Do you see exercise as a chore? Something like a work task that has to be done, despite your own desires? If so, there may be a chance you “compensate” yourself later on with reward-type foods, such as desserts.

A recent study by Werle and colleagues, participants were asked to go on a walk around campus. They told some of the participants to take a “scenic” walk and that the purpose of the walk was to have “fun.” The other group was told to take a walk for “exercise.” The exercise group ended up choosing and eating more high calorie dessert options, such as chocolate pudding and M&M’s, after the walk.

The idea of compensatory eating has been around for a while in the research literature and findings have been mixed. Sometimes researchers find that people overcompensate and eat more calories after exercise. Other studies have not found a relationship between eating and exercise. Perhaps this may be in part due to how activity is perceived, as suggested by the Werle study.

If so, what are the implications? Obviously it would be best if you chose activities that you like and find fun. This we know already. People who enjoy the activities they do to exercise tend to exercise more and stick with it longer. But what if you don’t really like any kind of physical activity?

Try this. Make yourself feel as happy as you have ever felt, right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait…How did that go? Not really possible, right? In the same way, I don’t think you can make an activity fun for yourself. Imagine jogging and saying to yourself over and over, “this is fun, damnit!” But the lesson from the Werle study is still important, because ultimately it is a lesson about perception.

One way you can change your perception of what you are doing is by linking it to things that matter to you. If you are just exercising because it’s a chore you do, that is the least motivating perspective you can have. Now, it you are instead exercising because the fitness, energy, and mobility allow you to keep up with and enjoy your time more with your kids/grandkids, or because it allows you to go on that hike with friends, or to travel to Europe and walk around the beautiful cities without problems, well now you are really doing something of worth. Try thinking and writing about why exercising matters to you and how it connects to that which you hold most important.

Unless of course you find certain activities fun, then by all means do those!


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Dr. Jason Lillis is author of The Diet Trap: Feed Your Psychological Needs and End the Weight Loss Struggle available on Amazon and where all books are sold.  

About the Author

Jason Lillis Ph.D.

Jason Lillis, Ph.D., is assistant professor of research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

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