Every January millions of people make New Years Resolutions lose weight or eat healthier, if not both. To achieve this goal, many people begin strenuous exercise programs that involve too much exercise too soon, leading to fitness burnout or injury. Overtraining can actually keep you from losing weight.
As a health neuroscientist, I study these Brain and Cognitive Mechanisms underlying dietary behaviors and the role exercise plays in helping people improve their diets for over 10 years.
energy and movement
The truth is you just can’t train away a bad diet and expect to lose weight (if that is your goal). People are very good at conserving energy and will attribute any calories burned through exercise to eating more calories later in the day or being less physically active the rest of the day.
That being said, you can and should exercise to lose and maintain your weight weight loss. But not to compensate for calories burned.
If you want to lose weight, the only way to do it is through Control your calorie intake. The best and most effective way to do this is to limit your consumption of ultra-processed foods, typical junk food, and fast food dishes. Even if you’re not trying to lose weight, reducing your consumption of ultra-processed foods is good for you mental and physical health.
Regular exercise facilitates this by improving the brain and cognitive processes that help us regulate junk food consumption and reducing stress. And the best part is that you only need 20 minutes of brisk walking to experience the beneficial effects.
Why we consume too much junk food
We know that we shouldn’t overeat candy, cookies, cakes and chips or drink sugary sodas. Diets rich in these ultra-processed foods cause us to gain weight. But they’re just so hard to resist.
Ultra-processed junk foods have been designed to be as tasty and rewarding as possible. When we are exposed to media advertisements or actual food (e.g., candy bars at the grocery store checkout counter), brain activity increases in regions associated with reward processing. This reward-related brain activity leads to an increase cravings and the urge to eat even when we’re not hungry.
A brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) helps us limit our consumption of ultra-processed foods by both decreasing activity in these reward regions to reduce food cravings and initiating the cognitive processes required to exercise conscious control over food choices.
Neuroscientists have shown that when studying brain responses with functional brain imaging, increased activity of the dlPFC helps us control cravings and make healthier food choices by reducing activity in the brain’s reward regions. Conversely, when the activity of the dlPFC decreases, we have a harder time resisting the temptation of attractive junk foods and we will consume more snacks.
Exercise can help regulate food intake
exercise increases brain plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adjust its functions based on new inputs. Increasing brain plasticity makes it easier to change our habits and lifestyle. Mounting evidence has shown that regular physical activity can increase prefrontal brain function and improve cognition.
This exercise-induced increase in prefrontal brain function and cognition makes it easier to regulate or limit our junk food consumption. And we can see the effects after just 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise.
I’ve shown that after 20 minutes of moderate-intensity people consume less highly processed foods like chips or milk chocolate (in our study, this was a brisk walk at 3.5-4.2 mph on a gentle incline treadmill). . Research has also shown that both a single session of high-intensity interval training and 12 weeks of high-intensity training aerobic exercise Program can reduce cravings or appetite for high-calorie junk foods. Similar effects are observed when people engage in moderate aerobic exercise or weight training.
The key takeaway here is that regular exercise can reduce people’s desire to exercise Fast food and improve their ability to resist the temptation of these appealing foods by improving brain function and cognition. This makes it easier to limit your consumption of these foods in order to achieve healthier eating and weight loss goals.
Exercise also helps reduce stress
When people are stressed, the body releases a hormone called cortisol, which activates the so-called fight-or-flight response. When cortisol levels are high, the brain thinks it needs more energy, leading to increased cravings for sugary or salty ultra-processed foods.
Participating in regular exercise or a single exercise session reduces perceived stress levels and cortisol levels. Exercise also helps reduce unhealthy consumption of drinks and food when people are stressed.
Stress can also affect brain function. Research has shown that stress can lead to decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex and increased activity in reward regions of the brain when viewing food images. This makes it harder to resist the temptation of appealing junk food.
By counterbalancing the effects of stress on prefrontal brain function, exercise makes it easier for you to achieve your goals of eating healthier or reducing junk food consumption. Twenty minutes of brisk walking can help the prefrontal cortex recover from transient changes in activity, such as those experienced by people who are stressed.
Next time you’re feeling stressed, try taking a 20-minute walk. It could protect you from stress eating.
Which exercise is best?
Researchers are often asked what the best exercise is and how much exercise one should do.
At the end of the day, the best exercise is one that you enjoy and can keep up with for an extended period of time. High-intensity interval training (HIIT), aerobic exercise, meditation and mindfulness, yoga, and strength training are all effective in improving nutrition by targeting prefrontal brain function and reducing stress.
As you begin a new exercise routine this new year, take it slow, be kind to yourself, listen to your body and remember that a little goes a long way.
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