Leslie Hooper

How Cardio Turned Me Into a Binge Eater

This past Saturday I did something I rarely do…cardio.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with cardio. In fact, many people love it and make it a huge part of their regular exercise regimen. And I think that’s awesome.

But for me…well, cardio and I have a little bit of a checkered past.

You see, when I first started lifting weights 15 years ago, I would finish each workout session with 10-15 minutes of cardio (…mostly on the elliptical. You know, the machine with all the momentum that basically does the work for you.)

At this point in time, I wasn’t exercising to lose weight. I was just doing it because I loved being active and thought the athletic physiques associated with strength training looked kinda cool. Those women looked strong and capable. I liked that.

It wasn’t until I started learning more about nutrition and strength training that my fun little hobby turned into a full-blown obsession. Going to the gym wasn’t about being carefree and getting stronger anymore. Nope, suddenly overnight it was all about burning calories.

Before I knew it — I was chasing more, more, more. I bought the Polar heart rate monitor and the food scale. My whole day revolved around calories. It was all I thought about. When I wasn’t observing how many calories I had burned on my heart rate monitor, I was obsessing over the calories in my food.

Photography by Ryan McGuire

Enter more cardio.

Two hours of cardio a day wasn’t a foreign concept to me during this time. I used to set my alarm for 4:45am and sleep walk my way to the stair master by 5:15am. I’d clock in my sweaty hour of climbing stairs, go home, work, and then swing by the gym on my way home to lift, and you guessed it, do another hour of cardio.

And you know what happened? My hormones went into Charlie Sheen mode — a complete whack job. I was hungrier than ever. My cravings were uncontrollable. And I was always hungry.

So what did I do? I’d grit my teeth for as long as I could hang on, but then I’d eventually binge. And I binged hard. Usually on sugar cereal and chocolate covered peanuts. Ice cream was another favorite.

Photography by Ryan McGuire

I mean, what would you expect from a girl with an “all-or-nothing” mindset? If you’re gonna do it, go big. And I did. Every single week. Sometimes twice… even thrice. For years.

Social settings in particular were a huge struggle for me. I didn’t trust myself to navigate food without the safety of my pre-measured chicken, rice, and broccoli in portable tupperware containers. It was stressful. I would white knuckle my way through birthday parties, weddings, graduations and escape unscathed.

…until I got home.

And then I could binge in the privacy of my own home. Alone. Without judgement…except that wasn’t really true, was it? Because no one did a better job at beating me up for being a weak-minded failure than myself.

Every Sunday it was the same routine: recommit to having just a litttttle bit more willpower starting on Monday. This was the week I was going to do it with 100% perfection.

It never happened.

I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how all the fitness models and physique competitors that flooded my social media newsfeeds could effortlessly follow these diet and meal plans, but I just failed over and over again. Obviously I had no willpower. Something was clearly wrong with me.

Photography by Ryan McGuire

It’s ironic, though, isn’t it?

I never had an unhealthy relationship with food until I started dieting. It wasn’t until I started researching nutrition and counting my calories that I began to develop this weird obsession.

Before then, exercise was fun and effortless.

So now, when I do cardio, I have to check myself to make sure that I’m not doing this in the name of fat loss.

Exercise and cardio for me isn’t about losing weight anyomore. It’s about celebrating my body and all of the wonderful experiences it’s provided me throughout this life. It’s about using my strength, building my endurance, releasing stress, and feeling like one badass mofo every single time I walk out of there.

Without these strong arms and legs, I wouldn’t have these wonderful memories: holding my baby for the first time and having the opportunity to attend college — tuition free — after being awarded an athletic scholarship.

That’s pretty cool stuff. And it has absolutely nothing to do with fat loss.

You know what’s really crazy, though?

When I finally came to my senses and started to see how destructive my behavior was becoming, I stopped doing cardio and finally lost the weight.

When I wasn’t obsessed with dieting and exercise, the cravings died. My hormones stopped behaving like a hummingbird on meth. And the constant hunger disappeared.

As a result, my body also became leaner by just doing a handful of metabolic conditioning workouts 3-4 times a week. No more steady state cardio. No more Polar heart rate monitor. No more being in the gym for longer than 45 minutes.

And that’s how it’s been for the past decade now.

Me: Obsession vs. Moderation

When you lose the diet mentality, you gain clarity. You realize all of these gimmicky fat loss scams, detox diets, and belly wraps are nothing but a huge distraction from the truth:

Your body is not the enemy.

You are a team. You have to work together. And the only way that relationship works is if you learn to see it for its strengths. Like a child, it has to be encouraged, coaxed, and met with warmth, compassion, and empathy.

Binge eating is the byproduct of feeling deprived. If this is something you’re currently dealing with, it’s because you’re being an asshole to your body. Period.

The best advice I can give you?

Lose the fat loss mindset. Instead, turn your attention to learning sustainable habits that you can maintain forever. Simple things like not snacking in-between meals and drinking a glass of water before each meal.

Eat the foods on your “naughty list.” Seriously. Doing this removes their power over you and neutralizes them. Replace guilt and shame with permission. When we eat the foods we fear, they lose their control. Like broccoli, chicken, and spam, they’re not special. It’s just food.

Adopt an abundance mindset. This isn’t the last supper. You’re not on death row. You don’t have to eat it ALL GONE RIGHT NOW. The same foods will be available to you tomorrow, too. You can always have more later when you’re hungry again.

Start small. Be patient. You’re going to screw up. It’s part of the learning process. Embrace it. Every milestone in our life happens from a moment that requires us to dig deep within ourselves. There is service in the struggle.

Give yourself the space to grow.

Need help getting started? Let’s chat.

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