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Want to Eat Less? Stop “Exercising,” Have Fun Instead!

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We already know that one of exercise’s unintended consequences can be extra calories: “Exercise can increase the body’s production of appetite hormones, making some people feel ravenous after even a light workout and prone to consume more calories than they expended,” explains The New York Times. In other words: What better way to celebrate that five mile run than with cake?!

A new study may provide some insight into why it’s so difficult to achieve weight loss through exercise. Part of it may be related to the halo effect of working out—creating a situation in which virtue (exercise) can be followed by vice (cake). Take the virtue out of it, though, and you might have a different story.

For example: What if we consider exercise not “exercise,” but a form of play instead? The study, published in Marketing Letters, suggests that simply changing our perspective might be enough to short-circuit the connection between exercise and the dietary overindulgences that sometimes follow it.

Fifty-six women participated in the first study. All were given a map of a one-mile outdoor course and told to expect 30 minutes of walking there, with lunch afterward. Half the women were told they were exercising. The other half were told they were walking “purely for pleasure.” The differences were notable both in terms of mood and raw calories: The “exercisers” reported feeling more “fatigued and grumpy.” They also paid themselves a reward at the lunch buffet, choosing soda and pudding over water and applesauce—consuming more calories than their pleasure-walk counterparts, though, of course, their energy expenditures were similar.

A follow-up study repeated those findings even more starkly. Once they were finished walking, both “exercisers” and the “purely for pleasure” crew were invited to fill a plastic bag with M&M’s: “The volunteers from the exercise group poured in twice as much candy as the other walkers.” A third iteration of the study had researchers quizzing runners on whether they’d had a fun race or a difficult one. Those who described their run as “difficult” or “unsatisfying” were more likely to choose a chocolate bar as their post-run snack than a cereal bar.

What does this mean for us? How we look at our workout may be just (if not more) important than the workout itself. If we find it miserable, we’ll want a reward for our hard work—and that reward may very well come in the form of dessert. On the other hand, if we think of that same workout as a huge amount of fun, the workout itself will be our reward, leaving us to prove our virtue in other ways—including with our meal choices.

Walking, running, hitting a Zumba class—what are you doing for “fun” today? Tell us in the comments!

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