exercise work or play

Exercise: Work or Play?

September 17, 2014

Do you think about exercise as work or play? On the surface it might not appear to make a difference, exercise is exercise, right? But recent studies found that people who focused on physical activity as exercise consumed more calories post activity than those who focused on the activity as enjoyment.

Engaging in a physical activity seems to trigger the search for reward when individuals perceive it as exercise but not when they perceive it as fun.

Often weight loss does not occur as expected once starting an exercise program, researchers theorized this might be due to people rewarding themselves for physical exertion. Also people tend  to overestimate calories burned relative to the calories consumed. Studies were conducted to see if re-framing physical activity as something other than exercise would change how individuals compensated after the activity.

In the first study participants were divided into two groups, each group completed the same 30-minute, 1 mile walking path. However, the first group was told the purpose of the walk was for exercise, while the second group was told the purpose of the walk was to do something fun and were provided MP3 players loaded with music. After the walk, lunch was served and researcher documented food choices and calories consumed. Results indicate participants in the walk for exercise group consumed made less healthy food choices and consumed more calories than the walk for fun group.

Since music could be the reason a walk is more enjoyable, the second study repeated the first study scenario, two groups taking the same walk, but this time one group was told the walk was for exercise, while the second group was told he purpose of the walk was for sightseeing. After the walks all participates were offered M&Ms from a bowl and told to scoop out as much as they wanted into plastic snack bags. Researchers found participants in the walk for exercise grout filled their bags with more M&Ms than the sightseeing group.

The third study asked participants in a race to rate how much fun they had during the race. Some runners view racing as competitive, some as exercise, and others as fun. Researchers compared the level of fun to whether participants chose a candy bar or cereal bar as a post-race snack. They found that participants who indicated they had more fun during the run were more likely to choose the cereal bar.

The conclusion of the studies indicated that framing physical activity as fun instead of as exercise lead participants to consume less calories post activity. In the scope of encouraging individuals affected by obesity to increase activity to lose weight, healthcare practitioners should warn of the possible over compensation for exercise and encourage patients to find fun ways to incorporate more physical activity into their daily routine.

 Some simple ways to re-frame physical activity as fun:

  • Listen to music during workout

  • Have a phone conversation during a walk

  • Watch TV or video while on treadmill or elliptical

  • Play outside with your kids

  • Geo-caching

  • Interactive video games

  • Dancing

 How do you make physical activity fun? Tell us in the comments below.

Track your activities using the ObesityHelp Health Tracker.

Source: Werle, Caroline, Brian Wansink and Colin Payne. "Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking." Marketing Letters - A Journal of Research in Marketing (2014).