For some people, physical activity is a hobby, a chance to participate in a favorite activity, excel in a beloved sport, or just to relax and have fun. For others, it's exercise, a necessary chore. The question is, does your perception of it affect the other things you do -- like snacking?
In a series of three studies, researchers Carolina OC Werle, Brian Wansink, and Collin R Payne examined whether viewing physical activity as exercise or as fun affected the foods people chose and the amount they ate. What they found was actually pretty remarkable.
The unexpected relationship between fun and food
In the first experiment, subjects were sent on a one-mile walk around a college campus and either told that it was for exercise, and that they'd need to evaluate their fatigue levels at different points on the route, or that it was for a fun MP3 player evaluation activity. These participants were asked to evaluate the quality of the sound and other features at the same points.
When served a buffet lunch, the people in the "fun" group had the same amount of lunch as those in the exercise group -- except that they chose healthier options, or consumed less of the unhealthy options such as dessert and beverages. In other words, they tended to prefer the healthier choice instead of indulging.
But maybe this was the influence of the music -- so the researchers tried again. This time, "fun" was classified as sightseeing around campus, and the treat at the end of the activity was a self-serve bag of M&Ms. Participants could take as much as they wanted. Crazy enough, people in the fun group took less than half the calories, on average, than those in the exercise group.
The same held true for a study of participants in a local race. Those who reported having more fun were also more likely to select a "healthy snack" as opposed to a chocolate bar.
In all three experiments, perceiving physical exercise as fun had an immediate effect on how people chose to eat. More fun meant less junk food, whereas more exercise meant more junk food. It might have something to do with the idea of rewarding oneself; after all, if you just felt like you got through a grueling race or had to undergo an impromptu workout, maybe you'd want to reward yourself, too.
On the other hand, if you're enjoying a little sightseeing, or having a great time running on a beautiful day, you might think of that enjoyment as its own reward.
Doing good is its own reward?
The link between these studies and pretty much every area of life is immediate. Think about work: Is it a challenging and invigorating experience, or a slow, melancholy burn? Do you feel like you need to treat yourself to a beer afterwards?
What about saving money? Sticking to your budget? Setting aside money for retirement?
Could we be shooting ourselves in the foot by regarding these important habits as chores that we begrudgingly have to participate in? It makes me wonder about the ways I might have "rewarded" myself to my own detriment in the past. (I am pondering my shoe collection with some measure of concern.)
But there's a wonderful lesson here. Perhaps simply changing your perception of something to find a measure of joy in it can help you truly reap the benefits of that activity. If the activity is exercise, then maybe the result will be less snacking on junk food. If it's saving money, then maybe the result will be discovering the pleasure of investing.
Of course, as is always the case in science, more research is needed. But for now, you can bet that I'll be trying this out on myself.
To learn more, take a look at Is it Fun or Exercise? The Framing of Physical Activity Biases Subsequent Snacking by Carolina OC Werle, Brian Wansink, and Collin R Payne.