Happy Exercise vs. Stressed Exercise – There’s a Big Metabolic Difference

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If you have ever wondered about the power of thought to influence nutritional and calorie burning metabolism, here’s a story you won’t want to miss. It’s about two clients who provided me with one of the big “aha’s” of my professional career.  Early on in my nutritionist practice, a forty-eight-year-old female lawyer named Toni was referred to me by a local physician in New York City.  He warned me that she was a difficult patient who was trying to lose weight but couldn’t.  The doctor did numerous tests but found nothing wrong with Toni; he had suggested various diets and she hadn’t lost a single pound.  The highlight of this case was that Toni was a marathon runner.  She ate a paltry 1,300 calories per day, she ran eight to ten miles a day during the work week and about fifteen miles on Saturday, and she was a legitimate candidate for losing fifteen pounds.

When Toni walked into my office I was surprised to see that she looked absolutely nothing like a marathon runner.  She was short, plump, and high-strung.  I’d never seen someone in such a panic about her weight.  Toni had spent thousands of dollars on blood tests and to have her body poked and probed to find something wrong but was given a clean bill of health.  This highly intelligent, super-successful woman was absolutely beside herself that she could be exercising so much, eating so little, and seeing no results after a year of training.

With the right questions I quickly determined that, contrary to my suspicions, Toni was telling the truth.  She was really running and she was really starving herself.

I was quite confident that I could help.  Toni’s diet was clearly deficient in protein, fat, and calories, which was putting her in a survival response and slowing down her metabolism.  She ate fast, received no pleasure from food, and seldom had a nourishing meal.  We had lots to work on.  I told Toni that it would take eight sessions over a two-month period to begin shifting her weight.  I explained that she had to eat more food, including more fat and protein, and she needed to learn to relax and receive pleasure from food.

Toni looked at me as though I was insane and insisted that if she ate anything more than she was eating now she would most certainly gain weight.  She admitted that she didn’t believe me but acknowledged that she was at the end of her rope and would try anything.  And she made me promise that she wouldn’t gain a pound on her new regime.  Without my asking, she wrote a check for all eight sessions and walked out of the office more agitated than when she walked in.

At the end of two weeks Toni weighed six pounds more and threatened to sue me.  Her worst nightmare had come true.  I was devastated.  Her lawyer was sending me intimidating letters.  I quickly returned Toni’s money, apologized every way possible, and the whole affair blew over.  But I never forgot her and remained mystified about her case.

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Fast forward to seven years later.  A woman comes into my office who could be the sister of this marathon runner who I’ve never forgotten.  Sheila was yet another high-achieving woman, a stockbroker in her late forties—short, plump, healthy, a low-calorie and high-mileage marathoner who couldn’t lose a pound.  I would have instantly referred her to someone else but a number of her close friends who had come to see me all shared their wonderful success stories, so Sheila was eager to work with me.  I couldn’t send her away, nor could I think of any strategies other than the unsuccessful ones I tried seven years ago.  It seemed as though the universe was entertaining itself by having a good laugh at my expense.

I gave Shelia the same advice I had given Toni: eat more food, especially more fat and protein, and slow down when eating.  In two weeks Sheila gained four pounds.  I felt like a criminal and was ready to surrender myself to the authorities.  Surprisingly though, she wasn’t upset or deterred.  She was so inspired and positive about how her friends had benefited from working with me that she felt certain I could figure this out.

This is where the “aha” came in.  An exercise physiologist friend explained to me that intense exercise can closely mimic the stress response.  Yes, aerobic exercise is great for us and has a long list on wonderful metabolic benefits.  But in the wrong context exercise can wear us down, elevate cortisol and insulin levels, generate inflammatory chemicals, and lock us into a survival metabolism in which we vigorously store fat and arrest the building of muscle.  According to conventional wisdom, weight is a function of calories in and calories out.  So the more you exercise the more weight you will supposedly lose.  But in reality, the exercise story is never so black-and-white.  Kenneth Cooper, MD, the granddaddy of the fitness movement in America and a previous proponent of intense workouts, had done a complete about-face concerning vigorous aerobic exercise.  His research findings at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, Texas, were so astounding that I think anyone who does high-intensity workouts should take note.  Basically, Cooper discovered that low- to moderate-intensity exercise for only thirty minutes three or four times per week was the best prescription for health, weight maintenance, and fitness.

On our next visit I asked Sheila why she ran marathons.  She said she needed to do something for fitness and she liked running.  I asked her if she really wanted to run so much or if there were other forms of fitness she would prefer.  She was uncomfortable with my questioning and was taken aback when I suggested she secretly disliked running.  But the place we eventually arrived at in our conversation was a very honest one: Sheila was running out of punishment for having a body, and for having a body with fat.  She didn’t exercise because she loved movement.  She ran because she hated weight.  To my thinking, the intensely fearful thoughts that motivated her were causing a physiologic stress-response.  This fight-or-flight state was exponentially increased by a form of exercise that didn’t suit her body but in fact added even more stress chemistry.  Running was not going to take her where she wanted to go and her weight was the proof.

