I was a runner for most of my life. But for a long time, the sole reason for my running was fear: fear that my appetite would be greater than my energy needs, fear that I’d consequently gain weight, fear that I’d become less attractive, fear that I would become less valuable, deserving, or lovable.
For those of you who are new around here and are unfamiliar with my stance towards movement, I am a strong believer that exercise is supposed to feel good, facilitate physical health and promote emotional and spiritual well-being. Based off of this philosophy, the fear that used to motivate my running was extremely unhealthy, and a complete distortion of the role that exercise should have played in my life.
In my work with clients, it’s become very clear to me that an unhealthy, fear-based relationship with exercise is harmful. It sometimes leads to excessive behavior, creating a physiological stress response. These stress responses can include abnormal periods, mood problems, infertility and more. Exercising out of fear (especially related to weight gain) also begets shame, frustration and exhaustion for the reasons I referenced in my own story, but also for countless more.
However, changing a person’s relationship with exercise can be challenging, and one of the biggest barriers I encounter clinically is that women are afraid of weight gain. While it’s true that a person who is completely sedentary will require fewer calories to maintain his or her weight than a person who is very active, we don’t need to carefully control our eating based off our exercise habits in order to prevent weight gain. Here’s why:
Our Bodies Are Smart
On this blog, I talk a lot about intuitive eating. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of intuitive eating, read this post.) The premise of intuitive eating is that our bodies have the ability to self-regulate eating habits by giving us hunger and fullness signals that directly reflect our bodies’ energy and nutrient needs. What this means is that if a person has a greater energy need over a period of time, their appetite will increase, they will crave certain foods more often (especially those containing the nutrients they need in larger quantities) and they might find themselves experiencing certain physical symptoms related to an energy deficit. At the same time, a person who has a lesser energy need over a period time will experience reduced appetite, reduced cravings, and potentially physical symptoms related to energy excess if they aren’t responding appropriately to their body signals.
Many women who exercise out of fear also have a disorderly relationship with food, especially in that they are uncomfortable with their appetites. Because of exercise, most women require more calories and consequently have more cravings and hunger pangs. However, they think that their cravings and appetites are the result of a lack of will power rather than the result of the normal, healthy and good signals they are receiving from their bodies. Because they don’t trust their bodies, they fear that if they reduce their exercise levels (and consequently reduce their energy needs) that their appetites won’t follow suit. In my own experience and in the experience of many of my clients, the fears aren’t validated. Our bodies know what they need, and they’ll let us know if we just listen!
Sometimes Our Appetites Don’t Decrease, and That’s a Good Thing
Many people don’t realize that the reasons a person may need more energy aren’t limited only to increased movement. Women in particular need more energy at different times in their menstrual cycles, based off of season (due to temperature differences), in response to psychological or emotional stress, during a period of sleep deprivation, while fighting an illness, among numerous other reasons. (Women also need more calories during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and there are physical dangers if she doesn’t increase her energy intake during these times.)
Weight Gain Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing
Many women who I work with (regardless of their BMI, body weight, or body fat percentage) are living in a state of stress. This could be the result of any number or combination of causative factors, but the physiological toll is the same, and a person needs to recover. Sometimes this recovery period involves weight fluctuations in which a person gains weight or body fat, allows the metabolism to be restored, and then subsequently loses that weight, and more — effortlessly, easily, and without physiological risks.
Other times, a person needs to gain weight (namely, body fat) because it’s the healthy, helpful and necessary for that person’s survival and well-being. This is especially true of individuals who have been over-exercising while maintaining a low body weight, but it also can be true of women in larger bodies who have been trying to maintain a shape and size than is smaller than their own weight set point.
The Proof Is in the Pudding
In my own case, the reason I was afraid to stop running was that I was afraid of my appetite. I didn’t trust it, and I believed that if I gave in to my cravings, I’d never stop eating. In my own healing and recovery, I gave up exercise altogether for nearly two years, and in that time I found that my appetite decreased and then leveled off. As time went on, I started to noticed correlations between my appetite and other life factors, such as stressful weeks, when I was sick, during busy seasons such as moving, starting a new job, or becoming generally more active in the summer. Overall, however, my weight stayed the same. (Or rather, my pant size did, as I also stopped regularly weighing myself.)
I also want to share that I eventually did start running again, and when I did, my appetite increased. But just as before, it soon leveled off, stabilized, and I was able to notice how and when increased activity translated into my appetite…or not. Over time, I cultivated trust in my body, believing that my own internal signals could guide my eating, whether I was consistently exercising or not.
If you’re concerned that your relationship with exercise is harming you rather than helping you, I encourage you to discuss your lifestyle with a healthcare provider who is trained in intuitive eating. To set up a consultation with me, schedule an appointment here!