While riding my stationary bike, I like to do things to distract myself from the huffing and puffing. One morning not long ago, in the midst of such a diversion, I came across the following headline: “Is your exercise work or play?”
The accompanying article talked about new research that showed that if you perceive of an activity as fun rather than fitness, you’ll eat less once it’s over. Is this for real?
Dr. Prescott prescribes
Well, there is such a study. A group of researchers published their findings in May in a journal called “Marketing Letters.” In it, the authors propose that you’re more likely to indulge post-workout if you feel like you earned a calorie-laden reward for activities we deem exercise rather than enjoyment.
But when you hear the details of the study, I’m not so sure you’ll agree with this conclusion.
The researchers relied primarily on two experiments. In the first, they gave two groups of women instructions to go on a 30-minute walk. While researchers told one group that the purpose of the activity was exercise, they gave the other group MP3 players and instructed them that the walk was intended “to do something fun.”
Once the women finished walking, the researchers treated them to a free meal at an all-you-can-eat buffet. But, as we all know, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In fact, this meal was the scientists’ sneaky way to study how much the women ate.
When it came to entrees, both groups ate similarly. But for desserts and beverages, the “exercisers” consumed more calories than their “fun” counterparts — an average of 134 calories versus 94.
In a second 30-minute walk experiment, the researchers again told women that the activity was intended to be either exercise or fun. At the conclusion of the walk, to thank them for taking part, the scientists allowed the participants to fill baggies with as many M&Ms as they wanted. Once more, the fun folks took less candy.
So those are the facts. To me, they’re not enough to support the study’s conclusion.
Sure, it’s great to perceive of physical activities as an enjoyable thing. But it seems quite a stretch from these two experiments to conclude that thinking about exercise as fun will lead you to eat less when you’re done.
What’s more, even if these results held true, a difference of 40 calories is piddling. It takes 90 times that amount — 3,600 calories — to add or subtract a single pound of body weight.
And one last thing: In the real world, how exactly does one take the “exercise” out of exercising? It’s easy enough when, as in this study, researchers fool their subjects into engaging in an activity that’s really designed to accomplish something else. But we can’t replicate that in our day-to-day lives (unless our employers start sponsoring undercover fitness programs disguised as daily scavenger hunts).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for making physical activity enjoyable. To maintain a long-term fitness program, you should choose workouts that you find appealing, not miserable. And if listening to music or catching up on “House of Cards” helps those sweat-filled sessions go faster, just do it.
I’m just not convinced the “exercise” or “fun” label matters when it comes to how much we eat when we’re done. If you stay mindful about your post-workout caloric intake, you’ll be in great shape. And how fun is that?
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF’s senior vice president and general counsel.