Is working off holiday meals a bad idea?

Is there an idea that sounds more appealing to us as humans as having a “balanced” life?

This notion of balance shows up many places, including within the complex math of balancing meals and exercise. Calories in – calories out, right? Even kids know about this! Ouch!

I used to believe that unless I exercised my food off, my body just wouldn’t do well… but as I’ve stepped back and done some honest observations both of myself over the last 20 years and my coaching clients, I’ve let go of that idea. I didn’t let go of it just because it doesn’t work for those of us wanting health and well-being, but because it’s also insidiously dangerous.

See, the science hasn’t changed. The laws of thermodynamics haven’t changed. What’s changed is my mindset, my posture towards my own body and having a deep respect for how it works. I’ve come to live with the unspoken rule that food is food, exercise is exercise and we no longer, in trusting our innate biological wisdom need to manufacture a balance of the two.

Yet, each time the holidays come, my students get into conversations about working off these holiday meals, the extra pieces of pie, cookies, goodies, chocolates, etc… If you also hold this belief – shall we examine it together and see if a new perspective wants to emerge?

First, where does this idea that we need to “work off” calories came from?

I don’t know when you learned this, but perhaps pause here for a moment and try to remember. When did you first learn that food has calories and exercise burns them?

I learned it two ways: one was my ballet teacher, telling me I need to jump 200 times using a jumprope after each meal, tightly covered in plastic wrap and wool leggings, so that “the weight could melt. “ My mom also had this old well loved book of “Advice for the modern housewife”, most likely translated from Russian, which contained advice on anything from “how to remove blood stains” to “how to repair a washing machine” and somewhere in there in the section on health, there was a list of calories in foods and how many minutes of climbing stairs, cleaning the house, dancing, running, biking, it took to burn that food off.

While under tightly controlled conditions in metabolic wards, for a short time, scientists can easily play with calories in and calories out, in the real world, things don’t look like that at all.

In any 24 hour period, your body is able to expend a tremendous amount of energy on just being alive, sustaining and renewing your tissues, and basic functions such as digesting and fighting off viruses and bacteria. Add to this the task of moving you around – to the yard, upstairs, to work, to the store, to pick up the kids, etc. Depending on the phase of life, such as during puberty, or around motherhood, or healing from a surgery or illness, that expenditure can be huge (a small surgery I had recently added 2 hours of sleep to my already 8 hour sleep cycle).

Your appetite and needs are always ebbing and flowing and adjusting to your moment-to-moment requirements. If you become attuned and aware of those signals and needs, and good enough at listening (not perfect, just good enough!) there is absolutely no need to do complex math in your head and “control” your expenditure based on what you ate…

I invite you to think about your body as an intrinsically intelligent self-adjusting system – if it takes in more calories, it will naturally expend more, and if it takes in less, it will naturally expend less. In fact you may have already felt how you naturally move less when you try a low calorie diet. Roland definitely noticed when I had some chocolate recently and acted like a Jack Russel terrier for about an hour….and parents, you remember why you don’t give your kids candy late at night….same rule applies to you….your body will up-regulate expenditure when it has the energy and decrease it when it doesn’t….Ever thought that your lack of motivation to do intense movement may be due to not eating enough for it?

When you start to meddle with this complex system and try to do the math yourself – adjusting your expenditure and calories, while simultaneously adding the stress of doing so, you are most likely to miss the mark. Your body is way more complex than that. Think of a time the math didn’t work, or didn’t work for long – I am sure you can come up with an memory that hits close to home.

But Galina, surely there are exceptions, like preparing for surgery or an athletic event? Of course, if you are needing to control your weight for a surgery, a competition, or some outside of the realm of normal life circumstance, you may need to do so under the supervision of the appropriate professional, but then have a plan about what to do when you come back to “normal.” Most of my coaching clients are not people getting ready for extraordinary life events, they are people trying to balance a sitting job with an emotionally driven appetite, a stressed out fearful attitude towards food, and a limited time budget.

calories in calories out

Why do you think you need to “work food off”?

Many of us have made life decisions based on the ideas of diet culture. Diet culture itself comes from a place of having the goal of lowering one’s weight to reach a “perfect” size. This is done through calorie restriction, and exercising and moving with a lower weight in mind, not necessarily with health in mind. Often, we become confused, thinking that we need to “earn” the food we eat, because the changes we are moving towards are embedded within a paradigm of a malfunctioning body. Something is wrong – you need to fix it by eating less and moving more. This idea tries to convince you that you can figure out what your body can’t on its own, that you are to be trusted and your body is not, and that you are to manage what is broken.

This can cause unspeakable stress, as food is no longer considered a nourishment, something we need to sustain life, enjoy life, participate in creativity, intimacy, joy, reproduction, growth…but something we need to earn. In turn, every time we eat, feelings of unease, guilt, shame, worry and catastrophic thinking can occur – coupling the very act of nourishing ourselves with rejecting that nourishment. This inability to “take in” what is good, can also then cause episodes of overeating and bingeing – eating without feeling ourselves present in the moment, or eating without taking in the nourishment, in turn being still hungry and feeling empty, no matter how much we ate. Can you see the calories pile up? Can you feel the emotions weighing you down? You don’t need this.

So what the heck am I supposed to do? Throw away my Pedometer and sit on the couch?

Before you put on your Nike Pro Chiller Leggings courtesy of SNL, would you consider the following:

  1. Your body is complex. It will self adjust to food intake and expenditure.
  2. Any attempt to futz with it will create more stress, decrease body trust and increase chances of under and overeating.
  3. You can develop a self-listening and self-aware attitude by befriending your natural impulses, learning to trust them and enjoying a less-stressed relationship with food and exercise.
  4. This peace with food, exercise and your body is your birthright and learning how to do it will free tremendous energy for you to do what you actually want – like be creative, enjoy your family and friends, have dreams and adventures.
  5. Diet culture will continue to teach you to work off what you eat. It’s up to you to believe that or not.

Do you want freedom from this? Start with listening to your body one day at a time.

Take our 5 days to more peace mini program and get a short body centered audio exercise daily in your inbox for 5 days.

After the 5 days, write me and let me know how you are doing, deal?

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