Exercise burns calories. We’d all love to believe that we can forgo the unpleasant recommendation to eat less if we committed to exercising more – and the biggest fans of the “move more” doctrine are the makers of calorie-dense processed foods.
And while there are so many compelling reasons to exercise — regular physical activity reduces heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, boosts mental health, fosters strong muscles and strong bones and improves our looks — exercise alone rarely results in weight loss.
One of the obvious reasons for the disappointing weight-loss outcome of an exercise alone regimen is that physical activity increases appetite, and we quickly reimburse ourselves for the calories spent with calories eaten.
Just thinking about exercise makes us eat more
A new study in the journal Appetite has an even more downbeat finding: Just thinking about exercise — without ever moving a muscle — may make us eat more.
The study group included 94 people shopping in a mall in the Northeastern US. People were asked about their shopping habits, exercise habits or music listening habits (to mask the study’s true intent).
After answering the initial questions the test subjects read a scenario describing either a fun 30-minute walk, or a 30-minute exercise walk. The control group just answered questions about shopping.
Once questionnaires were completed the participants received what they thought was a token of gratitude for their time and effort, but what was really the main measured outcome of the study. The participants were offered as-much-as-you’d-like ChexMix and M&M’s which they scooped into bags.
The people who read the 30-minute walk scenario poured about 60 percent more M&M’s and 52 percent more ChexMix into their thank you bag. It didn’t matter if the walk was described as a “fun” walk or a strenuous walk — both groups compensated themselves by additional snacks compared to the control group.
Overcoming calorie compensation
Advanced exercise equipment quantifies the number of calories spent working out — it’s actually more a guess than a true measurement. If exercise is perceived as permission to eat, the treadmill's calorie calculator may be its worst feature.
So how do we decouple exercise and eating? The authors, led by Carolina Werle, suggest we stop presenting physical activity as a route to weight-loss, and present it as a method to improve muscle tone, improve posture, strengthen bones and improve health. Exercise should be pursued as a goal in and of itself, rather than a means to an end (the end goal being weight-loss).
Some of my food loving friends who are super committed to exercise claim that exercise enables them to enjoy food in a less restricted way, while maintaining their weight. I think that attitude works quite well.
If thinking about sports may increase snacking, how about watching sports? I’d be really curious to see if watching other people involved in physical activities (something so many of us love to do) increases consumption. What do you think? Does watching sports make you eat more?
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