"There is a dose-response effect," Alonso-Alonso said. "A fitter person is going to have greater improvements in executive function and therefore better control of what they eat."
Exercise also has the ability to help at the subconscious level. Although you may feel like you're inhaling fire ants after a hard run, the reality is that physical activity has a rewarding effect on your brain. It elicits the same reward sensation as do things like drugs, alcohol, gambling, and even junk food. A 2012 study of 30 people by researchers at California Polytechnic State University determined that exercise suppresses desire to eat by giving your brain an alternate, healthier fix.
But when it comes to appetite, not all exercises are created equal.
Another study from last year, this one by researchers at the University of Western Australia, used 33 sedentary people and found that those in the aerobic training group had increased satiety, but those in the resistance training group (such as weightlifting), did not. As someone who is avid in both activities, I can attest to the research findings.
"Exercise is good to control appetite," says Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist in the fields of diet and addiction at the University of Florida College of Medicine. "It releases hormones that are associated with satiety. You have a reduced desire to eat."
And you can take advantage of the sweet, sweaty memories of exercise too. "When you exercise it creates a life perspective where you don't want to undo it all with an unhealthy diet," eating behaviorist Eric Stice of the Oregon Research Institute told me.
"I fell into a big slump after university where I was eating crap all the time," Jessica Banas, a 24-year-old office worker in Ontario told me. "I gained about 40 pounds."
And to toot my own horn, Jessica told me she read one of my articles about viewing food as fuel for exercise, and so she started cycling. "It was love almost right away," she said. "It became my thing. I definitely consider what I eat before I cycle now. Being a dedicated cyclist means being careful about my diet."
Yale University obesity researcher Dr. David Katz told me that when it comes to better eating, exercise is "the wind beneath your wings." "It helps you want to care more about yourself and make better food choices," he told me. "You want to put better fuel in the tank."
Choosing the right adventure
Despite all the benefits of exercise for making better eating choices, many people still mess this up. They allow the reward mentality to override.
If weight loss is your goal, choose the right adventure and turn Freedhoff's caution on its head. Say to yourself: "I can make most of my food choices good ones. I can resist eating junk food. I can do this. Because I exercised."
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.