What’s the connection between exercise and appetite? Hint: It's more about when you eat

  • 3 Minutes Read
Joanna Kriehn
Joanna Kriehn, MS, RDN, CDCES - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES)

Confused about when to exercise and fuel your appetite? What's the point in exercising if it's just going to make you hungry? Read on to learn about the connection and what's most effective so that you can succeed at your weight-loss goals.

Exercise and appetite

The connection between exercise and appetite

Does working out ramp up your hunger? If you answered yes, you are not alone. Many people agree that certain workouts increase their appetite, making it harder to stay within a calorie budget for weight loss.

There are different factors at play when it comes to appetite regulation and exercise: fitness level, duration and intensity of activity, your pre-workout meal or snack, and several others. Here’s what we know.

Fitness level

During the first few weeks of a new fitness routine, you may notice your hunger levels increase after exercise. An increase in appetite is your body’s way of reminding you to fuel up again to replenish what was used during your workout. As your fitness level improves, your appetite becomes more manageable.

Duration of activity

The longer the workout, the longer it takes your body to return to a place of balance. After a one-hour run, you may be able to do some stretching, shower, and get dressed before you feel hungry. Take advantage and eat a balanced meal or snack along with some water.

Intensity of activity

Intense bouts of exercise, such as a kick-boxing class or spin workout, tend to suppress the appetite. Research shows that the hunger hormone, ghrelin, is suppressed after long, intense workouts.

Also, when your body is working hard, blood flow is diverted from the stomach to the heart and muscles. Less blood flow to the gut translates into fewer hunger sensations. In fact, some people describe feeling nauseated following a tough workout. And yet, during low-to-moderate-intensity workouts, such as walking or a leisurely hike, you may find your appetite increases.

The desire to refuel after exercise may hit women harder than men

If you are female, recently started working out, and always seem hungry, you are not alone. Research suggests that exercise may have a more profound impact on appetite for women. Certain hormones related to child bearing may cause women to feel more hungry after exercise. From a biological standpoint, it's nature's way to build fat stores for pregnancy and lactation. No need to worry–simply plan for this and keep a healthy post-workout snack on hand.

Your ability to recognize hunger cues

Do you tune into your body’s hunger and fullness signals? Suppose you don't know them enough to recognize them and start regularly working out. In that case, you may feel most hungry right after exercise. Try paying attention to what hunger feels like for you.

Common hunger signals:

The longer between your last meal or snack, the stronger these sensations become.

Notice the subtle signs of hunger and fullness that ebb and flow during the day. Then track your findings using the MyNetDiary Notes feature. Easy access from your dashboard allows you to track hunger/fullness and any external eating triggers. With more awareness, you may find other times during the day you feel hungry, not just after working out, and that’s ok.

What you eat before working out influences exercise and appetite

When trying to lose weight you may think working out on an empty stomach “saves some calories for later.” This approach often backfires.

When you become too hungry, it is more challenging to control your portions. High-calorie/high-fat foods tempt you as the body searches out quick energy. Eating regular meals helps regulate your blood sugar and prevents you from getting overly hungry, or worse, "hangry." You’ll have a better workout if you eat a small snack beforehand. And with some fuel on board, you won’t finish your workout starving!
Here are some healthy and immune-boosting snack ideas to check out.

Post-workout snack or meal

To replenish the calories you just burned after an intense workout of one hour or more, make sure to eat something within 30 minutes of finishing your activity. Optimally, choose a carbohydrate and protein combo, such as a protein-rich smoothie. But you don’t always need a smoothie or protein drink after exercise, especially if you are trying to lose weight. If you finished a yoga class at 11:00 and plan to meet a friend for lunch at noon, you don’t need to slam down a smoothie on the way to the restaurant. Instead, just order a healthy lunch like a salmon salad with whole-grain flatbread, and skip the dessert. If you feel hunger pangs before lunch, curb them with water. Speaking of water . . .

Don’t forget about hydration

Did you know it’s common to confuse hunger with thirst? Before your post-workout snack, make sure to drink water. You’ll replenish the fluids lost through sweat and take the edge off hunger.

The mental side of exercise and its impact on appetite

Have you ever noticed if you sit on the couch all day watching TV, you mindlessly nosh more than when you are busy at work and manage to fit in your workout? Movement and activity help us stay engaged in life and prevent us from eating out of boredom. If you struggle with eating on the days you don’t work out, check out ways to tame your mental hunger and avoid bored binges.

Other resources

Need a get-back-in-shape workout plan? Think FIT

Here are 5 ways to make exercising fun without realizing it

A complete guide on how to create your own workout plan from scratch

Reviewed and updated by Brenda Braslow, MS, RD, CDCES on 6/13/23.

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Jun 30, 2023

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