cardio trap

The Fit Rebel Diet-Free Healthy Eating / Fat Loss/ Nutrition 4 Comments

I used to be caught in something I call the cardio trap. It’s a vicious cycle where you feel the need to workout a lot because you eat a lot of food and you eat a lot because you need to feed your workouts.

The cardio trap is technically a subtle form of an eating disorder.
Believe me, I was shocked to learn I had an eating disorder while in my management of eating disorders class at U.V.M, but the cardio trap has many of the signs.

– Feeling anxious after eating and the feeling of needing to work off the food just eaten.
– Thinking of what a meal might “cost” in terms of work load or exercise time to purge it from your system.
– Stress, anger and anxiety when your usual cardio schedule is upset by normal life events.
– Anger at friends and loved ones who express disagreement or concern over the need to exercise so much.
– Feeling like you must exercise even though you may be too busy, sick, tired, or injured.
– A strong sense of self worth related to the exercise. If you exercise you feel light, righteous and pure, but if not depression, anxiety and low self esteem result.

These are just a few of the symptoms and believe me I had them all. Over all though the cardio trap is a catch 22 where you feel you can’t stop working out, but you’re also feeling a constant need to eat and regain energy due to the high frequency of exercise.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix, however the following points greatly helped me break free:

#1 body composition is all about calorie balance

At the heart of liberation is knowing that body composition ultimately comes down to a balance between calorie intake and calorie expenditure.

It doesn’t matter what, or how much you eat, or how long you sit your butt on a spin bike. If your calories consumed equals calories expended you simply cannot gain weight. It’s physically impossible.

You could forever give up cardio and eat chocolate every day, as long as your calorie balance remains you will never gain weight.

That’s not to say that diet and exercise are not important, but all of those things just influence the calorie balance. They do not ultimately control it.

#2 Cardio alone doesn’t keep anyone thin

Once I fully undersold the role of calorie balance, I started to take notice about how little evidence there was in the world relating cardio to staying thin.
I had a buddy on the cycling team with a beer gut. Despite our hours in the saddle, he never lost it.
I also had friends who were always thin and yet never did any more cardio other than the occasional Frisbee game.

Once I took a world view I realized that every human on earth gained and lost body fat through out their life. What’s more, these fluctuations were often independent of any cardio activity.

#3 You can’t feel fat burn

Cardio has physiological feedback that can be calming and addictive.

When I would eat a lot and stress out, I would hop onto the elliptical and right away I would start to feel at peace. I would feel my heart rate climb and my rate of breathing would become labored. As the sweat pooled under me, I would look at my haggard face in the mirror and think “I’m working my ass off, therefor I am burning off fat, calories, or that piece of pie.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was partaking in the classic pattern of behavior that sets up addiction.

A stress upon the body and or mind is experienced and then a sort of relief is experienced. Each time that stress comes about, if you repeat the action that brings about relief then the mind builds a strong connection between what actions to take when that stress comes about again.

The problem with the cardio trap is that both the eating and the exercise are relief and stressful. Each one relieves the stress caused by the other. As the cycle is repeated the stress increases as well as the relief making the individual feel out of control.

The point is that the feelings of eating or exercising become mentally and emotionally linked to weight gain, but it’s not possible to actively feel fat being burned or exercised off.

Right now, at this very instant you are burning off calories and fat. You probably don’t think about it much because it happens with hardly any sensation at all. When you workout you’re not making anything happen that’s not already happening every minute of every day. You’re already burning fat, the only thing working out does is speeds up the rate at which you burn it.

However, the very clear and evident sensations of a cardio workout often are interpreted to mean that fat is being burned and the body is becoming leaner.

The same can be said about gaining fat. You simply cannot feel it actually happening. You may feel bigger or more bloated due to various other physical changes, but it’s hardly likely to mean you have grown fatter.

#4 All calories count

Once I realized that I couldn’t feel my fat actually being burned, I then started to realize that all of the calories I burned counted just as much as when I was working out.

The 7 calories burned while walking to the car where just the same as the 7 calories I burned during that painful minute long sprint on the treadmill. Even though my body felt different, the actual fuel burning going on inside my body was the same.

So while I may not have been huffing and puffing in a pool of sweat, the calories I burned still contributed.

Oh yea, that whole thing about the body burning fat vs sugar at various exercise intensities? Just ignore it. Even though it is true, it doesn’t mean jack squat as far as your entire body composition is concerned. (More on that for another post)

#5 Look to luxury calories as a cardio “short cut”

Once I had finally deduced that body composition was about calorie balance, instead of cardio I realized I could turn to my diet to help manage my weight.

