How to Use Exercise to Curb Cravings
Sunday, June 14, 2015
LifeTime WeightLoss in Anika Christ, Cravings, Exercise, Exercise, Lifestyle, Mindset, Movement, Tools, hunger, sweets, weight loss advice

Do your food cravings get the best of you? 

Cravings stem from a host of physiological and psychological factors, and they can easily derail the best laid weight loss plans.

While willpower won't get most of us as far as we assume it should, exercise has been shown time and again to be an effective tool for battling food cravings.

Read on to discover the most common craving scenarios and tips for using exercise to stop them in their tracks.

“You just ate dinner…and now you’re craving something sweet." 

This may be the most common craving scenario among my clients. 

Whether it be a craving for candy, cookies or chocolate, there is something about that after dinner hour that makes us want to park it on the couch, watch some television and devour a pint of ice cream. 

Part of these cravings can be simply habit. If you’ve always grabbed something sweet after dinner, your body naturally starts expecting it each and every night. And for some people, consuming an imbalanced diet (low in fat and/or protein) routinely sets them up for this scenario, often fostering cravings for sweets throughout their entire day.

Exercise Fix:

If you feel like your after dinner craving is simply habit, test out a new routine with an after dinner walk. Go solo, or invite a loved one (or four-legged friend), and get outside each and every night whenever you can to do a couple laps around the neighborhood. 

Not only will this help ditch your cravings, but it will provide you with more movement to support your metabolism and to help you avoid the energy crash on the couch that follows your typical evening snack.  

“You just woke up and routinely head straight to the coffee machine.”

It’s another common scenario. Many of us admit to “needing” coffee right away in the morning. Whether it stems from not getting enough sleep, experiencing too much stress or just feeling generally exhausted, we crave caffeine to get us going in the morning.  

And although there are certain benefits to consuming caffeine, needing and depending on a cup of coffee (or 3 or 4) is never a good thing. If you can’t see yourself getting through a day without a shot of caffeine, this exercise cue is for you.

Exercise Fix:

Consider working out in the morning. There are many benefits to this option, including the opportunity for consistency and the chance to “warm up” your body and brain at the start of the day.

In terms of consistency, working out right away during the day means your workout plans won’t be derailed later with random meetings, kid activities or late work schedules.

Working out first thing also gives you that immediate boost of feel-good endorphins and the release of other “happy” hormones. 

Also, if you start your day feeling good and doing something positive for your body, you’ll be less likely to undo your hard work with poor meal choices that morning or later in the day.

My clients who exercise in the morning often claim that they are not only more productive at work but that they nourish their bodies better throughout the day. On the opposite side of the coin, if they miss their morning routine, they are much more likely to make poor food choices and be more tired during the day.

“You are feeling upset or depressed and head right to the cookie jar.”

Emotional eating is a very real thing! 

Many people carry on this habit throughout most of their lives, as it’s often a learned response at a young age when food was used as a comfort or a reward (whether you were feeling good or feeling sad). 

Sugar has a very real impact on our brain chemistry, causing it to release dopamine, a key feel-good hormone. When we associate food with reward, it can be extremely difficult to break the cycle – especially when our go-to selections feel and taste so good!

Exercise Fix:

Use exercise as your reward, and know that it’s been shown to support overall happiness! 

Fitting in a 15-20 minute vigorous session (think sprinting, cycling, group fitness class, brisk walk, etc.) can be all you need to support an endorphin surge. 

These natural brain hormones make you feel good without the energy crash sugar usually provides. Practice this choice enough, and you’ll soon be craving exercise as a reward at any “good” or “sad” moment.  

“You are stressed at work (again) and find yourself reaching for the candy bar in your desk drawer.”

If you relate to this scenario, you are most likely a high-stress craver, which suggests an overproduction of cortisol (stress hormone) in your body.  

High stress is extremely common and can be related to serious events and life transitions but also to an array of everyday factors like long commutes, extended working hours (often with no real breaks) and minimal vacation. 

Ample willpower may keep you away from the vending machine. However, if these types of cravings are cropping up on a regular basis, it would be better to proactively dampen those stress hormones as well as ward off their aftermath.

Exercise Fix:

Keep restorative exercise (such as yoga) in your daily routine. 

This type of activity not only supports “body awareness” (i.e. self-attunement that helps you identify cravings, stress symptoms, etc.), but it can also foster resilience against stress while helping to decrease cortisol.  

“It’s 2 o’clock, and you’re starting to crash….”

Similar to those cravings triggered by stress hormones, the mid afternoon lull at work is a common experience. 

This can stem from poor nutrition choices all day (e.g. too many carbs, not enough fat or protein), but it also stems from our desk jockey routines - sitting and staring at blue screens all day.  

Most of my clients call this category of craving a make-it or break-it factor in their weight loss plans, since their inclination mid afternoon has them reaching for something definitely less than optimal.

Exercise Fix:

Consistent exercise has been shown to optimize blood sugar, insulin and leptin levels. So, just being consistent with your exercise sessions each week can lessen this common craving scenario.  

If you’re exercising on a regular schedule but still experience a daily lull, try to respond by getting in some walking (ideally outside). Moving your body is key - especially if you sit at a desk all day, since sitting has been shown to poorly influence blood sugar and metabolism.  

Creating awareness of your energy crash pattern is the first step, but take the next step by scheduling a 2 or 3 o’clock “GOYA” activity with a friend or coworker.  

“You just worked out, and now you’re starving.”

How can exercise halt cravings when it seems to initiate the cravings to begin with? 

Many of my clients often find themselves in this scenario. They complain of weight gain after starting an exercise program, noting that they were hungrier, which caused them to consume even more food.  

Exercise Fix:

If you find yourself hungrier or craving sugar post-workout,  know that you probably burned mostly sugar (and not fat) during your workout. 

This often stems from doing too high intensity or too high volume of exercise, most often for cardiovascular work. 

Especially if fat loss is your goal, make sure you’re exercising at an intensity that allows your body to burn fat. Life Time offers metabolic testing for individuals so they can monitor their heart rate during exercise and choose activities that promote fat loss - instead of appetite!

Thanks for reading. Do you have further questions or think you might be interested in individualized support around cravings? Talk with a registered dietitian today. 

In health, Anika Christ – Senior Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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