Run, Eat, Don’t Repeat*: Breaking the Exercise-To-Eat Cycle [Plus, what the research says about the relationship between exercise and hunger]

by Charlotte on January 23, 2014 · 22 comments

burgerguy

I think this guy is on to something: he just condensed the whole eat-exercise cycle down to one picture-perfect moment of glory!

“Oooh I did not expect that!” My friend and I were discussing all the different ways we were sore from our awesome circuit workout on Monday. It was the first time she’d done a HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout with weights and even though I’d tried to warn her that despite its deceptive shortness (30 minutes in-n-out!) the metabolic effects can be rough, she was still surprised by the fatigue, soreness and, most of all, the hunger. “I don’t know how much good it did,” she sighed. “I felt like I couldn’t get enough food all day – I just kept eating and eating!”

I knew exactly what she meant. Exercising – especially the high intensity variety – makes me starving too. And the worst part is that I’m not usually starving for chicken breasts and sweet potatoes but rather straight up sugar to replace all the glycogen stores in my torched muscles.  It’s one of those things about fitness that everyone knows but yet we all seem to forget in the moment – exercising makes you hungry. So you eat a lot. And then, if you’re not careful, you get caught in an endless cycle of exercising to eat. We’ve all heard it before: “I have to run 6 miles today – I ate three slices of cake last night!” or the positive version: “I love to eat! Cake is delicious! That’s why I run, so I can eat three slices of cake if I want to!”

And is there anything wrong with that?

You need to eat to live. You also need to exercise to live. But do you eat and exercise to live or do you live to eat and exercise? Silly question but it’s a fine line, easily crossed. Especially for those of us compulsive types who tend to think that if some is good then more must always be better. You don’t have to have read this blog for very long to know that I have struggled for years with finding this balance. My friend’s remarks made me think of this e-mail I got from an anonymous reader:

“hey…you probably won’t read this but if you have time i hope you can help me. i run a lot. people think that i love running because i run all the time but i hate running. hate hate hate. basically i run because i eat too much (well i think i eat too much) and this way i can eat dessert. i just have to run it off later. but sometimes i have to run in the dark or twice a day though and i know that’s not good. how do i quit eating-running-eating-running-eating…you know? p.s. i love your blog!”

Dear Anon/e e cummings,

First, thank you! And second, boy howdy do I know where you are coming from. I too used to be stuck in the same cycle of eating, feeling guilty about eating and then exercising to relieve the guilt (and the calories). Sometimes I’d even up the ante and run a little extra so I’d have permission to eat something “bad” later on. Eventually the math got really confusing though, trying to remember if I was running to atone for a dietary sin or running in anticipation of one, so I just figured I’d run as much as possible (and then some) to cover all my caloric bases. Oh and I’d better throw in some weights too because I don’t want to lose muscle! And yoga, everyone says yoga is good for you! And kickboxing, because it’s fun!

And that, friends, is the short version of how I ran myself into amenorrhea, hypothyroidism, gaining 10 pounds and insanity. Oh and I also ran myself right into eating disorder treatment. Don’t be me. Seriously, don’t.

And don’t be Courtney Thorne Smith either. The actress of Ally McBeal fame and also that show with the dumpy husband and the hot wife that I never watched but somehow still know of its existence but apparently not enough to know its name or care to look it up, shared a similar experience in Fit Pregnancy:

“I used to run 8 miles a day, then go to the gym, do weights and then yoga, until I realized that I was so hungry and tired all the time. So I stopped doing all that and started just walking. I feel so much freedom now: I don’t have to stay in a hotel with a gym and I’m never so hungry that I panic. A lot of women are in a crazy exercise cycle; they’re so afraid they’ll gain weight if they stop, and it’s especially hard when they get pregnant. What they need to realize is that if you’re not exercising so much, you don’t have to eat so much, and your body adjusts. It sounds so simple, but you really do have to listen to your body.”