Sheila understood this and agreed to completely drop all aspects of her marathon training.  In place of running I asked her to choose something she would love to do.  She decided to take a dance class, a yoga class, and do some occasional walking.

Learn more about how stress can impact your metabolism in our FREE video series – Dynamic Eating Psychology! You can access this Free Video Series HERE.

In three months’ time Sheila lost the weight she had gained in the first weeks of her new diet, in addition to losing eight of the ten pounds she was hoping to burn off.  She was satisfied with her body, relieved that she didn’t need to run like a hamster on a wheel, and was truly enjoying her newfound physical activity.

The moral of this story is not that exercise is bad.  But we need to look at the motivating forces that drive us to exercise.  Healthy habits driven by fear are not so healthy after all.  Deep self-limiting thoughts can do nothing but suppress metabolism, even in the face of intense, calorie-burning workouts. Exercise and move from a place of inspiration, freedom, and joy – and your body will love you right back by rewarding you with a hotter calorie burning metabolism.

Can you see any implications for your own exercise style?

Excerpted, in part from The Slow Down Diet by Marc David

My warmest regards,
Marc David
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

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  • stephanie

    I can relate to what you described. I totally agree , because I always practised sports moderately, that’s what seems to suit me and work for me.Never was I interested in becoming a caged, stressed hamster on a wheel. Spot on , when you say :
    “Exercise and move from a place of inspiration, freedom, and joy. ” Compulsion, competition, lack of self acceptance, narcissism, are all signs of a dis-eased, unbalanced, unhappy mind and therefore pull in the opposite direction of a body being fit or harmonious.

    • KarnaN

      Hi Stephanie,

      Thank you so much for your comment, we’re so glad you have found a way to move that works for you!

      Karna Nau
      Director of Student Relations at IPE

  • Lisa A.

    Great article! Thank you, I’ve taken what you said to heart!

  • Lynne Brett

    I love this story, and have used it many times with my clients, and they love it too! What an amazing insight…who would have thought exercise could make us gain weight!

    • KarnaN

      Hi Lynne,

      Thank you for your comment, it’s really mind boggling when I think of the years I spent pushing myself to loose the “five pounds” and I was really keeping the weight on! I’m so glad I found Marc’s work too.

      Karna Nau
      Director of Student Relations at IPE

  • http://bodyologysystem.com susan

    I have personally and professionally witnessed this insight :that the vibration of love heals above anything else, Thank you so much for sharing and increased validation! You ROCK!!

    • KarnaN

      Hi Susan,

      Marc asked me to thank you for your kind words and support!

      Warm regards,

      Karna Nau
      Director of Student Relations at IPE

  • http://www.notjustadaydreamblog.com Elaine

    I wrote a blog post last month that talked about how my workouts have changed since I started focusing on blissed out, happy feelings instead of “working” my hardest.

    An excerpt:
    “I have cultivated the ability to turn what looks on the outside like a few dumbbell curls, dips, stability ball crunches and treadmill intervals into an ecstatically joyful good time. And not because the endorphins start kicking in at mile 4. I start out my workout in a state of bliss and just feed that feeling throughout by piling on the positive thoughts. I leave the gym feeling like I want to kiss every member on the lips and as if I can take on whatever the world throws at me. Perhaps this can be true for you, too.” To read more: http://notjustadaydreamblog.com/workout/

    • KarnaN

      Thanks for sharing your journey with us!

  • http://www.inspiredrunning.com Christy

    But we need to look at the motivating forces that drive us to exercise. – Totally agree w/ this.

    However, in both these cases I believe it was the intent behind the running (not the running) that caused the result. I run a marathon every year. Each year I train, I lose weight. But this isn’t why I train.

    It’s also important to note that I used to hate running. Now I love it.

    I love it because it’s not about weight and I’ve given myself permission to do it in a way that feels good (going slower, adding walk breaks).

    When any form of exercise is done from a place of beating yourself, the result will be more beating yourself up. It doesn’t matter if it’s yoga, running or dancing.

    • KarnaN

      Hi Christy,

      Great point! So nice to hear that you are creating a life you love… Keep sharing your journey with us!

  • Rebecca Walker

    I can relate in that last year, during a period of very high stress in my life, even in exhaustion I was forcing myself to maintain the same high intensity exercise program I had done for years. The exhaustion plus the stress led to 6 extra pounds, almost all in the form of belly fat. (Which I still can’t reduce, in spite of modified exercise, less stress and very strong core muscles.) Now I do occasionally do intense exercise in the form of Zumba dancing, but I LOVE the classes because i’m dancing and having fun. I’m maintaining but still not losing.

  • Felicity Cook

    I did an insane foodless diet (liquid) for 100 days on which I lost over 100lbs (7st) in 2007… This post could have been written about me.

    When I went back on to conventional food slowly and carefully, with a calorie intake back in 2007-9….I went 3x per week to the gym with a trainer, an hour at a time…. not losing weight and on less than 1,000 cals a day. Now, having been seriously ill after doing that diet and off work for 18 month, I have gained every single lb of it back….. So I can lose on 550 cals a day… but peoples… it aint no life!

