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DAY 13: Exercise: A New Reward



“Exercise is one of the best substitutes for the kind of reward we get from highly palatable foods. Its value is not so much that it burns calories as that it helps you achieve a long-term sense of well-being.”

– Dr. David A. Kessler, The End of Overeating, page 224

Exercise: A new reward

At no point in my adult life, even before I weighed 265 lbs. would I have called myself an “athlete.”

In fact, for many years the sum total of my physical exertion was limited to schlepping my toddlers and preschoolers around, usually at least one of them on my hip. And certainly there are seasons of life where our time is not our own. Parenting young children – whether you work outside the home or not – is a 24/7 job that doesn’t care if its MLK Day or St. Swithun’s Day.

For me, weight gain and caretaking went hand-in-hand as we rode the escalator up, up, up the scale.

All the while my food addiction became full-blown.

When I settled in at the top of the scale my kids were all in school; I had no more little ones clinging to my legs, and it was increasingly obvious that it wasn’t my caretaking that kept me locked in obesity, it was my food addiction.

The decision to change my lifestyle came after a “rock bottom” experience that shook me to my core. I write about it extensively in my book Eat Like It Matters, so I won’t retell the story here. But what happened to me isn’t just a story of weight loss. It isn’t even just a story of physical transformation. In many ways, I became a different person.



As I started losing weight, I began to feel better physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I started walking, and it felt so good to get outside in the fresh air and move my body. As I used my muscles, I learned to appreciate what they felt like when they were working and then at rest. My body had always – for as long as I can remember – been only a source of shame for me.

Exercise helped me see that my body could be a source of strength, both physically and mentally.

As I got stronger those walks started to include some running. I kept working at it, feeling myself getting stronger. Almost four years to the day from when I decided to change my life I ran my first marathon (PR 4:35), a fact I remain so proud of I’m gonna put it on my tombstone.

During that time I learned the difference between willpower and discipline. I learned that when you tap into your personal “why” you can persevere through temporary lapses in motivation. I learned that making good food choices serves my bigger goals, and that the pleasure of giving in to temptation is fleeting and almost never as satisfying as feeling in control.

In his book The End of Overeating Dr. Kessler talks about how exercise “engages the same neural regions as other mood-enhancing rewards and produces similar chemical responses.”

I’ll admit, I didn’t know any of that when I started walking. But he’s absolutely spot-on.

And I’ll go even further: finding joy in moving my body has changed my self-image completely. Not only do I no longer find shame in my physical body, but I self-identify as an athlete. I know at the deepest level that I am strong, capable, driven, ambitious, optimistic and tough-as-nails because I’ve proved it. I’ve proved it at the gym, I’ve proved it in my head, and I’ve taken those same principles and applied them in the kitchen.

Exercise did that for me.

And it continues to do it for me every day. Because every day I wake up and recommit to the healthy habits I know will help me live the life I want to live. One of those habits is living outside of active food addiction.

Heady stuff.

Now, go lace up your sneakers.

More tomorrow. Until then, stay strong.

                                                     Ain’t nobody gonna hand it to you; you gotta go get it!

– Marilyn McKenna

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