Sensational Headline Alert: Is Exercise Making You Fat?

Running a half-marathon actually caused me to go up a pants size -- and I'm not alone.

Jul 31, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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Four months and a half-marathon later, I never lost a pound. (My hair got better, though.)

Last weekend, I ran a 10-kilometer race with my personal trainer/best friend and one of her clients. I’d signed up for the thing in a fit of overconfidence after finishing my first half-marathon.

“Oh, only six miles?” past-Kate had chirped at her computer. “Piece of cake!”

Now, two months of nursing an IT band injury later, I was hurting. It was 95 degrees outside, I hadn’t run more than four miles in seven weeks, and I’d stayed up until two the previous night catching up on "True Blood." I could taste every one of my molars. It was bad news.  

When I did finally drag my ass across the finish line, I staggered over to Lana, who was standing fresh as a daisy by the Port-a-Potties. 

“How’d it go?” she chirruped, handing me a bottle of water. I mouthed at it gratefully.

“I -- need -- burrito,” I mumbled, sinking into the dust beside her shoes.

“They have bananas,” Lana offered. “And some granola bars?”

“Burrito,” I insisted, eyes sliding shut of their own accord. “I’ve earned it.”

We went to Chipotle. 

This tendency to negate fitness benefits with junk food that I've "earned" is not a new one for me.  Though I’m pretty happy with my body overall, there’s a part of me that always flits off into fantasyland every time I start a new fitness regime.

When I got a Groupon for 10 Krav Maga classes, I spent a lot of time staring out bus windows and imagining impressing all the girls at the Lex with my soon-to-be-sweet tricep action. Same thing when I started doing yoga: Every day at work I’d surreptitiously lift the hem of my shirt and peer at my lower belly, waiting to see some definition. 

I’ve always been a little jealous of that deer-muscled, rippled look that serious runners always seem to cultivate. So when I ran my half-marathon, I vaguely hoped that it would be the key to unlocking the lean, runner’s body that had been waiting all this time to emerge from its sweaty-duck-footed cocoon.

I don’t own a scale and I rarely buy new clothes, so it was easy for me to jazz up my 10-mile slogs with visions of my rock-hard quadriceps and slightly less squishy abdomen. This delusion persisted until I actually decided to reward myself after finishing the race with an H&M run. When I hit up my usual jeans section, though, no dice. After three months of running 15-20 miles a week, I’d actually gone up a pants size.

Some of this was muscle mass. And parts of my body had definitely gotten more toned. I was seriously digging my hamstrings, and I’d actually seen an ass the last time I gave myself an over-the-shoulder mirror once-over, which had been such a shock that I’d felt the need to text a friend about it. 

But I’d also been using my new exercise program to eat basically everything within arm’s reach, all under the guise of “needing fuel.”

Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that as my body burned more calories on the regular, I was also craving more food than normal. My typical pre-long run breakfast of a pile of potatoes suited me just fine. I’m definitely a fan of eating when you’re hungry, or even when you know you'll be hungry shortly. 

I’d also do things, though, like declare that it was okay to eat a bag of tortilla chips for second lunch because I’d “earned” it.

I eat a lot more than most people anyway. My running, however, was merely an excuse to put an excess of junky food into my mouth. Bizarrely, I was eating things that I normally wouldn’t even touch. In addition to the great, helpful meals of pasta and legumes I was eating, I’d also incorporated a hefty daily ration of Jolly Ranchers into my diet.  I don’t even particularly like fruity candy; I’d much rather eat a loaf of kalamata sourdough than hit up the Sour Patch Kids. Because I knew I’d been burning calories like crazy, though, I felt the need to live it up high fructose corn syrup style.

It’s the same way that I tend to spend money on Urban Outfitters flats or St. Vincent shows right after I get paid: Even though I know I don’t need -- or really even want -- them the knowledge that I’ve technically earned them is sometimes too seductive to resist.

According to a study at the University of Leeds, this tendency to overcompensate for exercise with extra food is a fairly common one. When professors mapped the weight gain and loss of overweight men and women who were burning 500 calories per workout, they found no significant change in two-thirds of the subjects after 12 weeks. Essentially, they hypothesized, the subjects were feeling hungrier after workouts (dur) and eating more (also dur). They were making up for all the calories they’d burned with, I can personally attest, some really satisfying post-workout meals. 

And, as other dieticians have pointed out, it’s a hell of a lot easier for most of us to put a piece of broccoli quiche into our face than to run around the block for 45 minutes. Even if all bodies did purely operate on a one-to-one calories-in-calories-out equation, that nonsense is downright unsustainable.

This, combined with the sort of “plodding” aerobics that many of us tend to default to in lieu of fancy-ass circuit training, means that as far as weight loss is concerned, we might as well cut out the treadmill middleman and watch “Supernatural” reruns from the comforts of our own couches. 

There are, of course, reasons besides weight loss to want to exercise on a regular basis. As a naturally clumsy, unathletic person, I now find it incredibly satisfying to be able to play pickup soccer with my scary tech neighbors down in the San Francisco Peninsula without being reduced to crying tears of blood near the penalty box. At this point in my life, I’m not as worried about heart health as I probably should be, but I’m sure the little ticker appreciates a good trot round the block once in a while.

And superficially speaking, I love the idea that I can change my body composition with exercise: Watching my shoulder muscles become more defined after a week of push-ups or checking out the way my newly buff calves look in heels when they're reflected in department store windows makes all the sweating and anger at least a little bit worth it. 

Plus, regular exercise makes me feel better. I’m far less likely to write passive-aggressive messages on Twitter if I’ve pounded out four miles on the pavement, and nothing really negates work-related rage like having a co-worker hold a punching bag and shout “Synergy! Incentivization!” at you until you throw yourself at them. Regular sit-ups have probably saved my job once or twice from my own self-destructive sassy streak.

At the end of the day, I think it’s best to have realistic goals, no matter what’s driving you. If you’re exercising with weight loss as a primary motivation, I think that’s great. It’s just probably best to acknowledge that it might be more of a challenge than you anticipated. In my experience, it’s awfully easy to give up after a fortnight because the numbers on the scale haven’t budged. 

And, as always, tread with caution when choosing your ideal body-moving activity. If, say, you’re taking spin classes to drop those persistent three pounds clinging to your hips for dear life, though, you may find yourself listening to shitty Lady Gaga remixes in the Castro District for the next 15 years. Can't say I didn’t warn you.

There's a reason Kate's Twitter avatar contains her eating a burrito. Go check it out (along with many other  food- and exercise-related feelings) at @katchatters.