Are You Compensating For Something?

December 23, 2015

I enjoy listening to various podcasts when I work out, when I’m on the stationary bike or even when I’m running!

One of the channels that (almost always) climbs to the top of my playlist each week is Freakonomics, an economics podcast by the authors of that book with the same name that you’ve heard about, maybe even bought, but probably haven’t read.

Yet, if the prospect of an economics podcast just sent shivers down your spine, then put on a sweater and give a few episodes of this one a listen. I suspect you may face your fear to positive effect.

One episode I would suggest for runners is the recently posted “The Cheeseburger Diet” which while it does talk a lot about cheeseburgers, is actually less about cheeseburgers and more about the tangential observation that humans are interesting creatures and we do strange things… like this thing called compensatory behavior.

I’ve heard some of you compensating with my own ears

Compensation: You do it, too. I know you do. Because I’ve heard some of you compensating with my own ears.

So, the podcast led in with a story about one woman’s obsession with finding the ultimate cheeseburger. She sounded like my kinda gal: not because of the cheeseburger obsession, but because of the analytical, over-thinking process she went through of setting up a process, schedule, a grading system, and then (essentially) writing a book-length document chronicling the results and her adventure (which she has no plan on publishing, of course.) In the context, you think the story is leading to something about a new fad diet of eating cheeseburgers and fries twice a week as a model of some unexpected outcome relating to weight loss, but it turns out to be a little more mundane and grounded than that. (Get it? Ground-ed? Hamburger? Oh, never mind.)

Drooling Economists

As it turns out she followed some classic compensatory behavior. Just like salivating over a fresh burger, this is the stuff that makes human economists drool.

“If you take on some extra risk in one area of your life, you might need to compensate by adding some precautionary behavior in another area. Some of us are certainly better at this than others, but it is a nice act of faith, isn’t it? Faith in ourselves, and our ability to self-regulate, as opposed to relying on some top-down guideline that may produce the behavior you’re hoping for — or, given the power of the law of unintended consequences, may produce the opposite behavior.”Freakonomics Podcast, Episode 230

Cheeseburger Lady did not actually end up gaining a hundred pounds over her year of eating greazy burgers. Why? Because she made up for it in other parts of her diet: she ate healthier for the other nineteen meals of the week, as she put it, rather than just adding a more fast food to her menu. She compensated for one increasing health risk by consciously reducing another.

All Of You Runners?

Runners do this. I know we do this, because (a) we’re human, and (b) I’ve done it and (c) I’m therefore extrapolating my observational data to include all runners in the entire universe. Can you believe I actually have a university science degree?

Sarcastic exaggeration aside, I’ve noticed that many of us seem to do this in both positive ways and negative ones. We do this in ways that usually relate back to eating more because we’re running more. We do it by saying (stupid) things like: I’m burning more calories by training so I deserve a desert today. Or, I just ran ten klicks so I’m going to have a great big cookie at coffee afterwards. In fact, I’ve heard one particular refrain come from the mouth of many of my fellow runners at one point or another: “I run because I like to eat.” You know that one? I know that one? I may have even said it myself.

eating all the cheesyburgers

In the podcast, Cheeseburger Lady had managed to maintain her healthy weight over the year of her cheeseburger quest, and in fact improved a few other health factors like her cholesterol counts, and the reason proposed was that she had been compensating for a new risk factor (eating all the cheesyburgers) by behaving better in the rest of her life (walking more & eating less other junk.)

Conscious Compensation

As the podcast concluded, it was revealed that Cheeseburger Lady’s biggest struggle came when she stopped eating two burgers per week: she no longer had reason to compensate, perhaps. Her discipline wavered. The balance she’d found between risk-factor extremes had unbalanced, and…

The takeaway lesson, at least I think so, is simple to understand (if not-so-simple to implement.)

We run. We fuel. We eat. We train. We burn calories. We consume some more. And in this complex mathematical dance of calculating optimal caloric intake to meet the ever-changing requirements of a casual fitness schedule we find a narrow path down which one side is hunger and the other side is over-eating. Straying from that path is as easy as under –or over– compensating. And when we compensate as a matter of course, as a purpose for the effort itself, that compensation in either direction becomes an excuse. In other words, if we learned one thing from Cheeseburger Lady it’s that we should not let compensation become justification.