    Marc I hear you… I have one of those bodies that is exercise-resistant, see BBC ‘Horizon’ archives on this one (was tested at the University of Cambridge)… is there an answer? I do not know!

    I hope you and your team do, Marc!

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Felicity,

      Good to hear from you again. Thank you for sharing your experience about calories and exercise. It’s amazing to get that needed a-ha moment about stressful and toxic dietary beliefs, especially about something as important as living life fully. I’m thankful that you’ve decided it’s more important to be healthy, even if you don’t yet know all the answers. We’ve become so accustomed to the belief that to get the body we want, we have to starve ourselves or kill ourselves at the gym to get it. Sometimes, the path to healing requires forgiveness and a willingness to give your self the permission to live, to eat, and to relax. In regards to your question – is there an answer? – I certainly hope so, I believe so, and it’s always a journey of exploration and discovery. It’s what we dedicate our lives to here at the Institute.

      Warm Regards,

      Marc David

  • http://www.toughlipstick.com Anna

    Really enjoyed this article. I’ve definitely weaved in and out of stress exercising, which is such a shame, because gentle exercise is such a mood booster. Thanks for this!

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Anna –

      Glad you liked it.


  • http://www.LiveCleanBeStrong.com Erica

    This is a great article, shedding light on a topic that is commonly misunderstood. Thanks for sharing these client experiences, Marc. At one time, I suffered from burnout after long-term, excessive, high-intensity exercise. It was a hard lesson to learn.

    What I find particularly striking about the story is that you were so successful at helping the client who placed so much faith in you. That’s really kind of beautiful.

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Erica,
      Thank you for sharing your own experience. These are hard lessons to learn for sure, and so important and rewarding in hindsight. Thanks for joining the conversation here.

      Warm Regards,

  • Megan Leffler

    I am so glad I read this! I changed my diet and was seeing weight loss results but when I upped my workouts in exchange for the yoga classes I use to love I started gaining weight and gained the mass I had lost. So I, of course, made my workouts harder and longer! I will skip the elliptical and head to yoga in the morning and get back to the fitness I enjoy.

    I can’t wait to start the Eating Psychology Certificate Program! Thank you Marc for continuing to share your wonderful insights.


    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Megan,
      Great to hear it! It’s always good to find the thing that works best for you.
      No need to “kill ourselves at the gym” – joy is such an underestimated element in fitness.
      We’re so glad to have you with us this year!


  • Morrow

    This was an incredible post. I was recently introduced to this site by a good friend, to help deal with some long-standing personal issues. I also happen to be a medical provider who has had a number of patients over my years of practice struggling with weight concerns. Everything you outline here makes perfect sense. The body and mind are intimately, inseparably connected, and how we approach our eating and physical activity makes a profound difference. I don’t think I really understood that on a deeper level until I started reading these posts. I also appreciate that you use actual patient examples to help illustrate your points. Great for me as a person as well as a medical provider!

    • http://psychologyofeating.com/ Marc David

      Hi Morrow,
      Thank you for taking the time to reach out and connect.
      I’m so pleased that you’re finding these articles helpful for you.
      Thank you as well for all the work you do support your clients.
      We’re so happy to have you in our tribe!

      Marc David

  • http://www.psychologyofeating.com/ Psychology of Eating

    heathermac – It sounds like you have really cultivated a lot of awareness around how much stress can effect the body. Way to go for listening to your body and learning when to relax, and learning when exercise actually won’t be of benefit. You might also appreciate this article by Marc David on the stress metabolism connection. http://psychologyofeating.com/the-stress-metabolism-connection/

  • http://www.psychologyofeating.com/ Psychology of Eating

    Thank you so much for commenting, Julie, and for sharing your struggles with weight and exercise. I’m so happy to know that you received some insights from this article that you can use! Warm regards, Marc

  • http://www.psychologyofeating.com/ Psychology of Eating

    Hi Tracy, Thanks for posting here and sharing your own experience! My first thought is that you may not have found the activity that really is joyful for you and your body; you may be having a stress reaction to the P90X3 itself, ironically. If you want to get really in depth and address the barriers that you mentioned, I think it would be helpful for you to work with a coach who’s trained in Dynamic Eating Psychology. You can search our directory of Certified Eating Psychology Coaches here: http://tinyurl.com/k9xs32c That way you can go beyond sound bytes and get to the heart of your own process! Warm regards, Marc

  • Nika Lynn

    Marc, this is the missing link in many peoples weight loss efforts. I’ve been a weight loss coach for 10 years and seen people exercise themselves fat. The mentality is a hard one to overcome. Extreme exercise and restrictive eating is a recipe for disaster. Thank you for shining the light on this harmful approach to fitness!

    • http://www.psychologyofeating.com/ Psychology of Eating

      Hi Nika, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I’m glad my message resonates with you — it’s wonderful to have you in our community :) Warmly, Marc

About The Author
Marc David

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet.

His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul.

He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.