Fun run, anyone?

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Do you find it hard to get enough exercise? Exercise plays a critical role in sleep regulation, maintaining a healthy body weight and overall mental wellbeing. But what goes through your mind when you’re on a run or sweating through a gym class? Are you having fun? Or are you pushing through because it’s for exercise? While the answer may seem irrelevant, your mindset actually has the power to completely derail your healthy goals.

Share the love: this post was written by science communication student Emma Giles.

You can probably remember a time when you exercised really, really hard. Perhaps you ran a gruelling race, or hiked up a mountain. Maybe you can recall your first spin class and how much harder it was than it looked.

If you think back to what inspired you to get started and keep going, there are two options.

One is you went into the activity for a non exercise-related reason. Maybe you were socialising with a friend, meeting new people, enjoying the view or some fresh air.

The other possibility is that getting exercise was the main thing on your mind: burning calories, losing weight or getting fit.

It turns out thinking of the activity in terms of exercise, rather than enjoying it for an unrelated reason, can have a very negative effect on the type and amount of food you consume afterwards.

How can exercise mindset play such an important role in your health successes? Researchers at Cornell Food and Brand Lab set up a series of experiments to investigate.

The secret to effective exercise: have fun while you're doing it! Image credit: Mike Boening Photography via Flickr.

The secret to effective exercise: have fun while you’re doing it! Image credit: Mike Boening Photography via Flickr.

A powerful intention

In the first study, the experimenters told participants they were going to take a walk. One half of the group was told the walk was for exercise, while the other half was told the walk was for pleasure.

The exercise participants were asked to record their energy level throughout the walk, while the pleasure participants were given music to listen to and asked questions about the music throughout the walk.

Afterwards, all of the participants were invited to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Here, the experimenters discovered something surprising.

When it came time for desert and drinks, the participants who were told the walk was for fun served themselves significantly fewer calories than the participants who saw the walk as exercise.

Even more, the exercise group rated themselves as more fatigued following the walk, despite the fact they performed the exact same activity as the participants who thought the walk was for fun!

Now, you’re probably wondering how this subtle difference could have such an effect. The answer lies in rewards.

The psychology of reward

It turns out just the thought of having performed physical activity makes us susceptible to wanting to compensate and reward ourselves for the hard work.

It’s called compensation. When you do something you don’t want to do, you find a way to ‘reward’ yourself. Professor Brian Wansink, Cornell University

After a hard workout, it’s easy to fall into this mindset and justify rewarding ourselves. And while there’s nothing wrong with a reward, it’s all too easy to overestimate how hard we worked and underestimate how much we are consuming when we treat ourselves.

This drive to reward ourselves with food is powerful, especially if we start to make it a habit. The brain actually contains an entire circuit devoted to rewards! And this circuit happens to be tied up with addiction pathways in the brain.

This means the brain is hardwired to become addicted to rewards. So each time we reward ourselves with food after a workout to compensate for our hard work, we strengthen these connections in the brain and it becomes harder to break the cycle.

Kicking the habit

So what can we do about this cycle?

The Cornell Food and Brand lab study shows the answer is simple. Simply performing exercise for pleasure seems to be all it takes to prevent that pesky feeling of needing to reward ourselves.

This is the perfect excuse to ditch any sport or activity you secretly dread but have been doing for the physical benefits. Instead, find something you love. It will be good for your mind and your waistline.

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  1. Wow, I could see what would happen next with the ‘fun’ walk vs ‘exercise’ walk, but I didn’t guess the food one. It makes me feel that I’m on the right track with my current exercise. I’ve taken up taekwondo and yes there is an aspect of fun, but it’s more about the fun of a challenge and getting one step closer to my goal of getting to black belt,

  2. Pingback: Walking the walk – Espresso Science

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