Maybe you've heard the workout mantra or even uttered it yourself: I exercise, therefore I can eat whatever I want without gaining a pound.
Regular exercise can give you more leeway at mealtime. But even those faithful to their workouts don't enjoy caloric carte blanche. Researchers zeroing in on the relationship among exercise, weight loss and weight maintenance have released a number of findings.
Exercise plays a role in weight loss and weight maintenance, but it seems to be especially critical for long-term maintenance. If you want to keep off the pounds you just shed -- or to avoid extra pounds as you age -- keep moving.
Exercise, in fact, might be the most important strategy for keeping off weight, according to recent research by John Foreyt of the Nutrition Research Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in ,, Houston.
He compared different treatment approaches in 130 obese subjects. A diet-only group was put on the American Heart Association diet; a combination group was put on an exercise program (brisk walking, eventually five days a week) and the same prudent diet; an exercise-only group was put on the same brisk walking program and told to eat prudently, but was not given specific instructions on calorie restriction.
At the end of the first year, the diet-only and combination groups lost more weight than the exercise-only group. But at a two-year follow-up, the diet-only and combination groups had regained weight.
"The exercise-only group not only had maintained, but had lost more weight," Mr. Foreyt said. "Exercise alone may be more effective and beneficial in long-term weight control than restriction of dietary intake alone or in combination with exercise," he concluded.
Mr. Foreyt presented his findings in December at the National Institutes of Health Conference on Physical Activity and Obesity. He suspects his results apply to people of normal weight.
That doesn't mean that you can eat whatever you want if you work out. But it points to the value of emphasizing other lifestyle changes.
Another study, published last year in Topics in Clinical Nutrition, also supports the value of exercise for weight maintenance. Nearly 70 percent of 99 middle-aged, normal-weight women said they exercised regularly, half of them five to seven days a week. More than half said they never had to diet, relying instead on physical activity and avoidance of certain foods and beverages.
Overweight people should focus on exercise first and dieting later, some experts say. That approach might help overweight ++ people be more successful over the long haul, and it might make weight loss seem easier, said Terry Bazzarre, a senior nutrition science consultant at the American Heart Association.
"It's much easier to change activity patterns than diet," he said, citing his long-term studies of obese people.
When people begin to exercise, he says, they have a feeling of well-being and then are often more willing to make changes in other areas of their life, like giving up hot fudge sundaes or junk food.
"Exercise creates the discipline to change the diet," said Robert Pritikin, director of the Pritikin Longevity Centers in Santa Monica, Calif., whose weight-loss programs incorporate exercise.
"Exercise is the single best predictor of long-term weight control," he added, based on follow-up of program participants.
People who exercise regularly also tend to crave healthier foods, several studies show. A regular exerciser is often less likely than a sedentary person to eat a high-fat diet, for instance.
But those who have never exercised might have a hard time developing a liking for a regular workout routine. No matter how hard they try, some don't love exercise, said Philip Walker, fitness management consultant for the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. Fine, he tells them.
Instead, focus on the value of exercise rather than a love for the activity itself. "Somebody who's fit [finds] their whole day becomes easier," he said. A walk to the supermarket is not the effort it once was.
As we become more fit, he adds, we are a more efficient fat-burner. Thinking about the other benefits of exercise -- such as reduction of cardiovascular disease risk and stress reduction -- can help keep people moving.
To keep losing weight, though, Mr. Walker tells people to make workouts progressively harder. As a person sheds pounds, the same exercise becomes easier simply because of reduced body weight.
Exercise is not a sure-fire route to your weight goal. Even regular exercisers complain they would like to lose another five or 10 pounds but can't, no matter how faithfully they work out and watch their diet.
"I hear this [complaint] time and time again," said Liz Applegate, a University of California at Davis sports nutritionist. "Women especially tell me, 'I'm eating less than 1,200 calories per day and I exercise two hours a day in the gym.' "
What's happening? "Often people overestimate their participation and underestimate the number of calories they're eating."
Ms. Applegate finds that many, on closer questioning, are computing dressing and undressing time as exercise time. And "they fail to recognize all the times they are eating something during the day."
But what if you're being accurate? Perhaps, Ms. Applegate says, you should just accept the extra few pounds. Your weight goal, she says, may simply not be achievable even with a reasonable amount of exercise.
Or consider reducing fat in the diet, Ms. Applegate advises, perhaps down to 20 percent of the calories you eat.