Is It Fun or Exercise? The Framing of Physical Activity Biases Subsequent Snacking
People tend to compensate for the calories burned by indulging in unhealthy snacking after exercising. This study shows that the key component to preventing this compensation effect is influencing the way people perceive exercise, which in turn influences how much they eat post-exercise. This has important implications for public health strategies for obesity prevention, as well as the multi-billion dollar fitness and food industries.
We conducted three studies. In the first, 56 female administrative staff members of a large Northeastern university were split into two groups and asked to complete a one-mile walking route on campus. In one group the walk was framed as exercise. In the other group, we framed the walk as fun, by asking them to assess the sound quality of MP3 players. Upon returning from the walk participants were asked to serve themselves food from a buffet,. We weighed their plates and converted the amount served to calories. Participants were then asked to choose between applesauce and chocolate pudding, and to choose between water and regular Coke. The chocolate pudding and Coke served as the hedonic options. The second study was procedurally similar to the first, but, to eliminate any confounding factors that listening to music might have, the description of the fun walk was framed as a sightseeing campus visit. Post-exercise, the 46 participants were asked to serve themselves M&Ms. In the third study, we surveyed 200 runners after a marathon race to see whether they perceived the race as fun or as exercise. We then asked them to choose between a chocolate bar, the hedonic/unhealthy choice, and a cereal bar, the relatively healthier choice.
We found no difference between the amount of calories served and eaten in the buffet component of the first study. Additionally, though there was also no difference in preference of the hedonic options between the two conditions, we found that people in the exercise group tended to consume more (35%) chocolate pudding than those in the fun group. In the second study, participants in the fun group took significantly fewer (206 calories) M&Ms than those in the exercise group. In the third study, we found that those who framed the race as more fun were more likely to choose the cereal bar.
This study ultimately helped to illuminate the relationship between exercise, food choice, and subsequent consumption. Specifically, framing exercise as a fun or enjoyable activity has the ability to decrease the amount of side dish calories consumed (study 1), to decrease the amount of hedonic calories served (study 2), and to influence healthier snack choices (study 3). In public policy and health interventions, our research shows that highlighting exercise as fun may help in obesity prevention strategies. For the fitness and food industries, our research may increase retention of members (and thus profitability). Gyms can implement an educational component that teaches members to frame exercise as enjoyable in order to avoid compensation effects with unhealthy food.