I have been known to request (okay, insist) that my family come for a walk after a large holiday meal. I started doing this when I was pregnant with my son and I had gestational diabetes. I wasn’t willing to give up any of the yummy food and I knew that walking after my meal would help keep my blood sugars in target. Initially, this request was met with a chorus of groans and complaints: ‘It’s cold out!’ ‘I’m too full to move!’ We still talk about that first Christmas when we saw the brilliant red fox, illuminated by the moon, walking alone on frozen Lake Ontario.
That was many years ago. Now we have calculators and apps that tell us how many calories are in the foods we eat, and how much time we need to spend exercising off those calories. Sounds like a good idea. Maybe if we knew how many calories were in our holiday meal, we’d think twice about having dessert. But I worry about the feelings of guilt, shame and deprivation that come from this way of thinking. Behaviour change research overwhelmingly shows that using the approach of shaming and guilting someone to stop an unhealthy behaviour is highly ineffective to motivate, coach and support someone through long-term change. Food is intimately associated with celebrations, traditions and memories. There is nothing wrong with enjoying these delicious meals and the comfort that they bring. We need to stop reading about how many miles we need to run or how many hours of yoga we need to do to ‘burn off’ Aunt Bea’s pumpkin pie.
The truth is that we cannot simply exercise our calories away. Research has shown time and again that we can’t rely solely on exercise for weight management. Trying to lose weight by dedicating hours each day to exercise will surely end in frustration when the weight doesn’t just burn off. It is far more effective to make gradual changes to how you eat, such as eating more vegetables and fewer highly processed foods that have a lot of added sugar, fat and sodium. Even if you could ‘cancel out’ the calories from your burger and fries, exercise does not cancel out the unhealthy aspects of these foods. Your body will still have the negative effects of refined carbohydrate, saturated fat and excess sodium. Luckily, the good news is that when you only overeat from time to time, your body can handle those extra calories without making you gain weight. It’s when you overeat on a more frequent basis that your body has no choice but to store those extra calories as fat, and ultimately extra weight.
While exercise alone does not lead to weight loss, please do not forget about all of its other benefits , especially the effects it can have on improving mood. A significant amount of overeating happens when people feel stressed or sad; we call this emotional eating. Instead of eating, try some activity to blow off some steam after a stressful day. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier and more relaxed. You may also feel better about yourself when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and improve your self-esteem.
My family continues the tradition of activity after family meals. Whether we go for a walk or play a pick-up game of road hockey or football, no one says ‘I’m going to eat more because I will walk it off.’ It’s part of our lifestyle. And, most importantly, it’s fun.