You need to eat to live. You also need to exercise to live. But do you eat and exercise to live or do you live to eat and exercise? Silly question but it’s a fine line, easily crossed, from the former to the latter. Especially for those of us compulsive types who tend to think that if some is good then more must always be better. You don’t have to have read this blog for very long to know that I have struggled for years with finding this balance. And while I’m light years better than I used to be, I still have a long ways to go. Which is why this e-mail brought tears to my eyes.

Today in installment two of Help a Reader Out Week, we have a heartbreaking question about breaking the vicious run-eat-run cycle. The reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, writes:

“hey … you probably won’t read this but if you have time i hope you can help me. i run a lot. people think that i must love running because i run all the time but i hate running. hate hate hate. basically i run because i eat too much (well i think i eat too much) and at least this way i can eat dessert. i just have to run it off later. but sometimes i have to run in the dark or twice a day though and i know that’s not good. how do i quit eating-running-eating-running-eating … you know? p.s. i love the blog!”

Dear Anon,

First, thank you! And second, boy howdy do I know where you are coming from. I too used to be stuck in the same cycle of eating, feeling guilty about eating and then exercising to relieve the guilt (and the calories). Sometimes I’d even up the ante and run a little extra so I’d have permission to eat something “bad” later on. Eventually it got really confusing though, trying to remember if I was running to atone for a dietary sin or running in anticipation of one so I just figured I’d run as much as possible (and then some) to cover all my caloric bases. Oh and I’d better throw in some weights too because I don’t want to lose muscle! And yoga, everyone says yoga is good for you! And kickboxing, because it’s fun!

And that, friends, is the short version of how I ran myself into amenorrhea, hypothyroidism, gaining 10 pounds and insanity. Oh and I also ran myself right into eating disorder treatment. Don’t be me, sweetie.

Here’s how not to be me (or how to break the eat-run-repeat cycle of living):

  1. Stop weighing yourself. You didn’t mention a scale but I’d bet the $200 I didn’t get not passing go that you are weighing yourself once a day, minimum. Those numbers are a) crazy and b) will make you crazy. Your weight can fluctuate by pounds in a single day and exercising to keep the scale happy is a losing proposition. There isn’t any easy way to do this one except to just do it.
  2. Realize that you do not need permission to eat. You don’t have to earn your calories. You’re a beautiful person worthy of eating just by virtue of existing. Even if you do nothing but sit on your butt, you have earned the right to eat and to eat food that is enjoyable.
  3. Eating is not good or bad. It’s a survival skill. Despite what all those yogurt commercials say, you are not a sinner for eating a piece of raspberry cheesecake. Nor are you a saint for eating a salad.
  4. Eating can make your body feel good or bad and it’s that sensation you need to learn to listen to. Intuitive Eating (Geneen Roth style) was a life-saver for me but there are lots of ways to do this.
  5. Exercise is not punishment. You should find a way to move your body that you enjoy. While no exercise is 100% fun 100% of the time, I’m convinced everyone can find a way to be active that is challenging, fulfilling and mostly fun. If you hate running, please don’t run! (And to my readers who love running – you keep on running, I don’t mean you!) Dance, hike, bike or join a synchronized swim team (and then tell me how they get all that makeup to stay on in the pool!) but find something you love.

I have done all 5 of these things myself – sometimes multiple times (yay for slow learners!) – and I can tell you that you absolutely can escape the vicious cycle that you are in. It will mean tolerating a certain amount of pain and anxiety as you adjust to this new way of thinking but you can do it and it’s worth doing.

You don’t realize how captive you are until you are finally free! Trust me.

It’s more beautiful on this side of things than I ever could have imagined. Oh, and because I know you are thinking it, I did not gain a bunch of weight when I quit over-exercising. Indeed, I lost five pounds (of the 10 I gained) and have maintained this weight within a pound for a year and a half now. Even after having a baby!

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out this sweet comment that Dusker recently left on my post about my Rachel Cosgrove Experiment. (In case you forgot, it entailed dropping 90% of my cardio, all of my running and focusing on lifting heavy. It worked wonders for me! And I only ended up working out 30-45 minutes a day.)

She writes,

“Charlotte, I would like to thank you for all these experiments and especially for your “oversharing”–which has helped me more than you can know. I am just finishing Month 1 of the Rachel Cosgrove plan and you are the reason I decided to give it a try. I was deathly afraid–and I mean terrified–of dropping steady state cardio. If I ran less than 6 miles I thought it was a lame workout and I’d run AND do a cardio class on most days. After reading your blog I thought, well, I’m sort of crazy about exercise but I’m not as crazy as HER (no offense), and if she did it then it’s worth a try. So thanks! I am a convert! Dropping steady state cardio did not result in a 10lb. weight gain – actually, I haven’t weighed myself (so who knows) but my clothes fit so much better that I don’t care. Major difference in butt and thighs even after just Phase 1. I do the weight plan 3 days a week and do Tabata sprints on two of the off days and I still do my kickbox/bootcamp class 2x week on off days as well.

I also swtiched my eating up to incorporate some of Mark Sisson’s ideas, but I would say my plan is basically, “eat more of what Mark Sisson says to eat but don’t forbid my favorites.” I still eat Gummy Bears once a week. So far this has been very satisfying and seems sustainable–unlike my previous plan of starve for 2 months, look great for 2 weeks and then slowily gain the weight back over the next 2 months and … repeat cycle … all the while increasing the amount of cardio I was doing and the time I spent at the gym which means less time with my kids.

It took your example of taking this leap to give me the courage to try it and I am fairly certain that it was probably harder for you to take this leap than most people. So thanks again.”

If anonymous made me cry a little out of sadness then Dusker made me weep a little from joy! I love it when people find a healthy way to eat and workout that works for their body. Also, Dusker, I’m totally not offended – I wear my crazy on my sleeve and will totally own being nuttier than most squirrels. And I love gummy bears almost as much as I love jelly beans!

So now I ask you guys – what advice do you have for anonymous? Anyone else get stuck in the run, eat, repeat cycle?

around the web


  1. Great post! I think most of us have been there before. What I’ve realized is what I eat is the biggest determining factor in the results I get. Basically I try to eat A LOT of lean protein: white fish, lean turkey, egg whites and even cottage cheese and Fage yogurt and protein shakes. The protein fills me up and doesn’t have the same high calories as carbs. If I focus on eating protein throughout the day, then my calorie count stays low, my belly stays full and I can still eat my “treats” in moderation!

    • @Tamara White: I have a similar experience. I had a lot of issues when was eating too many carbs even when it was whole grains. I switched to a high protein diet and the results speak for themselves. I went from a size 8 to 4 in 6 weeks. Clean up your diet and clean up your results is my motto

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