But why is it that we don't always get the weight loss boost we expect?
Beware 'calorie loading' in advance
Ever said to yourself 'I'm off to the gym later so a couple of biscuits now won't hurt'? Research has shown that just thinking about exercise can cause us to eat up to 50% more. This is believed to be due to a subconscious reward theory whereby we 'fuel' ourselves with food for the forthcoming physical effort.
But the problem is, if you don't end up going to the gym, those extra biscuit calories are heading down to your hips, surplus to requirements. And even if you do make it to the gym, it takes a hard slog unfortunately to work off those calories so you might not be doing enough once you get there.
Don't overdo the post-reward treat
When we HAVE actually managed to do the exercise, many of us believe that's worth a reward. 'I deserve that slice of cake, I went for a run earlier' – sound familiar?
It's human nature to feel we deserve a treat for achieving something challenging, but the reward for exercising is generally some kind of food. And if we're not careful, our treat actually contains more calories than we burned off during the exercise session!
'I'm exercising loads more than I used to but haven't lost anything!'
If your exercise programme is not having the effect on your weight loss that you'd expected, you need to take a very close look at what you're eating. Whether it's subconscious pre-work out calorie loading, or a post-exercise reward, it's all too easy to cancel out the entire calorie burning benefit of all the exercise you've done.
Failing to monitor your exercise-related eating can mean your weight loss grinds to a halt, or at worst you gain weight! While some of this gain may indeed be muscle (it's true that muscle weighs more than fat), this isn't really the result you'd hope for when incorporating it as part of your weight loss regime.
Breaking the reward habit
How we feel about exercising is personal. Some of us use it as an excuse to eat more, others enjoy it purely for its energising, health enhancing benefits.
If you are of the view that breaking a sweat in the gym is a necessary evil when dieting, it's important to try and change this negative perception of exercise and break the habit of always rewarding yourself with extra food.
Although habits can be hard to break, it's not impossible. And you may even start to enjoy your exercise routine the fitter you become. The funny thing is that exercising can actually suppress your appetite, so in the long run it actually means eating less....you just have to break those old habits and recognise what your body is trying to tell you.
Four tips to help
• Next time you exercise, reward yourself with something other than food. Treat yourself to a nice long bath or why not say "If I go to the gym three times this week I can buy myself that new top I've been wanting for ages".
• Preparation is key. If you find you need a little extra energy while you exercise, or you get particularly hungry after exercise, plan your meals and snacks accordingly. Still stick to your calorie allowance but just make sure you have some spare for a snack when you need it most. A combined carbohydrate and protein snack such as scrambled egg on wholemeal toast, or crackers with low fat cheese within 15 minutes of finishing exercising is great for muscle repair and will also help restore your energy levels.
• The toughest of them all - ultimately this association between food and exercise must be broken. It will require conscious effort, but try to stop viewing exercise as punishment that requires a reward or simply an excuse to eat more. Try to view exercise as the health boosting, energy boosting, life-lengthening activity that it is!
• The 21 day rule. It takes 21 days to form a new habit - or break an old one. Expect it to take this long before your new eating healthy plan and view of exercise starts to feel routine. It is possible to change your mind set. You learned to feel the way you do now, and you can make a positive mind connection between exercising and many other positive, enjoyable and non-food benefits!
Finally to point out we're talking about moderate increase in activity here (200 - 300 calories extra a day). If you are exercising heavily, then of course it is perfectly acceptable and in fact necessary to replace calories burned, and you should be listening to your body.
But in the context of using exercise to ensure weight loss, a calorie deficit is required. Moderate exercise is crucial in helping to achieve this deficit, as reducing food intake alone may not be sufficient.