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Harvard Commentaries
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Food for Thought Food for Thought

Retrain Your Brain To Love Exercise!

January 16, 2013

By Jaimie Winkler, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital


The best diet for weight loss may still be under debate, but there's no doubt that the dynamic duo of diet and exercise continues to be the gold standard for weight loss and, more importantly, maintaining a weight loss. In spite of the much-publicized benefits of exercise, too many people fail to stick with an exercise program. Here are three ways to think about exercise and its benefits that will help you love it — especially if your goal is to lose weight.

Tip #1 – Without the appropriate fuel, exercise can feel more like punishment than pleasure.

For those seeking a quick fix, a very low-carbohydrate diet can seem like the magic bullet. But a balanced diet with adequate carbohydrates is necessary to optimize energy for exercise.

Any diet, especially a weight-loss diet, that is too low in carbohydrates — 125 grams or fewer a day — is a recipe for disaster when it comes to exercise. The primary fuel for muscles is glucose (from carbohydrates) and its storage form, glycogen. Without them, you're likely to feel tired or have sore muscles early in your workout.

Planning an exercise routine includes timing meals and snacks to prevent exercising on empty. If you feel sluggish while walking at 5 p.m. because you haven't eaten since lunchtime, try having a pre-workout snack. The same walk just an hour or so after dinner will probably be adequately fueled from that meal.

To boost your stamina, eat a 150- to 200- calorie snack that contains one to two servings of carbohydrates about 30 minutes to 1 hour before exercise. Here are some examples:

  • An apple with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter or mixed nuts
  • One ounce of string cheese and 6 crackers
  • A granola or protein bar with about 150 calories and five to seven grams of protein

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Tip #2 – Think of exercise as a savings account.

With a savings account, you make deposits, watch your money grow with interest and then reap the rewards. You don't deposit money so you can immediately withdraw it. Exercise is similar. It also gathers interest: As you get more fit, your body rewards your hard work by using more calories during and after your workouts.

Here are some other ways that exercise contributes to long-term weight loss and weight maintenance.

  • Muscle burns calories while fat does not. A pound of muscle also takes up less room than a pound of fat.
  • Exercise builds muscle, which increases your body's resting metabolic rate, so you expend more calories even when you're not exercising. Exercise also helps maintain muscle. Because muscle burns calories, exercise can also help you maintain the weight you lose, which is often harder than losing weight.
  • Some studies show that vigorous exercise can help reduce appetite, therefore exercisers take in fewer calories during the day without even thinking about it.
  • Researchers estimate that your body continues to burn calories at a higher rate for between 2 and 24 hours after you finish exercising.

If you have not exercised in a while or plan to do more than walking, check with your physician prior to starting to exercise.

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Tip #3 – The benefits of exercise aren't measured just by a scale, but by a better working body.

Instead of focusing on the minutes that tick by, the calories racked up on the treadmill, or the number on the scale, focus on how exercise changes your body from the inside out.

  • It reduces depression and can be especially effective for women who have postpartum depression.
  • It can increase insulin sensitivity if you have diabetes; if you're at risk for diabetes, exercise can help prevent it.
  • It can help reverse sarcopenia, a condition associated with inactivity and aging in which fat replaces muscle. According to one study, postmenopausal women were able to reverse muscle-mass loss after two months of small increases in physical activity and strength training. This was linked to better overall health, better balance and fewer falls.

Many people are discouraged by the slow weight loss associated with moderate calorie restriction (250-500 fewer calories per day) plus exercise (mobilizing another 250 calories a day) especially in light of the old adage that muscle weighs more than fat. It can be disheartening not to see your hard work reflected in a lower number on the scale. Some changes can't be measured on the scale. Rather they create a better functioning body. Success isn't about any one workout, but if you challenge yourself for the long-haul and continue to exercise even if your weight isn't changing, you can affect more lasting improvements in your body.

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Jaimie Winkler, R.D., L.D.N. is a clinical dietitian at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Ms. Winkler also has an outpatient practice at the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center. She completed her BS in nutrition at West Chester University and a BA in History/journalism at the University of Michigan.

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