Could Exercise Be Keeping You From Reaching Your Goals?

This past weekend I spent my Saturday crushing 9 miles, 3000 ft of elevation, and 60 obstacles at a local obstacle course race. When I was leaving the venue for the event I noticed that across the street there was a local ice cream shop. As I stopped at the exit of the venue for the race, I stared over at the ice cream shop and for a split second I thought to myself…

“Man some ice cream would be amazing right now. It’s warm, you just spent hours killing yourself in that race, a little ice cream can’t hurt right?”

Knowing what I know, about exercise and nutrition I knew now was probably not the right time for an ice cream. Maybe later after I had a proper meal first. I made the left and drove home.

Having a strong desire to eat, especially hyper-palatable foods is not a result of working out really hard like I had just done in the race, it is actually quite common amongst the average exerciser as well.

A recent study[1] was actually validating this very phenomenon.

In this study researchers had participants visit the lab two times. On one of their visits they either did 45 minutes of exercise at 60% of VO2 Max on an exercise bike or had them rest for 45 minutes. In the rest condition participants sat in a chair and watched a pre-approved TV show (with no references to food) or listened to music. On their second visit they switched from the exercise condition to the rest condition or the rest condition to the exercise condition.

On each occasion they visited the lab they completed surveys about their subjective ratings of hunger and fullness, preferred food amount for consumption, and choices between foods varying in the time of consumption. The participants completed the surveys 3 times for each visit, once immediately before exercise or rest, a second time immediately after exercise or rest and a third time 30 minutes after exercise or rest.

Each time the participants completed the survey they first rated their subjective perception of hunger, fullness, thirst, nausea, and stress on a condensed visual analog scale from 0 to 10. Participants then reported their food amount preference and temporal food preference by responding to a series of hypothetical questions involving visual food cues. The survey also asked participants how much they would like to eat now or how much they would like to eat 4 hours from now.

The study found that participants’ food preferences shifted when exercising. This caused them to want to consume more food and also caused them to prefer to eat that food immediately rather than wait 4 hours when compared to the rest condition. In addition when compared to the rest condition these effects were increased 30 minutes post exercise. In other words the longer they waited post exercise the more they wanted to eat.

For each food item presented to them in the survey, participants, on average, wanted to consume 25.8 calories more when exercising versus only 7.8 calories more than when resting. Thirty minutes post exercise these numbers increased to 47.3 calories for the exercise condition versus 21.3 calories for the rest condition.

This study shows that exercising can cause us to want to consume more food than if we just sat in a chair.

The average person exercising is doing so to lose weight and maintain their health. If exercise causes them to eat more food and more hyper-palatable food, could exercise actually be sabotaging their efforts?

The average gym environment is not helping anyone when it comes to resisting the temptation to overeat post-exercise.

Walk into any gym today and you will find a variety of food items you can consume both, before, during, and after exercise. The flavors of these “food items” range from cotton candy, cookies and cream, and even gummy worms. So not only does it appear that you are more likely to want to eat more and want to do so immediately after exercise, but you’re hopping off the treadmill in a virtual candy store!

In addition there is a lot of marketing from the exercise nutrition industry encouraging you to “refuel” after exercise with all of these products so you can gain more muscle, lose more fat, and get ready to tackle your next workout.

Talk about stacking the deck against you!

Turns out the average gym environment is not that much different than me looking at that ice cream shop after leaving my race last weekend.

How do we combat this problem? How do we avoid sabotaging our health and wellness goals after exercising?

First of all realize that most of the messaging around refueling post exercise is not necessary. If you are exercising less than 90 minutes and not planning on exercising again later the same day, there is no rush to get in any kind of food on a set schedule. Eat whenever you want, whether that is immediately after exercising or 4 hours later.

When you do finally decide to eat, you should focus on eating whole foods.

Yes, those cookies and cream protein bars, and gummy worm flavored shakes sound amazing after a hard workout but remember they are not that different from an Oreo, or a package of gummy worms. If you had not worked out would those be the things you would be eating?

I am betting, and hoping, the answer is no.

Just because you worked out and your desire to eat might be higher, those are not the foods that are going to help you reach your goal. If you want to eat after working out, then go for whole foods or as close to whole foods as possible. Make it a normal meal consisting of vegetables and protein.

If you don’t have access to whole foods or that doesn’t sound appetizing to you consider a simple protein shake, using a high quality protein source. Better yet, why not just wait? There is nothing wrong with waiting to eat something post workout. In fact in some cases it might be better as it gives your body a chance to relax and you will better assimilate the foods you are eating.

Eating post exercise should look like any other meal you consume at any other point in the day. If for whatever reason you find yourself hungry post workout, the best thing to do is be prepared. Bring your own meal with you and eat that post workout. A protein shake, some jerky, or even some fruit would be a good quick whole foods meal to eat post workout. Don’t tempt fate and believe you can resist all the temptation around you if you know it will be a problem.

As you know I like to look at things through an ancestral perspective, and the fact that someone may be hungrier and more likely to consume more calories post exercise makes complete sense from an ancestral perspective.

Expending a lot of energy over a short period of time sends alarm bells off in our brain. Our survival brain is thinking…

“Wow!!! We just used a lot of energy, if there is food around we should eat it because we need to replace those calories in case we need them later or need to do this again.”

This signal then makes those hyper-palatable foods nearby that much more enticing and our willpower dwindles. Next thing you know you are chugging down a gummy worm flavored post workout shake. Just like in any other situation we find ourselves in in today’s modern food environment we need to be mindful of how we might react and make a choice that aligns with the goal we are trying to achieve. Having food that better serves us nearby post workout is a good example of doing just that.

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  1. (n.d.). Nutrients | Free Full-Text | Exercise Shifts Hypothetical Food … – MDPI. Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

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