A Fun Workout for Fewer Calories

Framing exercise as fun led to fewer calories consumed after the workout

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Work hard, get a reward. It’s a simple mindset that in many cases is hardwired into peoples’ brains. But that reward system may not always be a benefit to one's health.

When it comes to your workout — whether you're hitting the weights or going for a run — you may be able to maximize the benefit simply in how you approach the activity.

New research from Cornell University found that framing exercise as fun may prompt people to consume fewer calories, particularly when it comes to indulgent options like dessert.

"Treat your workout as fun to reap extra benefits."

Brian Wansink, PhD, John Dyson professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University in New York, was this study's lead author.

The researchers wanted to study the intersection of eating and exercise, specifically whether exercise affects post-workout food choices if that exercise is considered fun.

Drawing on previous psychological research, Dr. Wansink and his colleagues started with the premise that people tend to compensate for exercise with a reward, namely high-calorie food.

The 56 study participants were all female, with an average age of 44.52, and 25 of them had a body mass index (a height/weight measure of body fat) in the normal range.

From there, the researchers assigned the participants to the exact same 30-minute, 1-mile walking route but framed the activity in two different ways.

One group was told the purpose was to exercise, and they were instructed to indicate their energy level at six points along the way.

The other group was told the activity was simply to do something fun by way of listening to music and stopping at the same six points to evaluate the clarity of the tunes.

After the activity, the participants were asked to evaluate the distance they covered and how many calories they thought they burned.

Next, the study group were treated to an all-you-can-eat buffet and their portions were weighed.

The fun activity group rated the walk as more exciting, with 7.19 points out of a nine-point scale, compared with a 6.45 from the exercise group. Both groups estimated the distance and calories burned at comparable rates.

On the food portions, both groups consumed similar amounts of main-course calories — 258 calories for the fun group and 271 for the exercise group — but a distinct difference emerged in drink and dessert choices. The fun group consumed 94 calories and the exercise group, largely choosing sugary soft drinks over bottled water, ate and drank 133 calories.

"Labeling a physical activity as fun can have positive consequences in terms of subsequent food decisions," the authors wrote.

“It seems that participants were having enough fun during the walk to prevent them from compensating through extra hedonic food consumption," they wrote.

These researchers suggested that framing activity as fun could be adopted into public policy on weight issues.

"Although it is true that some people who 'exercise' believe that they have 'earned' a treat, it is also true that over time, even those who see activity as fun will experience a sense of hunger relative to the calories they burned during their activity," said Rusty Gregory, a wellness coach, personal fitness trainer and author of "Self-Care Reform: How to Discover Your Own Path to Good Health" and "Living Wheat-Free For Dummies."

"This study directly relates to the phrase, 'work up an appetite,'" Gregory told dailyRx News. "Your body seeks caloric balance when calories are expended. The opposite is also true — when you eat, your body increases it's metabolism and it burns more calories. By eating a more nutrient-dense diet you will feel more satiated and have fewer hunger sensations, even if you exercise."

This study was published online July 9 in Marketing Letters.

The authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
July 11, 2014
Last Updated:
July 13, 2014