Fitness

The post-exercise habit that could be hindering your weight loss journey

After working out do you reward yourself with an indulgent treat? Beware – you might be sabotaging your health goals and then some.

By Jo Hartley

Is there anything better than boxing your stress away, running in the great outdoors or hiking up a mountain? For some of us, the answer is yes – anything's preferable to that.

Some of us view exercise as a chore, but does this perception also impact our consumption of cake? According to science it might.

A 2014 study, 'Is it fun or exercise?' explored the link between exercise perception and subsequent snacking. In the experiment, participants were offered a delicious dessert post-walk. Those who walked for exercise, and not fun, indulged in more cake than those who walked for pleasure.

"It's quite common for people to exercise to 'burn off' what they've eaten," says dietician Natasha Murray. "I've heard a lot of water-cooler talk about the time needed in an activity to counteract the kilojoules consumed in a treat."

Natasha notes that the problem with this is that it creates a perpetual cycle. We're always trying to outrun our bad food choices. But, when we do physically run, we reward ourselves with food for our efforts.

The higher we perceive our efforts, the bigger the reward. A single serve of chocolate just doesn't hit the spot, so we scoff the whole bar.

"The risk of this is that we can end up eating just for the sake of eating and, when that eating is unhealthy, it can negatively impact our health," explains Natasha.

The pleasure and guilt of exercise

Psychologist and personal trainer, Leanne Hall echoes this. She knows how a negative perception and experience of exercise can sabotage health goals, and how food rewards can quickly lead to an unhealthy 'addiction'.

"High sugar and fatty foods light up the pleasure centre of our brains," she says. "This dopamine 'hit' teaches us that the only way to feel 'good' is to eat unhealthy foods, as opposed to other strategies such as going for a walk, meditation or talking to a friend."

Many of us relate to this. However, the good news is that, with some conscious effort, it's possible to change a negative perception of exercise. But, like having only one bite of that chocolate bar, that's easier said than done. So, what approach does Leanne suggest?

"To change your perceptions of fitness, it's important that you're kind to yourself and set realistic and achievable fitness goals," she advises. "Setting the bar high and falling quickly won't convince you it's fun.

"Depending on your fitness level and ability just aim to move for 20 minutes a day," she says. "Start small so you can feel a sense of achievement and remember everyone progresses at different rates. Stay focused on your individual goals and don't compare yourself to others."

Strategy for successful weight loss

Leanne says that the best way to start is to find an exercise you'll enjoy or look for something you can do with friends.

"This has multiple benefits because you're more likely to have fun, easily integrate it as part of your lifestyle and set yourself up for success by building in motivational strategies," she advises.

However, as with anything, success doesn't happen overnight. Don't expect to fall in love with working out immediately. Likewise, don't expect to enjoy the first thing you try.

An uncoordinated attempt at aerobics may not get your heart and passion pumping. Similarly, your love affair with a spin bike may go nowhere fast. So, be conscious to give things time.

"It takes several weeks to create a habit and routine," advises Leanne. "Commit to an exercise for four to six weeks and if you still don't enjoy it, consider trying something else.

"In that time, avoid being locked in to any contracts. That way you can change your mind and won't be tied to something you dislike and don't do."

How to get motivated to exercise

Our views on exercise begin early

Our initial perceptions towards exercise form when we're young and are generally based on observing our parents, school friends or other role models. These are then reinforced as we grow.

"We tend to take on information that's consistent with our values and beliefs," says Leanne.

"If we grow up thinking that gyms are full of judgemental people, then we'll tune in to information (and even exaggerate things) so that we get to be right. Similarly, if playing sport was not something your parents and family valued, a negative experience will confirm that. But, if your family valued sport, it's more likely that a negative experience won't put you off."

For more health and wellbeing stories, pick up a copy of the latest Good Health magazine.

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