Sound familiar? See, even famous people get caught up in the same cycle! But even though we treat celebrity anecdotes like gospel, what about the cold, hard research? There’s actually a lot of controversy on the subject with some studies showing increased hunger after working out and others showing the opposite. New York Magazine ran an article by the ever-fascinating-yet-controversial Gary Taubes called the Scientist and the Stairmaster addressing the controversy. He goes over the research from the past 60 years and talks about some of the paradoxes and what he thinks the possible causes are. The article is rather long but definitely worth reading. If you are time crunched though, here are the high points:

- Exercise alone (without modifying one’s diet) has not been shown to lead to consistent weight loss in any studies. I know this seems contrary to what all the exercise professionals have been telling us – but it is true. Exercise is correlated with helping maintain weight loss and is also linked with weight loss when used in conjunction with diet. But alone? Nope.

- The more you exercise, the hungrier you will be and, unless you tightly control your food intake, your weight will maintain. And it’s really not a matter of a willpower as much as it is hormones. (Although separate studies have shown that aerobic exercise can temporarily decrease appetite for 1-3 hours after a workout it does seem that the effect levels out over the course of the day as the body strives to balance its intake with its expenditures.)

But I would be remiss without saying it’s not quite as simple as exercise = hunger as two studies in 2012 found that high intensity training can actually lower hunger over 24 hours and more moderate workouts increase hunger. They also found that the amount of body fat the subjects carry also influenced hunger levels as higher fat is correlated with resistance to leptin – a hormone that tells you you’re full – so the heavier subjects didn’t get the hunger-dampening effect as much.

But you didn’t ask me to go on a research bender! You asked for advice, bless you. Here are a few tips that have helped me break the eat-run-repeat cycle (and I hope my readers will offer theirs as well!):

1. Stop weighing yourself. You didn’t mention a scale but I’d bet the $200 I didn’t get not passing go that you are weighing yourself once a day, minimum. Those numbers are a) crazy and b) will make you crazy. Your weight can fluctuate by pounds in a single day and exercising to keep the scale happy is a losing proposition. There isn’t any easy way to do this one except to just do it.

2. Realize that you do not need permission to eat. You don’t have to earn your calories. You’re a beautiful person worthy of eating just by virtue of existing. Even if you do nothing but sit on your butt, you have earned the right to eat and to eat food that is enjoyable.

3. Eating is not good or bad. It’s a survival skill. Despite what all those yogurt commercials say, you are not a sinner for eating a piece of raspberry cheesecake. Nor are you a saint for eating a salad.

4. Eating can make your body feel good or bad and it’s that sensation you need to learn to listen to. Intuitive Eating (Geneen Roth style) was a life-saver for me but there are lots of ways to do this.

5. Exercise is not punishment. I’m not telling you to stop exercising. I’m just saying there’s no benefit – and a lot of harm – in overdoing it. You should find a way to move your body that you enjoy. While no exercise is 100% fun 100% of the time, I’m convinced everyone can find a way to be active that is challenging, fulfilling and mostly fun. If you hate running, please don’t run! (And to my readers who love running – you keep on running, I don’t mean you!) Dance, hike, bike or join a synchronized swim team (and then tell me how they get all that makeup to stay on in the pool!) but find something you love.

6. Be gentle and loving and kind with yourself. It can be much harder than it sounds! But those negative thoughts build up, even (especially?) when it’s us saying them to ourselves.

I have done all 5 of these things myself – sometimes multiple times (yay for slow learners!) – and I can tell you that you absolutely can escape the vicious cycle that you are in. It will mean tolerating a certain amount of pain and anxiety as you adjust to this new way of thinking but you can do it and it’s worth doing. You don’t realize how captive you are until you are finally free! Trust me. It’s more beautiful on this side of things than I ever could have imagined. Oh, and because I know you are thinking it, I did not gain a bunch of weight when I quit over-exercising.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out this sweet comment a reader left on my post about my Rachel Cosgrove Experiment. (In case you forgot, it entailed dropping 90% of my cardio, all of my running and focusing on lifting heavy. It worked wonders for me! And I only ended up working out 30-45 minutes a day.)

