Can you eat better without even trying?
I often argue that exercise – no doubt critical to health and wellbeing – doesn’t in and of itself lead to any significant weight loss. Although you do burn more calories while exercising, it takes a whole lot of running, cycling or swimming to burn a significant amount, and the calorie burn is compensated by a healthy appetite that, naturally, makes you add to your intake, keeping you from an energy deficit necessary for weight loss. In order to lose weight through exercise you’d need to keep caloric intake constant – or better still, to reduce intake.
On the other hand, exercise is a powerful keystone health habit – it can spill over to other parts of life, causing a ripple effect. It can trigger a cascade of healthy change.
Studies have shown that introducing exercise – even infrequently – changes other daily routines. Unknowingly, people who start to exercise sleep better, are less stressed, and become more productive at work.
And they may also start eating better, without even trying.
To eat better, start with a workout
A new study in the International Journal of Obesity looked at the food choices of 1680 sedentary young people who started a 3-day a week 15-week exercise program. The participants were all students in Houston and Alabama who, prior to the study, exercised less than 30 minutes a week.
Food intake was registered before and after the exercise intervention, and analyzed for food patterns, ranging from prudent (lots of fruits, veggies, infrequent fried food and soft drinks), to western (lots of red meat, processed food, soft drinks) and snacking (centered on cookies, sweets, salty snacks), as well as several others. The students were instructed to not change their diet in any meaningful way during the study.
But they changed the way they ate anyway.
Exercise motivated these young adults to replace fried foods and soda with fruits and vegetables and leaner meats, and the as exercise dose increased, so did the improvement in food choices.
Several other studies have shown the exercise-better choices connection before, but this link is still preliminary, and rather than just using exercise as a gateway behavior, it’s best to advise people to pay attention to both exercise and diet. These two cornerstones of wellness feed each other: eating well facilitates physical activity, and exercising makes healthy eating easier. When it comes to weight loss, keeping active will not only rev up energy expenditure, it will also help prevent muscle loss.