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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Daily Dose

Viewing exercise as fun means you’ll eat less after, study finds

Ever give yourself permission to eat a doughnut or candy bar after a particularly punishing workout? Indulging after exercise is a common phenomenon and a big reason why studies suggest people don’t lose much weight from exercise alone.

But there may be a way to keep yourself from eating back all those calories you burned off: The next time you don your sneakers and shorts, do an activity that’s “fun.” Cornell University researchers found in a recent series of experiments that people who engage in physical activity that they think of as fun eat fewer sweets afterward than those who consider the same amount of activity is done for the purpose of calorie-burning exercise. The research was published online in May in the journal Marketing Letters.

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In the first experiment, 56 female volunteers were either told they would be taking a one-mile outdoor walk for exercise or would be engaging in a 1-mile fun activity where they would be rating different kinds of music playing on their iPods.

After both groups walked for a mile, they served themselves food from a buffet. While the amount of calories eaten for the main course didn’t differ between the two groups, the group that took the “exercise” walk ate 35 percent more chocolate pudding for dessert than those who took the “fun” walk.

In another experiment, participants who took an exercise walk ate 206 more calories afterward -- in the form of M&M’s -- than those who took the same walk that was done for “sight-seeing”.

The researchers found the same eating differences among those who completed a running race that they deemed to be fun or deemed to be grueling exercise. One way to explain these differences, the study authors concluded, is that we’re more likely to reward ourselves by overeating when we feel we’ve exerted a lot of unpleasant effort to burn calories.

“Do whatever you can to make your workout fun. Play music, watch a video, or simply be grateful that you’re working out instead of working in the office,” study co-author Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, said in a statement. “Anything that brings a smile, is likely to get you to eat less.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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