N=1 study on exercise and appetite; or, It Happened to Me: I did a Lifestyle Change, Lost Weight, and Regained Most of It

(Titles shamelessly inspired/stolen from DebraSY and XOJane.)

I’m going to get more autobiographical than I usually do here. Also, those of you who need to avoid talk of weight changes, etc. probably know who you are based on the title.

This is in part a follow-up to a post from April about the effect of exercise on appetite. Towards the bottom of the post, I was skeptical about different types of exercise having different effects on the same person’s appetite, since it seemed to come from a mindset of, “something has to work!” However, I now have evidence that for me, different types of exercise do affect my appetite differently.

So here’s the short version–I guess you could call it the abstract of my N=1 study: Some types of exercise, such as running, walking, hiking, and yoga, seem to have little effect on my appetite, and if anything cause me to eat less/weigh a few pounds less. At least one type of exercise, endurance-focused weightlifting, “BodyPump” style, causes me to be very hungry and gain weight–at least in a context where I’m trying to eat based on hunger and fullness cues. [End of abstract. Feel free to treat this like I treat the abstracts of scientific studies, and only read the rest if you think it will contain useful information or you’re interested in specifics.]

In retrospect, this post would have been easier to write if I had actually kept good track of when various weight changes and exercise habits and eating patterns happened, but I didn’t. So things will be a little vague. Also, my home scale would under-read so the only time I could get a weight reading I trusted was at the doctor’s office. Anyway.

About seven years ago, I weighed 185 lbs (my height is five feet, five and a quarter inches, in case you’re curious). That seemed to be my fairly stable post-college weight. Not long after that, I moved out of my parents’ house. My weight went down to 180 briefly, then I went through a period of what Michelle of The Fat Nutritionist calls “spiteful eating”–sort of eating “forbidden foods” because I could with little scrutiny. (Not that my parents were exactly scrutinizing my food, but just the fact that they were there had some effect.) I gained enough weight to get some new stretch marks and the next couple years my weight was in the high 190s. I think my weight was 196 lbs the first year, and the second year I weighed 199 (my peak weight). Getting that close to 200 made me decide to make some changes to prevent further creeping weight gain–not to lose weight. I didn’t know about Fat Acceptance yet (I think I heard about it not too long after that, actually), but I did know that people who dieted usually gained the weight back. And I’d seen it firsthand with my mom, who was on and off Weight Watchers or Nutrisystem for much of my childhood. She never lost enough weight to look “not fat” to my childhood self, either. I figured if she couldn’t do it, I was less motivated and therefore even less likely to succeed.

As far as the nuts and bolts of the changes go, most of it was pretty straightforward “healthy living” stuff. The actual behaviors (but not the mindset) were mostly compatible with HAES. I decided that at my weight I should at least exercise regularly to mitigate weight-related risks (instead of IRregularly, which is what I’d been doing–a long walk or hike once or twice a week). I was doing walking, hiking, and some running intervals, and started doing more serious running after a while. These types of exercise seemed to, if anything, slightly reduce my appetite. As far as eating habits, I focused mostly on adding fruits and vegetables and secondarily on reducing “bad” foods. Even during the “spiteful eating” years, I was not having large servings of “junk food”, but with my spiteful eating mindset I would feel sort like, “I can have a single-serving bag of Cheetos and a Little Debbie snack with my sandwich, so I will. Oh, now I’m too full to eat any veggies besides the ones on my sandwich that I already ate.” OR, I would eat the sandwich and veggies/fruits, be full, but again, feel that since I could have a dessert I would, and get overfull. During “lifestyle change” time, I would eat my sandwich (or whatever main course I had) then veggies and/or fruit, and only if I was not full would I then eat some “junk food”. I also would try not to have an after-supper snack unless I was pretty hungry. That part is pretty unambiguously not HAES-friendly, and depending on your interpretation of HAES, restricting “bad” foods wasn’t either. Interestingly, since I was also focusing on portion sizes of meals and being extra-careful not to get overly full (the whole 8/10 full thing), this “lifestyle change” time did actually lead me to be more in touch with hunger and fullness, even if I was using it to tell myself to eat less.

I was surprised when I actually did end up losing a bit of weight. I think I went down to 193 by the time I next encountered a reliable scale. This motivated me to continue with the “healthy lifestyle” stuff, and even step it up a bit. Between continuing the eating habits and starting to get serious about running (which included learning what may be obvious, that if you want to work on running for longer periods of time, you should start by running really slowly so that you can keep going longer), my weight went down to… I my lowest reading was 173. (Still about 20 lbs overweight according to BMI.) I may in the past have underestimated the effects of stress on my weight–a period of conflict with a coworker may have been responsible for some of the weight loss and/or the fact that my weight got quite that low. Then it seemed to settle at around 180 for a while. I forget if I got back up to 180 before or after I started doing HAES. I transitioned kind of gradually to HAES and I don’t think I’m doing it perfectly now. My weight stayed in the 178-182 range for a couple years, including while I lived with my parents again for about five months–which happened shortly after I got peroneal tendonitis and decided to take a break from running for a while. (I basically replaced running with this yoga video during that time.)

Then in September, I moved out of my parents’ house. In October, I started going to an exercise class called BodyPump. I usually went two days a week. I’d been wanting to try strength training for a long time, and this class seemed pretty accessible. I liked the class pretty well (although I didn’t like the music–too loud and not really my kind of music). That fall and winter, though, I kept saying to myself, “Why am I so hungry?” Not just right after the class–my overall appetite was greater. I also gained weight. Some of it probably was muscle, but I’m pretty sure that muscle gain doesn’t result in your pants being tighter around the waist. I kept blaming it on different things–“Oh, maybe it’s because it’s fall–it’s common for people to weigh a few pounds more in the winter than the summer”; “Right after Thanksgiving, my weight will probably go up”; “Maybe my body decided it was time to do something about my weight loss and drag me back up to my higher weight”… I was also influenced by posts like this to be hopeful about losing weight with the BodyPump class, even if I was simultaneously thinking that that probably wouldn’t happen for most people. (I may be trying to practice HAES, but I haven’t reached HAES-nirvana yet.)

By April, I decided that I was ready to move on to more traditional strength training and would take a month to try and do some more research about it, then quit BodyPump at the end of the month. (Which I did, then decided to try out a Boot Camp class at the new gym I was thinking of joining; I was actually fairly well-prepared for the Boot Camp class in terms of strength/endurance, but I managed to give myself de Quervain’s tendonitis, which I think was caused by the Boot Camp class. So. Haven’t started non-BodyPump strength training yet. Currently detraining.) It wasn’t until after I had decided this–I think around the last week of April or first week of May–that I decided that the change in my appetite probably was due to the BodyPump class. It did start right around the time I started the class. And within about two weeks after stopping the class, my appetite seemed to be more normal–now, instead of thinking, “Why am I so hungry?” I find myself thinking, “I’m surprised I’m not hungry right now.” I am still below my peak weight, but in early 2012 I got results of 190 and 193 lbs when I got weighed, and just this week at the doctor I weighed 196 lbs. We’ll see what happens to my weight now that I am not doing BodyPump and am ramping up my running (as well as doing quite a bit of gardening–but I may have to back off on that, since it doesn’t exactly help the de Quervain’s). I’m hoping to move back to what seemed to be a stable 178-182, if only so that I can still wear most of my clothes.

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