Why You Shouldn’t Reward a Workout With a Slump

Don’t overcompensate activity with more food and more rest!

Maybe you’ve had this happen to you. After working out a little harder than usual, you find yourself thinking, “I just burned up an awful lot of calories—think I’ll have a cheeseburger.” It’s called ‘calorie compensation.’ Often after exercising we end up overeating, convinced that we’ve burned up a lot more calories than we actually have. But overeating—adjusting our ‘calories in’—isn’t the only way we compensate. Sometimes we adjust our ‘calories out.’ And after a spell of activity, we overcompensate by simply becoming a lot less active for the rest of the day.

It’s been suggested that we might each be born with our own “activitystat”—a biological mechanism that keeps our daily energy expenditure fairly constant. The idea is that any time we engage in some fairly vigorous activity, the internal activity thermostat will lead us to make up for it by increasing our level of inactivity.

But the notion of the “activitystat” has been called into question. For one thing, if this internal regulation of our energy expenditure were hard-wired, it should persist throughout our lives. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Studies have found that young kids, as well as folks over the age of 60, do tend to compensate. They balance their exercise with inactivity, so that their daily energy expenditure stays fairly constant day after day. But in younger adults, exercise doesn’t trigger this same downward adjustment in activity for the rest of the day—so they end up burning more calories than usual.

Even if the activitystat does exist, there are psychological factors at work that affect our energy balance, too. They influence not only how much exercise we engage in but also whether or not we ‘make adjustments’ by taking it easy the rest of the day, or rewarding ourselves with extra food.

We can and often do override the biological controls that regulate our food intake, and we make conscious decisions about how much (or how little) we’re going to eat. Similarly, the amount of energy we expend each day is also something we can control. We can be determined to get regular physical activity. And we can find tools (like activity logs, pedometers or apps for the phone) that will help us meet our activity goals and keep our weight in check.

It also helps to have a good handle on your ‘calories in’ as well as your ‘calories out.’ Most people estimate that they burn 2-3 times more calories through exercise than they actually do, and they underestimate the calories they eat by anywhere from 20-40%. Keeping tabs on your calories will tell you that a stroll around the park doesn’t justify eating a cheeseburger. Or taking a nap.