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

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

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!

About the Author

Diana Keeler
Diana Keeler

Diana Keeler has written about travel, health, and adventure for The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Outside, and other outlets. She’s run two marathons and done P90X on five continents—but still struggles to cut fried shrimp from her diet. She once drove from London to Mongolia in a 1990 Nissan Micra; for reports and pretty pictures from some less demanding trips, follow her on Twitter and Instagram


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

  1. Avatar JofJLTNCB6 says:


  2. Avatar RoliePolieOlie says:

    Or maybe the “exercisers” were PMS-ing or something. I don’t eat cookies just because my workout sucked. What a dumb “study”. This is not science. Now, thanks to this article, so many people are questioning the fun-ness of their choice of exercise. “Okay, so exercise isn’t a party, so that’s why I can’t lose weight!” Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

  3. Avatar rainmusic says:

    Maybe if you’ve exercised hard, then there’s a feeling, even if it’s unconscious, that you’ve earned that treat. Whereas, if you were out having fun, you don’t feel a need to reward yourself with food, since the activity is its own reward.

    • Avatar Karen says:

      I think you’re on to something! I have to consciously remind myself not to reward myself with food. I’m not exercising so I can eat the donut. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

  4. Avatar Guest says:

    There’s no need to cut fried shrimp from your diet, Diane.

  5. Avatar GiverOuter says:

    Agreeing with RoliePolieOlie, the study does seem a bit forced. Measuring the number of M&Ms? Come on.
    As for the fun factor, we already knew that, the more fun you have doing anything (work, being in a relationship…) the more of a rewarding experience it is.
    Maybe a better and more quantifiable study would be a comparison of athlete performance in “fun runs” vs “traditional” ones. I don’t know.
    I run, I run every day, some days, I hate running, shin splints, my rhythm is off, or the t-shirt is uncomfortable, other days I’m flying, and loving it, there are SO many factors.

  6. Avatar B_Reasonable says:

    Dance Trance (like Zumba) is the only cardio I can do without going completely brain dead. Weight training is like taking a sedative to me. So yes, it’s pretty obvious that we have to do what keeps us engaged or we won’t stick to it… it’s obvious. To me, the goal is finding a way to make something that isn’t fun, but needed, something I’ll do regularly. Zombie weightlifting? Color pushups? LOL

  7. Avatar Jennie Vanstavern says:

    Even tho I drink lots of water during Zumba, I need my banana and chocolate milk for enough energy to get home! Confronted with a buffet, I know I would chow down on anything that had 1000 cals or more per bite!

  8. Avatar jey says:

    Or maybe cleaning house really help to burns calories. Cleaning wouldn’t call exercise it is a physical activity. “Activity” is classified as either exercise that performed to enhance physical fitness or work that done to keep our self-alive. Like any physical activity, chores you do around the house and garden can burn calories and stretch and tone muscles, but you have to do it correctly.

    In my research Doctors now believe that even short bouts of relatively mild exercise can help improve your fitness level especially for people who are just getting started with exercise. Though it’s not likely to give you the body of a swimsuit model, doing some sort of moderate activity for 30 minutes every day can bring real health benefits and if you add 30 minutes of chores to a 30-minute session of a more traditional fitness activity (like walking or biking), you end up with a full hour of exercise — the amount experts recommend for people trying to lose weight. That can be easier on your schedule then trying to fit in a 60-minute workout all at once.

    Other people also take a supplement like Fish Oil it can really help to reduce our weight. In my research. I found a CURT PEDERSEN study, that 2 grams of Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) every day for 6 weeks, can lost more than 2 lbs. of body fat. Fish Oil Supplements also decrease your appetite, it helps you stay full is that it is able to regulate the release of a chemical called serotonin. Serotonin helps to regulate your appetite and mood. This effect is also what gives fish oil its antidepressant benefits. In addition, better take vitamins (like biotin) that can boost your body metabolism. A good metabolism is one of the primary keys for weight loss because a body with proper metabolic rate will easily help your body burn more fats and carbohydrates.

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