You may notice thoughts like these swirling around in your head:
• I ate so much I have to go for a run to burn it off.
• I have to work out hard to compensate for what I ate.
• I have to hit the gym so I can earn an extra piece of pie.
• My workouts have to be grueling to be effective.
If you hold any of these beliefs, you are not alone. This is a pretty typical dialogue inside the heads of many of us, and it is influenced by the marketing and messages around us. We are constantly bombarded with messages that convince us that food is bad, exercise is good, and that the more intense the exercise, the better, especially during the holidays, when we tend to eat and drink all the things.
Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. It is true that balanced nutrition is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. It is also true that a regular movement practice is a huge factor that influences how we feel. However, the connection between the two isn’t as formulaic as we are led to believe. In fact, living like it is and ascribing to the “calories in = calories out” motto could be more detrimental than beneficial, especially this time of year.
Let me start by saying that I 100% believed and practiced all the aforementioned things. I was a calorie-counting cardio queen for the first 30 years of my life. And while I desperately wanted to believe that it was working for me, a plethora of gut, joint and fertility issues indicated otherwise. These struggles are what inspired my professional pivot 14 years ago to a full-time career in functional fitness and holistic health coaching. My shift in mindset and the accompanying behavioral modifications haven’t been easy or overnight, but they have been transformative.
I hope the following things I’ve learned plant a few seeds you can sow as well.
What I now know to be true:
• You can’t out-exercise your food choices. There is something called the Constrained Total Energy Expenditure model, which states that the body adapts to increased physical activity by reducing energy spent on other physiological activity, thereby maintaining total energy expenditure within a narrow range. In other words, if you burn more calories in your workout, your body will subtract the calories you burn in your workout from other calorie-expending processes such as digestion and cell regeneration. More does not equal more, but rather an eventual plateau.
• The harder you work out, the more vulnerable you are to injury and illness. During this time of year, most people are under more stress. Stress isn’t necessarily bad. There are lots of seasonal stressors that are fun and exciting: gatherings with friends and family, holiday traditions, the chance to take part in those once-a-year opportunities. However, when your body is under stress, good or bad, it is more vulnerable to illness and injury. Thus, kicking your workouts up a notch to compensate for what you consume during an already stressful time may make you more likely to get injured or sick, and will ultimately set you back further in your training goals. Opt for lower-intensity workouts that are restorative and that balance your stress and higher-intensity workouts versus overdoing it.
• Feeling guilt and shame about food and exercise is more detrimental than it is beneficial. Food is fuel and nourishment for your body. Food is also cultural and a way we relate to ourselves and one another. When we feel guilt or shame related to what we eat, there is a physiological response and we metabolize our food less efficiently than when we fully enjoy the experience. The same is true when we view exercise as punishment for something we ate.
Enjoy your holidays guilt-free. Your body will respond better when you savor what you eat, and you will be less likely to overindulge. Exercise in moderation to relieve stress and carve out time for self-care without depleting yourself. Overdoing it isn’t as effective as you think and may even backfire.
Wishing you a festive, fun and healthful holiday.
Erin Paruszewski is founder and CEO of Alkalign in downtown Los Altos and the author of “It Doesn’t Have to Hurt to Work.” For questions and more information, email her at email@example.com.