She writes,

“Charlotte,
I would like to thank you for all these experiments and especially for your “oversharing”–which has helped me more than you can know. I am just finishing Month 1 of the Rachel Cosgrove plan and you are the reason I decided to give it a try. I was deathly afraid–and I mean terrified–of dropping steady state cardio. If I ran less than 6 miles I thought it was a lame workout and I’d run AND do a cardio class on most days. After reading your blog I thought, well, I’m sort of crazy about exercise but I’m not as crazy as HER (no offense), and if she did it then it’s worth a try. So thanks! I am a convert! Dropping steady state cardio did not result in a 10lb. weight gain–actually, I haven’t weighed myself (so who knows) but my clothes fit so much better that I don’t care. Major difference in butt and thighs even after just Phase 1. I do the weight plan 3 days a week and do Tabata sprints on two of the off days and I still do my kickbox/bootcamp class 2x week on off days as well.

I also swtiched my eating up to incorporate some of Mark Sisson’s ideas, but I would say my plan is basically, “eat more of what Mark Sisson says to eat but don’t forbid my favorites”. I still eat Gummy Bears once a week. So far this has been very satisfying and seems sustainable–unlike my previous plan of starve for 2 months, look great for 2 weeks and then slowily gain the weight back over the next 2 months and . . . repeat cycle. . .. all the while increasing the amount of cardio I was doing and the time I spent at the gym which means less time with my kids.

It took your example of taking this leap to give me the courage to try it and I am fairly certain that it was probably harder for you to take this leap than most people. So thanks again.”

If anonymous made me cry a little out of sadness then this one made me weep a little from joy! I love it when people find a healthy way to eat and workout that works for their body. Also I’m totally not offended – I wear my crazy on my sleeve and will totally own being nuttier than most squirrels. And I love gummy bears almost as much as I love jelly beans!

In the end, I think exercise and eating are supposed to enrich our lives, not take them over. So now I ask you guys – what advice do you have for anonymous? Anyone else get stuck in the run, eat, repeat cycle? What have you noticed about your hunger in regards to fitness?

*I am aware that there is a running blog with a name similar to this but this post in no way references that blog. I’ve never read it and this is not a commentary on it. Side note: I think there should be a random blog name generator that spits out three fitness related words in an eat-pray-love effect. It’s like Mad Lib for health bloggers!

P.S. I did a fun little interview over at Cranky Fitness where I discussed everything from blowing a Lego out of my son’s nose (oh yes I did) to what I hate most about the fitness industry. Check it out!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Darwin January 23, 2014 at 12:52 am

“The actress of Ally McBeal fame and also that show with the dumpy husband and the hot wife that I never watched but somehow still know of its existence but apparently not enough to know its name or care to look it up…”

The show was called ACCORDING TO JIM.

I used to use it as an example to my then-wife of what she COULD have wound up with…and then when she left me…guess what?

Which is a segue into mentioning your… *thinks*… Christmas Eve post…where the older couple at church were telling you after Sunday School about the winter driving course and the best lesson they learned was to “Look where you want to go and NOT where you don’t want to go.”

Because your focus takes you there.

That…and driving gloves are adorable.

Correct me if I am wrong…but your point essentially is for people to have in mind and heart and focus healthy-not-harmful reasons to eat and healthy-not-harmful reasons to exercise.

I do not exercise to “look” a certain way…I exercise to be capable.

There are times when I would have been dead had I not been cardio strong and muscular strong.

In emergency situations…capability is there.

So neither big things or little things throw me off.

My goal is always to be more capable than is normally needed…and then normal is non-stressful and not challenging. And when exceptional and challenging present themselves I do not have to berate myself for not being in sufficient condition.

Exercise and eating should both be both functional and fun.

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crabby mcslacker January 23, 2014 at 7:23 am

Thanks for digging up some actual research!

I LOVE to eat, and some of it is to curb hunger, but some of it is honestly just recreational. I haven’t noticed as huge a correlation as I’d expect between extra exercise and extra hunger, but I do a mix of low and high intensity, and like I said, some of what I eat has nothing to do with needing the fuel.

I’m currently being goaded to walk more by one of those damn fitbit wrist thingies, which I gotta say is annoying but strangely helpful to be in trying to achieve some sort of calorie in/calorie out balance. But we’ll see how long that lasts.

And thanks so much for the Cranky Fitness interview, you were, as always, awesome!

