay attention to what you’re thinking right before you notice this urge to go for a run, for example, and see how it connects to the feeling you have. All feelings come from thoughts. The key to changing your actions or choices, is first recognizing and then changing your thoughts (for a great book on this subject, try Self-Coaching 101).

The Upside to a Life of Movement in Balance

I’ve been told that I have a very different perspective on exercise and food than some others in the health and fitness world.

Maybe so. And maybe that’s because, for me, life is movement. Movement is what our bodies were designed for and that’s when we feel the best. We feel the greatest freedom when we have the greatest freedom of movement. And there just happens to be a bunch of fringe benefits from how you move and how you fuel your body to move – like fitting into your favorite skinny jeans or running like the wind on a beach at sunrise.

Now, I know that this piece might upset some people. That’s not my intent. I’m here for one reason: to inspire you and help you go after your personal best. So, if you’re pissed off at me right now, that’s probably a good thing. Check in with your thoughts and find out why.

What do you think? Is exercising to eat what you want something you agree with or disagree with? 

L_krebs says

This is me…. But I do Love running one reason is because of the high. Another is it’s the only way for me to relieve stress. I rarely drink because I don’t like how it makes me feel. I love the smells of outdoor running. I love running in new places. I can go on. But now my feet are injured and the realization that I also run to eat. Hard reality. I’ve taken a look at my habits and am now working on retraining myself. I can’t even put into words how much I miss running. I feel like I’ve lost my best friend.

Jimtigerpt says

Nail meet head. I agree sometimes that I fall into this pit. When I eat something that is really not good above and beyond a moderate level, I feel like I need to push the exercise harder. BUT, I like to believe that in my case, I have demonstrated a good knowledge and awareness of how food and exercise have affected my health and weight. Eating something bad, even in moderation, keeps my more consistent with my training sessions. I know this sounds twisted but it works for me. Guess I am using the guilt in my favor. As log as I realize what is excessive as far as diet and exercise, I like to think I am making good choices leading to a healthy lifestyle.

    DD Kelsey says

    Jimmy – being aware is key so I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself. It’s all a choice so being aware of that helps a lot. You’ve clearly made a lot of positive choices so keep it up!

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