Exercise and Eating: Learning to Enjoy Both

By Diane Kukich

Did you just steal a couple of Cadbury Crème eggs from your child’s Easter basket? Then did you check the latest infographic on social media to see how many miles you have to run to burn off those seasonal treats?

If you did, you’re not unusual, but I think those infographics reflect an unhealthy mindset—one that pits food and exercise against each other as warriors on a battlefield.

The eating-exercise battle oversimplifies the relationship between these two faces of fitness by reducing it to a “calories in, calories out” equation that falls short of telling the whole story.

This equation doesn’t take into account that a fit body looks and feels better and that once you’ve run a few miles, you might just be motivated to reach for a big apple instead of a mini apple pie.

In addition, research shows that we continue to burn calories after we work out. In one study, participants who cycled vigorously for 45 minutes burned roughly 190 calories more in the 14 hours after exercise than on days when they didn’t work out at all. So it’s an oversimplification to say, for example, that it takes two miles of running to burn off the 180 calories in four Oreos, because we burn additional calories in the hours after that two-mile run.

Even worse, this view casts a shadow over both the inherent beauty of exercise in its purest sense and the pleasure of eating food that we enjoy.

I know all this now, but for many years, I had a very unhealthy relationship with both food and exercise.

When we label foods as good or bad, there is a temptation to label ourselves the same way. Brought up in a very strict household where treats were tightly controlled, I began to binge on sweets when I went to college. Then, as I tried to get the bingeing under control in my twenties and thirties, I viewed cookies, ice cream, candy, and cake as bad—which meant that when I ate them, I was bad. If I was bad, then I had to be “fixed”—which is where exercise came in. The more I ate, the longer I had to bike or swim or run to make up for it.

This mindset created a very negative downward spiral in my life, where I resented both food and exercise because one was bad and the other was my penance for being bad.

After living like that for almost two decades, I was exhausted from the mental battles I was fighting over food and exercise. Therapy helped me understand myself better, which in turn helped me get my urges to binge under control. When I finally realized that I could have a couple of cookies and move on with my day—without feeling guilty about it—I was able to view exercise in a healthier way too. Untangled from each other, food and physical fitness took on healthy, meaningful roles in my life.

The ability to move—to run down a wooded path in the fall and feel the leaves crunch under your feet; to pedal your bike into the wind and then turn around and feel it pushing you from behind; to kick a soccer ball, shoot a basketball, lift a kettlebell, or hold a yoga pose; to swim in the warmth of an indoor pool on a cold winter day; to dance in a Zumba class—should bring joy to us, not burden us with a feeling of obligation.

A healthy diet should include plenty of fresh unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but there is also room for treats, especially in the context of an active, social lifestyle.

I really liked an Instagram post last week from a woman named Beth (@rungryhealthcoach):

“Number of burpees needed to burn off jelly beans: I don’t know because it doesn’t matter. Enjoy those candies.”

Beth is right. We need to enjoy our treats and our workouts.

Eating and exercise are two of life’s greatest pleasures. I am so much happier now that I’ve learned to embrace them both.

Diane Kukich

Diane Kukich

Diane is a retired science writer. She holds a senior fitness training certificate from the University of Delaware and a Level 2 Running Coach certification from Road Runners Club of America. She started running in her late 40s and has won hundreds of first and second place age-group awards in local, regional, and national races at distances from the mile to the half marathon. She swims, runs, or bikes every day and strength trains twice a week. Diane lives in Newark, Delaware, with her husband, Doug, her yellow Lab Jodie, and her orange tabby Pax.

Want to get involved?



Website built by NDM Communications Website: Tel: 949.851.7558


    Sign me up for the newsletter