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Megan @ Meg Go Run January 23, 2014 at 7:52 am

I too have been in this cycle! Luckily, I have found a balance and my metabolism has gotten back on track. How did I do this? There is no magic solution, just good choice after good choice after good choice… throw in the random bad choice, but mostly good choices over the course of 2 years. I feel like I can eat for fuel AND eat for fun and not overdo it. I get anxious sometimes, I’m not totally “cured”, but 80% of the time I feel okay about how I exercise and eat. HUGE improvement.

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Heather C January 23, 2014 at 8:21 am

Your advice was excellent. I have been where anonymous is, more with eating issues than exercising, but even though my troubles were 20 years ago, I can still feel that fear I felt when I started into therapy and started working to release myself from the chains of eating issues. It is scary to loosen that control and for me, it felt like if I relinquished even the tiniest but of that control the whole world might crash in on me. So to anonymous, know it will be scary to make changes but take the leap of faith. I promise you will be happier for it and instead of the world crashing down, I think you will find it will open up.

When I was doing a lot of running races people used to always ask me if I dropped a bunch of weight training for marathons and the answer was always no, but rather the opposite. I always gained about 5 pounds. I don’t really think I ate more when training but I think my body was like, “whoa, I am being pushed hard so I better hang on to everything this nut puts into me”.

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Rachael January 23, 2014 at 9:26 am

I have too been in the first writer’s shoes. It was very difficult and took years to learn how to separate exercise from eating and break the permission to eat / atonement for eating cycle. It was one of the most worthwhile and important steps I took in my recovery from disordered eating and the exercise crutch that came with it. For me moderation in food and exercise has really been the key. I have an exercise schedule that currently is less demanding than I would like, due to my work schedule, but it is independent of eating habits. And I practice moderation in my food consumption, especially those foods that are rich in sugars and fats. During the week I eat very cleanly and evenly, and on the weekend if I want to indulge in something I would have previously deemed “bad”, I do. But honestly the more moderation and evenness in diet I practice, the less desire I have for those rich foods. And when I do indulge? I let it go and do not make it contingent on exercising. It all balances out.

And I fully agree with a scale hiatus. I haven’t weighed myself since August, no matter what the number that crazy feeling would creep up on me.

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Susan January 23, 2014 at 9:31 am

Great post! I used to be an over-exerciser, too, sometimes going to the gym twice a day on my best/worst days, but now I realize that I was doing it all wrong – too much cardio, not enough protein, so I only maintained my weight and didn’t put on the muscle I was hoping to achieve with weight-training. I got burned-out and stopped going to the gym and I also decided to get off my perpetual diet…unfortunately I did this at the worst possible time – turning 40, when my metabolism slowed. I gained 45 lbs over 5 years, BUT I lost it eventually (in about 4years) – now I’m just 5-10lbs over my average weight in my 30′s. How did I lose it? Eating less and hiking with my dog, plus the occasional workout video. Now my only cardio is hiking and I’m back into weight training, with the goal of finally adding muscle this year now that my weight has stabilized at a healthy point. I’m in the gym as little as possible, and my husband and I try to do 15k steps a day on Saturdays and Sundays – hiking and just walking city streets with our dog. Even when I was in diet mode to lose the weight, I was never starving hungry…unless I tried to drop my calories too low in an effort to speed up the loss. By the way, I have to disagree about the scale and weighing yourself everyday – I used to think it was bad and crazy-making, but I’ve been doing it for over a year now (keeping a record of it, too) and I think it helps to make me more aware of what causes the number to go up – and it’s often not food intake but hydration, constipation, even sunburns! I know now how my body fluctuates and I don’t freak out if my weight is higher now because I now the patterns my body goes through.

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Megan January 23, 2014 at 10:00 am

I remember reading a while ago that, if you’ve gotten in a really good workout, you won’t be hungry for a few hours afterward. I workout first thing in the morning, and usually don’t eat something before I do. (I know I probably should for energy and all that, but my gym is in my building, so it literally takes me about 2 minutes to go from my apartment to my gym and about 15 minutes to go from asleep to the gym. If I wanted to eat something, I’d have to wake up even earlier than my current 5:15 alarm to give myself time to digest, and it just doesn’t seem worth it.)

