You hit the treadmill or the elliptical and keep a close eye on the machine's calorie calculator. With the extra cookie you just ate, or the bowl of ice cream you want to eat later on today in the back of your mind, you eagerly push forward until you hit the elusive number of calories you need to burn that will allow you to feel better about having had the cookie, or the bowl of ice cream planned for later tonight.
Exercising to eat is arguably the worst diet tactic anyone could ever put their body through. It's a completely backwards approach to weight management, and an absolute waste of time in terms of modifying the poor eating behavior that makes a person overweight in the first place. Yet, some popular weight management programs encourage it.
Several years ago I worked with a client who was aboslutely commited to the "exercise to eat" mentality. Our training sessions were one hour long, and I would meet him at the tail end of his 60-minute jog or jaunt on the elliptical only to go through a rigorous training session with me. Covered in sweat and fairly fatigued, my client would make a mental note of how many calories the machine he was working on told him he burned. The number was ususally pretty high, hovering between 800 - 900 calories every hour. He was a bigger guy and had come to see me because he had recently regained 40 pounds. He rationalized his exercise behavior by relating everything to a food point system.
Alloted about 25 points a day (to maintain his weight), he calculated that breakfast was worth around 5 points, and already anticipated that lunch would be worth around 8 points. Later that evening he had dinner wtih clients and he knew there would be no way he'd be able to stay under his point allowance. A decent size steak, a savory side, a slice of bread and two glasses of wine would push him well over his limit and he'd surely gain weight. None of this included the snack he would most definitely need between lunch and dinner as he had eaten so little up until then in an effort to keep his points within reason. The hour of work he spent doing cardio - in theory - allowed him to splurge that night with clients as he'd have plenty of points on reserve to "spend."
Fast Forward Six Months
I worked with my client for several months until he was temporarily transfered with his job to a different part of the country. Before he left, he managed to lose about 15 pounds working the point system and training with me. His body looked a little better, but he was often exhausted during the training sessions. Nonetheless, he was happy to see the number on the scale moving in the right direction - even if his diet wasn't exactly fueling him with the nutrition he needed.
After he returned from his temporary transfer, he came back to see me again. I hadn't seen him in a while, and as was truly surprised to see he not only gained the 15 pounds back, but also at least ten more. My heart sank. Despite the smile on his face when we met, I knew he was more disappointed than me. Unfortunately, his new schedule threw him off from his exercise routine, but he continued eating the same. Because he never learned to eat within reason, the weight came back with a vengence.
The True Purpose of Exercise
Exercise should be used as a tool for support, not sustenance. Healthy food in reasonable quantities should be used for sustenance, not support. Far too often we get the two flip-flopped. Many of us spend way too much time exercising to get back to square one only to start the whole process over again.
We've just started a new year, and most of us are re-commiting ourselves to healthy eating and fitness. Somewhere between 40 - 50% of us will still be eating healthy and exercising by this summer. Keep it up.
I love exercise and I love the way I feel after a good workout. But I also love eating healthy, and I love - even more - that my body is healthy and ache-free - largely due to my focus on wellness: 80% diet and 20% fitness. Bottom line: exercise is important, but healthy eating is what will help you feel good when you get out of bed and help you feel energized when it's time to workout.