So you’ve been exercising for years and still aren’t losing as much weight as you’d expect? Get this: Science is now telling you to have more fun and to see better results. A new French and American research study is now suggesting people may lose more weight during physical activity that feels more like playtime than a torture session at the gym. This study suggests that your attitude toward physical activity influence what you eat after a workout and ultimately whether or not you drop pounds.
Many people who start exercising do not lose as much weight as expected. In fact, some people actually gain weight after starting a workout routine despite the extra calories burned at the gym. Here’s why: A lot of people who push their physical limits eat whatever they’d like after an intense gym visit. Previous studies have explained this phenomenon as an increase of appetite hormones post sweat session—that people really were ravenous after working hard. While this may explain the physiological part of it, this new study is hoping to prove that psychology can explain the rest. (Try these 7 ways to keep your appetite in check.)
Scientists recruited 56 overweight women and tasked them to complete the same one-mile outdoor course, with lunch to follow. Half of the women were told that this course will be rigorous exercise and to monitor their exertion levels. The rest were told that this is meant to be a walk for pleasure where they can listen to music and enjoy themselves. Upon completion of the course, the women were asked to estimate her mileage, calorie expenditure, and mood. Women in the first group reported feeling much grumpier and more fatigued even though the two groups estimates of mileage and calories burned were almost identical.
To confirm, once the women sat down to a pasta lunch with a choice of water or sugary soda, and applesauce or chocolate pudding, the women in the exercise group loaded up on much more soda and pudding than the women who thought they were just walking for fun. Basically, when you enjoy the reason why you’re staying active, you feel less of a need to reward yourself afterwards or eat like you’ve earned a giant meal.
A follow-up study was done by the same research time to reinforce and broaden their findings. This time, they collected a group of men and women to walk the same loop. The first group was again told to consider this session as exercise. The others were told they were there to sightsee and have fun. At the end, participants were allowed to fill a plastic bag with M&M candies as a thank you. Who do you think took the most chocolates for their goodie bag? The volunteers from the exercise group poured in twice as many candies as the other walkers.
To see if these findings applied in real life settings, the team made one last stop to validate their conclusions: the finish line of a marathon relay. They polled runners who had run anywhere from 3-7 miles to ask whether or not they had enjoyed the race, and then offered them a chocolate bar or a healthier cereal bar. Once again, runners who said the race was difficult or unsatisfying generally chose the chocolate, while those who had fun gravitated toward the cereal bar.
Most of us require recompense of some kind for a difficult workout. (Entire sleeve of Oreos, anyone?) When it comes down to it, if the exercise is fun, no additional reward is necessary. Find a way to make your daily movement truly enjoyable: bring a friend, listen to your favorite music or podcast, try a new class at the gym, or have a dance party in your bedroom. Best of all, there are plenty of other health benefits of playtime, so get moving!