Anywho, long tangent to justify my decisions to the interwebs aside, I’m always hungry after my workouts. Sometimes to the point where I need to eat something right now for fear of my stomach eating itself. I used to be convinced that, since I was so hungry after working out, I must not be doing it right or working hard enough. Despite what my tired body and sweat-drenched workout gear said.

It took me waaaaaay longer than it should have to put two and two together and realize that, no matter what, I was going to be hungry after a full night sleep and a tough workout and that it didn’t mean that I needed to push myself harder. It just means that I need to eat!

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Stephanie January 23, 2014 at 4:22 pm

This is why I love barre–no matter how intense the workout (and some can be very intense), it does not make me crazy insane hungry.

Other intense workouts, and especially heavy weight lifting, make me so ravenous I could eat anything that wasn’t nailed down.

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Jill January 23, 2014 at 4:57 pm

First, I have you to thank for getting me on the road to weight training. I am a runner who stumbled upon your blog one day a few years ago. After reading your review of Rachel Cosgrove’s book I went on a search for it. Not finding it at our library and being a little cheap to buy it at the time, I checked out a book by her husband instead, which was a great intro to weight training. I later bought the Female Body Breakthrough,which I recommend to anyone who asks me about losing weight/getting fit. (I was never an over-exerciser, obsessed about my body, etc., I just really liked to run. I probably weigh a bit more now but look better.) I felt the changes from heavier weight training in my body almost immediately, though I still kept up with my running. Now I switch between periods of more weight training/less running to running a bit more if I’m training for a race. My body always looks better when I’m doing less running. I also do not find myself feeling hungry too often; I usually eat junk just for fun…if I feel like chocolate, I eat a lot of chocolate. If I don’t, then I don’t. My body seems to have mostly found a balance and I can honestly say that I rarely actually feel hungry and I wish more people would understand long steady cardio is not the ticket to fat loss.

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Deb January 23, 2014 at 7:26 pm

YES!!! I love your blog and your 5 steps are EXACTLY what I am embracing. I am working on figuring out my hunger and fullness state, working on not eating according to schedule and how I used to eat….. from some very strict dieting, I still feel I have to stuff as much into my lunch bag as I used to when I’d only eat 2oo or 300 calories at night- and since I eat more now, at night, I am so full yet in the morning that I don’t need too much breakfast….. all very confusing, like you said. So I am trying to get over the parameters and rules I used to follow, and listen to myself. I do some long cardio ONLY on weekends, because I LOVE it not because I have to. And I lift HEAVY during the week. Oh. Yeah. Baby. Love it all, with a little ballet and dance/plyo class thrown in, life is good and fun. I really enjoy reading your nightly posts, so many things I can identify with. Thanks so much for some sanity!

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Ame' January 23, 2014 at 10:01 pm

The first week I started working out I didn’t get hungrier, but I did start craving protein dense foods. The second week went crazy. I ate everything I could get my hands on, especially starchy foods. I asked my trainer about it, and she suggested trying to balance out my carbs and proteins better the next week. So far it’s worked.

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Kari January 24, 2014 at 2:03 am

Hi! I wrote the other day, professing my love for you as well as correcting workout vs. work out. Remember me? Well I just went to a book group tonight that was led by a mutual friend of ours! Ralphie Jacobs? The book was Intuitive Eating. I remember you writing about that in the past, so I should try to find that again. Do you still practice that?

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Kari January 24, 2014 at 2:14 am

Uhhh I wish I could delete this. It said there was an error. Oops!

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Kari January 24, 2014 at 2:11 am

Hi! I wrote the other day, professing my love for you as well as correcting workout vs. work out. Remember me? Well I just went to a book group tonight that was led by a mutual friend of ours! Ralphie Jacobs? The book was Intuitive Eating. Funny how you even mention that in this post!

