Do you reward yourself for exercising?

Time after time, exercise alone has proven to be an ineffective tool for creating weight loss. This has baffled most everyone, from the average Jane to fitness experts. After all, weight loss happens when you burn more calories than you consume. So why are folks not losing weight from exercise alone?

Starvation terrifies our bodies (yes, anthropomorphizing the human body here). Because of this, they are especially good at balancing things out. Researchers have found that folks that exercise more tend to be more lazy around the house at other times of the day.

But we also know that we tend to eat more when we exercise. Particularly when we practice long moderate-intensity style workouts like traditional cardio.

Our bodies are making sure that we keep a constant energy balance, no matter how heavy or thin we may be.

But there is more than just basic biology going on. The science of psychology has a bit to say on the matter as well. In 2014, Carolina Werle, Brian Wansink, and Collin Payne published a paper in Marketing Letters entitled “Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking.

Moving for fun vs moving for exercise

The researchers examined how perception of physical activity would impact food choice decisions. Would thinking of physical activity as fun, rather than exercise, lead to healthier food choices?

In the first study, researchers split 56 female administrative staff members, with an average age of 44.52 years, into two groups.

Given a map of the campus with a 1-mile route, the first group was instructed to listen to music and take a pleasurable walk.

Given the same route, the second group was told they were walking for exercise.

After the walk, all participants were provided an all-you-can-eat buffet with pasta and meat, grean beans, and bread. They were also given the option of applesauce or pudding and Coke or water.

Researcher noted food choices. They also noted the amount of food participants served themselves and then ate.

Both groups ate the same number of calories of the main course meal. And 50% of both groups chose the chocolate pudding and Coke.

But, the group that walked for exercise ate more chocolate pudding than those who walked for fun.

*It should be noted that perception of the physical activity did not impact perceived distance walked nor perceived calories burned.

Walking for M&M’s

The researchers wondered if the music might have played too much of a role, so they conducted another study.

This time, the walk-for-fun group walked for sight-seeing purposes with no music.

With this study, the two groups were allowed to serve themselves mini-M&M’s post-walk. The group that walked for exercise served themselves significantly more M&M’s than the group who walked for fun.

In a 2014 study, those who walked for exercise, instead of fun, served themselves more M&M’s post-walk Click To Tweet

What about regular exercisers

The last study engaged people who had just completed a marathon.

Post-race, researchers asked participants their perception of the race via a survey. Then they offered the racers either a candy bar or a cereal bar(healthier choice).

Even among folks who had trained and ran a marathon, those that had more fun during the race were more likely to choose the cereal bar over the candy bar.

What does this mean for you

The researchers focused a great deal of their discussion on how fitness experts and medical personnel could use the information. They recommend that experts should remind their clients to avoid rewarding exercise with food.

I think the real take-away is how important it is to move in ways you find fun and rewarding.

If going to the gym feels like a chore, you’re going to want to reward yourself for all your hard work.

But if the gym is fun, engaging, and enjoyable, going becomes a reward all on its own.

Find ways to move that you enjoy and you won’t need to reward yourself with a post-workout Starbucks run. Click To Tweet

Of course, for some, the gym will never be fun, for countless reasons. This is why it is so important to find ways to move that you find enjoyable and to make that movement a treat.

Here are some ways you can make any form of movement more enjoyable.

  • Listen to your favorite podcast or audiobook only during physical activity
  • Create a special playlist of all your favorite songs and listen to it as you move
  • Only watch your favorite TV show during or right after physical activity
  • Make physical activity the center of a weekly girls night out
  • Create competitions for the family, Olympic Games style
  • Take the dog out onto a new trail every week
  • Create a grab jar of local recreation options and each weekend choose a family activity from the jar
  • Create a challenge to try as many new forms of movement in a month as you can — find out which ones you enjoyed the most and keep them up
  • Grab a pack of cards and assign a movement to each suit. As a family, draw the cards and do the movement equal to the number on the card
  • Finish every workout with your favorite movement
  • Gamify your workouts, creating a point system for workouts or movements and try to level up

Remember, if you perceive physical activity as work, you’ll seek out ways to reward yourself for your effort. More than likely, you’ll find yourself mawing down on a Starbucks Cranberry Bliss bar after your next run.

Instead, treat yourself with movement that you enjoy and there will be no need for that special snack later.

Originally published at on January 14, 2016.

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