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Exercise more, eat more?

What should you do if the more you sweat, the hungrier you get? And what's the best way to conquer fitness-club fears? Smart Fitness answers your queries.
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What should you do if the more you sweat, the hungrier you get? And what's the best way to conquer fitness-club fears? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have a fitness question? To e-mail us, click here. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: OK, I know that to lose weight I need to burn more calories than I consume. However, since I started exercising last month, I often am starving after my workouts. My exercise routine consists of 30 minutes on the treadmill and 20 minutes of weight-lifting, at least four times per week. I would love to lower my caloric intake but am ravenous sometimes. I'm a middle-aged woman hoping to lose about 30 pounds. Any advice?

A: It seems like a cruel joke to anyone trying to shed pounds, but exercising may actually make some people hungrier, experts say.

While some research in men has found that exercise can blunt appetite, a new study of women suggests the contrary.

Canadian researchers at the University of Ottawa found that young women consumed more calories in the hour after they exercised at a high intensity than when they exercised moderately or not at all. The 13 study participants consumed 878 calories during lunch after a morning session of high-intensity exercise (walking at a fast pace on a treadmill), 819 calories after low-intensity exercise (walking at a slower pace on a treadmill) and 751 calories after not exercising.

What’s more, when the women exercised at a high intensity they ate almost enough calories to make up for the ones they burned while working out, according to results published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Though more studies are needed, anecdotal reports support the findings, says Beth Kitchin, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"I have heard from some women that this is a problem with them," she says. Women have even told her they don't want to exercise because they feel they gain more weight because of their hunger.

It makes sense that hunger could spike after exercise, says Debra Wein, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and president of The Sensible Nutrition Connection, a consulting firm.

“Your cells are literally hungry for fuel after a hard workout because you’ve used up a lot of your carbohydrate stores,” Wein says. Carbohydrates are stored in muscle as glycogen, and the harder you work out the more you burn, she explains.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work out, or that you shouldn’t work out hard — if that’s what you like. Minute for minute, the harder you exercise the more calories you’ll burn overall. And weight loss comes down to calories in versus calories out.

So don't fight your body on this one. Within half an hour of exercise, have a high-carbohydrate snack with a little protein, Wein recommends. Good examples include yogurt with a piece of fruit, or half a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread.

Waiting too long to eat may only fuel your hunger, causing you to overeat at your next meal. “To try to not eat after your workout is self-defeating,” Wein says.

The key is to keep your eye on your total daily caloric intake. Instead of three large meals a day, balance out your calories over three smaller meals and two snacks, Wein recommends. That way you can have a snack after your workout, when you're hungry, but still not tack on extra calories to your daily total.

Drinking water after exercise is good not only for replacing lost fluids, but also for helping you avoid excess calories, according to Wein. “Some people tend to eat when they’re just thirsty.”

It's also important to not start out your exercise routine hungry. Kitchin says it's a big mistake, for instance, to exercise after work without having had a snack an hour or two beforehand. Compound the problem by not having a snack, even an apple, afterward and your body hasn't had fuel since lunch. The end result may be that you give in to quick junk food instead of preparing a healthy dinner.

There's a gym across the street from where I work, and I know I should go because all I do is sit at my desk all day. But when I decide to go I inevitably come up with any excuse to postpone my trip. I actually think I'm afraid to go. What could cause this?

A: In a recent column, I wrote about a survey conducted by the American Council on Exercise that looked at the top excuses for not going to the gym. Among the findings, 21 percent of respondents said they don't go because they won't know what to do when they get there. Another 19 percent said they're too far out of shape to essentially subject themselves to a room full of disapproving hard bodies.

It sounds like you might fall into one or both of these categories. But there are solutions.

Wein says plenty of people are intimidated by gyms because they don't know how to use exercise equipment. To remedy that, schedule a tour of the facility and arrange for a private session or two with a personal trainer who can show you the ropes. "You become comfortable by building knowledge,” Wein says.

If the gym across the street has a lot of young, fit members and you're embarrassed about your spare tire or not-so-taut thighs, don't go. Getting in shape shouldn't be humiliating.

There are plenty of other options. Among them: engaging in an outdoor activity, like hiking, power-walking or biking; joining a recreational sports league in your area; buying home exercise videos or equipment; or signing up for swing-dancing lessons. None requires a speck of Spandex.

If you prefer to go the health-club route, though, look around to find one that suits your needs. Facilities like the YMCA usually have a less image-conscious clientele, as do gyms like Curves that now make up the fastest growing segment of the health-club industry, according to recent statistics from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, an industry group in Boston.

These no-frills clubs, which also include chains like Ladies Workout Express, Slender Lady and Cuts Fitness for Men, are generally smaller than traditional gyms and offer a short circuit-training workout. IHRSA statistics show there are now more than 10,000 such clubs across the nation.

"Given the success of Curves, there are just scads of imitators," says Bill Howland, director of research for IHRSA. "It's hard to keep track of them."

Often dubbed "express workouts," these fitness plans can be a good starting point for people who aren't ready for the full-service traditional gyms, says Howland.

"We think they're making a real contribution by getting people off the couch." After a few trips, he says, people say, "I can do this. This isn't so tough."

Then they might be ready to move on to a larger club with more amenities — perhaps like the one across the street.

Smart Fitness appears the second Tuesday of each month.