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Robin January 24, 2014 at 5:04 am

Really great post, thank you for writing it. I used to be in the exercise to eat category but am not anymore. I lost weight initially, but maintaining is really where all the crazy obsessive tendencies starting coming out. Cardio became less effective so I had to spend more time on it. Keeping track of: calories, protein, carbs, sodium, sugar…, while we all need to keep these in check, actually it drove me crazy!. I did exactly what you recommended and have not weighed myself in over 2 years and it is the best! My jeans tell the story if I have gained weight and it’s much more motivating to visualize them fitting well again, rather than having higher numbers blink at me from a scale. I have also have worked hard on shifting my fitness goals to “short but effective” rather than long and boring. I was never a runner but sadly did have many epic elliptical sessions that were really, really awful. Instead now I do mostly a mix of heavy lifting and other strength training routines that take me an average of about 40 min. and do this at home so I don’t waste any extra time traveling, and then I’m done. But I try to stay active the rest of the day too, and embrace foods I love when it’s worth it, and eat well, but basically the same things, the rest of the time. It’s a good way to be. I’ll share your post w/friends…really great, again thank you!

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Jane January 24, 2014 at 9:18 am

I’m the person who sent that comment that you quoted! The one that tried Rachel Cosgrove. That was two years ago. Still trucking along! I run occasionally, but only with other people and only outside. I walk a lot. I use kettlebells. I start a 12-16 week strength program of some sort every January. Stronglifts 5×5 is my plan this year. I have maintained the same size for two years now, but I have accepted that my weight is seasonal–I go up in the fall and winter and I seem to drop weight with little effort or awareness in spring and summer. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be able to just WALK when things get crazy.

Again, it was YOU that gave me the spark I needed to let go of the cardio. Thanks. I wish you peace and health and may all the good stuff you put out there come back to you in abundance!

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Azusmom January 24, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Yup, another great, and timely, post! I recently found myself slipping back into the “How many hours have I exercised this week/did I work off’ that slice of pizza” mentality. Just yesterday I read a post on Facebook about eating and exercising intuitively. I also read an interview with Michelle Obama, where she talks about changing up her workouts now that she’s 50. She now focuses more on things like yoga, to keep her strong and limber and to keep the aches & pains that come with getting older at bay.
It’s all served to remind me of a few things: Exercise is FUN! When I focus on moving my body in ways that are enjoyable, I forget that I’m “supposed” to be thinner. And I can get a fun, great workout done in 20 or 30 minutes. It doesn’t have to be 60 or 90, unless I WANT it to be. And rest days are important, too. Especially when you’ve been taking care of sick kids for a week and haven’t had a moment to yourself .
My body is smart. It knows when it needs fuel and when it doesn’t. It also knows when it really, really, REALLY wants that soft baked chocolate chip cookie. :)
This is all coming on the heels of my FINALLY stopping to try and FIX myself. I’m no more broken than anyone else.
Right. I’m off to read “Cranky Fitness.” :)

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Joanna Aislinn January 25, 2014 at 4:12 pm

This spoke to me on many levels. My lifestyle change crept in when I wasn’t trying–ironically enough about five years ago this time of year while watching Australian Open tennis in the AM before work. Being too restless to just sit and watch, I started exercising. Little by little i started adding walking and other little bursts of exercise (10-15 min) to the day. Then I started modifying one meal at a time. Weight started coming off and it’s blessedly stayed away since then, a phenomenon I NEVER experienced previous times I’d shed it. (So grateful!)

I enjoy my walks and don’t mind exercise, including some free weights and free form dancing, all of which I do at home. Exercise IS the SINGLE REASON I can eat ANYTHING I WANT in moderation. That’s enough of a reason for me to keep at it. Always wanted to be one of those folks who can eat whatever and not gain. When I exercise regularly the way I described, I can be, and have been for five years now. Happy beginning-of-lifestyle-change anniversary to me!

Thnx, Charlotte :)

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Michelle Trenholm January 25, 2014 at 10:25 pm

I needed to read this. This is my drive to run. So that I can eat more. Lol. Thanks for this post.

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Weight loss tea January 27, 2014 at 8:40 pm

I totally agree with this statement “Be gentle and loving and kind with yourself.” because everything must be in moderation. You must learn how to eat balanced diet in order to stay healthy, stronger and fit.

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