It’s a common rookie mistake, but plenty of diet-and-exercise veterans make it, too: With an act of will, you muster yourself to the gym or the track, and you gut your way through an arduous workout. When you sit down to dinner or go to the break room later that day, you say to yourself, “By God, I’ve earned this (sugary soda, yummy snack, second helping, dessert, second glass of wine). I worked hard today!”
A week or so later, you’re standing on the scale wondering what happened.
Answer: You forgot to have fun.
A new study delves into one of the great mysteries of diet, exercise and weight loss: why, when you’ve started a grueling exercise regimen in a bid to shape up, it’s common to gain, not lose weight. Sure, there’s the old reassurance that muscles weigh more than fat. But when the weight gain comes before any evidence that we’ve changed our body composition significantly, I think we all know we’re kidding ourselves.
“Framing”—or the way we think about—the experience of exercise matters, a trio of researchers at Cornell University’s food psychology lab found. More specifically, they found, it influences not only what we choose to eat after the experience, but how much of it.
When we think of the physical activity we engage in as fun, or at least incidental to fun, we make better food choices. When we frame physical activity as exercise, we’re more likely to choose rewarding foods and to eat more of them, the study found.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Marketing Letters, was ingeniously simple. College administrative staff members were told to wear comfortable shoes and were promised a free lunch after they completed their task. Half the subjects were handed a map, told that the purpose of the study was to exercise, and sent on a 30-minute, one-mile course with occasional stops to assess their level of fatigue.
The other half were given the same walking map but handed an MP-3 player and told that the purpose of the study was to assess the clarity of the music at six different stopping points along the way.
Afterward, researchers offered their 56 subjects a lunch of pasta and meat sauce, green beans and a choice of either a sugary soft drink or water and applesauce or chocolate pudding. Researchers distracted their subjects not only so they wouldn’t discuss their walking experiences with one another, but so they could measure how much they served themselves and record what choices they made.
A second experiment used the same walking course but set one group on what was described as a sightseeing walk while the other went on what it was told was an exercise course. Afterward, researchers offered the 46 subjects the chance to help themselves to M&Ms and surreptitiously weighed the bags that subjects poured for themselves before sending them on their way.
Compared with the walkers distracted by pleasant music, the exercisers were more likely to choose sugary soda over water. Although the exercisers were no more or less likely to pick the chocolate pudding, they served themselves more of it, on average, than did the subjects who thought they had taken an enjoyable walk.
Interestingly, the two groups consumed roughly the same number of calories’ worth of pasta, sauce and green beans. That, said the researchers, suggests that the workhorse subjects were rewarding themselves by choosing and eating more of the foods and beverages that are tasty treats than they were simply boosting their calorie intake.
Compared with subjects who ambled along taking in the campus’ attractions, those who perceived their walk as exercise served themselves larger portions of M&Ms upon completion of the walk.
Finally, the researchers took advantage of a real footrace and asked 231 runners who had run between five and 10 kilometers to fill out a brief survey that assessed how much fun they had had. Then they offered the runner a choice of a chocolate bar or a cereal bar.
Sure enough, irrespective of runners’ hunger levels, their body mass index or the distance they had run, those who indicated they had had more fun running the race were more likely to take a cereal bar. The chocolate bars were more often the choice of those who viewed the race more as a test or a workout than a pleasant challenge.
The upshot is simple, said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab: If you think of your physical activity as fun, you’re less likely to feel the need to reward yourself than if you see your workout as an exhausting chore. That may involve a few mind games, he noted, but the reward is that you won’t negate the benefits of your workout with poor food choices.
“Do whatever you can to make your workout fun. Play music, watch a video or simply be grateful that you’re working out instead of working in the office,” said Wansink. “Anything that brings a smile is likely to get you to eat less.”