This was the final step that set me free. My cardio was out of control because my diet was out of control and vice-versa.

So when I sat down to my next meal I told myself “Matt you can eat a lot of food and then have to go work it off, or you could eat a moderate portion and not have to exercise at all.”

I found it so much easier to not over eat than to over eat and then have to rush off and burn it up.

As far as calories are concerned, pushing the plate away a few minute sooner was exactly the same as over eating and then going for a 2 hour jog. Only now I didn’t have the stress of over eating, and I didn’t have to spend the rest of the evening running in the dark while the rest of my friends went out and had fun dancing. Of course as a bonus those 2 hours of dancing burned off plenty of calories even though it wasn’t actual cardio in the classic sense.

Come to think about it, it was laughing, smiling and goofing around which was a heck of a lot better than paying penitence to the treadmill gods.

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Comments 4

  1. Laurie James Mackeson

    Matt and Others

    Good list of ‘warnings’ you post! I used to get I do get a strong(er) sense of self-worth when I exercise. I sometimes do get ‘an urge’ to exercise sometime soon after enjoying some ‘luxary calories’. Not because of the need to get rid of them specifically, but rather because those foods, while I thoroughly enjoy eating them, they might leave me feeling ‘a little flat’. In regard to others thinking I exercise too much, the only person I really listen to (apart from myself) is my wife and her concerns that I “take too much of me/her” time is always monitored and easily regulated by completing most/all of them while she is not at home. Again, thanks for posting those warnings. It really does make me think about ‘how’ I have designed my ‘healthy life-style’ habits. I have my own lifestyle well arranged to be everything I like/want while being flexible to life’s changes (so far…touch wood) BUT I would like to hear how others reflect on their own behaviours/thoughts according to those ‘signs’. Anyone else care to share?

    Laurie Mackeson

  2. Laurie James Mackeson

    Matt- The article is very thought provoking and thus I have some questions 🙂

    Obviously cardio (or even exercise as a whole) isn’t everything. It is must easier to not eat 1200kJ than it is to ‘exercise it off’. Partly because it is hard to know the kJ ‘value’ of certain activities for ‘you’. Even more obviously you wouldn’t want to be (even if you could accurately calculate the kJ’s) exercising the food ‘off’ all that often because of the ‘fear’ associated with NOT being able to/wanting exercise because life changes.

    As you are pretty aware with my situation, I love exercising! I like the benefits it gives me and while I have been changing my eating habits I have a higher self esteem and live a life of much less restrictions and guilt with my life now than at ANY point since I was 18 or so.

    My question is this. What if I can complete a given cardio-routine and I don’t eat extra (either the next meal or the rest of the day) as a result? Would most of the concerns you express be negated/minimized? I ONLY ask because I find that because I am not exercising to a level somewhere between feeling great and fairly tired, but never/rarely eating more afterwards. In addition, with regards to #5, I know I can simply cut out ‘luxury calories’ to improve my overall relative calorie balance but it is the ‘strong feeling’ I get from exercising that I seek.

    I am sure you can get a good grasp of the levels of exertion I describe and I look forward to reading your thoughts about this question.

    Laurie Mackeson

    1. Post

      You bring up a good question for sure. What about exercising and then not eating. It’s a great way to start to break free from the trap for sure. Unfortunately, exercising at a moderate level can be a challenge for those caught in the trap. The stress from over eating can make the person feel like they need to drive themselves into the ground with exercise. After that, the stress of the exercise can cause low blood sugar and a very strong desire to eat which can lead to over eating.

      But you hit the nail right on the head. Taking either the food or the exercise to a moderate level is key in not producing the stress levels that cause massive swings from one action to the other.

  3. Laurie Mackeson

    Matt (and others)

    I enjoy looking back on old pod/web casts and applying what knowledge I have learned to those pieces. My “Movement Program” used to consist of 40mins of “formal exercise” a day and being somewhat active as a part of my employment.

    However, 4 Weeks ago, I was forced, due to circumstances, to go from a active work situation to one where I have been sitting on a seat for 7.5 hours a day (literally). My exercise “schedule” is “the same” (40mins total a day). I have learned/had confirmed the following thinga from this situation;

    1. Calorie Hacking is the easiest way to improve the Relative Calorie Balance situation.
    2. Make each energy intake options ‘a winner’ – maximize each kJ.
    3. Remember who is most important during difficult personal matters.

    I feel less “trapped” by food/exercise now than at anytime in the past 1.5 years. I exercise because I like it and while I make time for it every day, I know I don’t need to. If need be I can add a few minutes ‘here or there’ during the week to make up for a session I “miss”.


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