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Can just thinking about exercise cause us to put on weight?

The Daily Mail recently published a story with a headline that just thinking about a workout makes us eat more! The article said a study has found that people who read and thought about exercising, ate 50% more food!

Research has been carried out to test this 'subconscious reward theory'.

The thinking is that when we give attention and/or physical effort to exercise, we subconsciously provide a 'reward' via eating more. The research required participants to describe scenarios such as performing a 30 minute walk while considering how tired they might feel. Afterwards they were offered food from bowls of sweets or salty snacks as a reward for their time. The researchers found that those who thought about exercise ate 59% more sweet snacks and 52% more salty snacks than the Control Group.

This research obviously suggests a deeper, potentially uncontrollable drive to eat, but this may be specific to an individual's association with exercise. For example one person might associate exercise with food and weight, whereas someone else may associate it with toning, strengthening bones, improving health and enhancing posture! Also some people find that exercise suppresses their appetite, while others say it increases it!

So what does this mean? Should we avoid thinking about exercise!?! We think not!

The suggested theory, although possibly suggesting an intrinsic feedback system from brain to body, does more to reinforce how we view food in western culture - in particular as a 'reward' or a 'treat'.

Less healthier foods seem far more appealing and justified when we view it as something we 'deserve' after the 'stressful day we have had'! The theory also suggests that this internal drive is perhaps beyond our control - but how can this be the case when not everyone chooses unhealthy snacks or increases their calorie intake after thinking about or doing exercise? Surely this is an issue about habits - habit development and the difficulty of habit-breaking due to pressures of society and our busy lifestyles!

What is clear:

- Being well-hydrated, eating proper meals and at regular intervals reduces the likelihood of feeling hungry or choosing unhealthy food or snacks if offered to you. If you don't feel hungry, then the drive to eat will be psychological or behavioural (i.e. a habit) as opposed to some underlying physiological need!

- Having a structured eating plan with regular meal times will prevent issues like blood sugar lows which do have a physiological response of signalling the brain that you need sugar very soon. At this point we are far more susceptible to reach for the chocolate, biscuits or caffeine for a 'quick fix'.

- The habits we develop have a lot to answer for in terms of evening routines e.g. involving a glass of wine, or our resistance to fattening foods. Conscious awareness of our actions is needed i.e. thinking about the routines we usually do without thinking. Plus if you are structured and organised, it helps your willpower in achieving behaviour change.

- Researchers believe that changing our attitude to exercise is the key. If we can break the mental association of exercise with food and body weight, this would have a significant influence on eating behaviour and weight control. It's no easy feat to change the way we think - but it is possible! Be prepared to invest time, commitment and continued effort to re-train old habits!

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