The Psychology of Dieting Part 4: How Exercising Can Be Bad for Your Diet

So, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve been really focusing on the psychology of dieting over the past few weeks. I suppose it’s about time to let you know where this emphasis is coming from. At work, I joined this “Biggest Loser” competition to see if I could, once and for all, lose all the weight I’ve been wanting to lose for years. Doing so was going to be a difficult task and, to figure out how to shed the pounds, I naturally turned to the science.

As I’ve dug deeper and deeper into the research by Brian Wansink, I’ve discovered that the psychology of losing weight isn’t always so intuitive. To lose weight, all you really have to do is eat less. Yes, that’s fairly intuitive. But, how do you eat less? That’s the question–that’s what everyone who wants to lose weight really wants to know.

Wansink’s research reveals countless ways you can trick yourself into eating less without even really thinking about it. For example, in Part 1 of this series I wrote about eating off of smaller plates. Fairly straightforward. But not all the tricks are quite so obvious. In Part 2, I discussed how eating alone can help you eat less. Then, in Part 3, I revealed that watching certain kinds of TV while you’re eating can cause you to eat more than watching others. This week, I’ll be discussing what I think is the most counter-intuitive research of all…

Are you ready for it? Okay, here it is. If you are trying to lose weight:


Yes, you read that right. Exercising for the purpose of losing weight can actually cause you to gain weight–or at the very least prevent you from losing it. Why is this the case? Let’s get to the research

In one study, the researchers recruited a group of 56 people to take a 2km walk around the lake. The group was then split into two, with half of them being told that the purpose was to “take a scenic walk” and the other half being told that the purpose was to “get some exercise.” After the participants from each group finished their walks, they were offered chocolate pudding as a snack. Those who believed the walk was for “exercise” consumed 35% more pudding than those who viewed it simply as a scenic stroll around the lake.

In a second study, the researchers attempted to repeat their findings with a different group. Recruiting 46 participants, they had the subjects take a walk. Some of the subjects believed that it was just a walk, while others believed that they were getting exercised. After the walk, they were offered M&Ms. The subjects who believed they had been exercising consumed 124% more calories in M&Ms than those who believed they had just been taking a walk.

Here’s the rub: when we believe we are exercising, we tend to reward our hard work by eating more food. The trick is to not view exercising as “exercising,” or a “work-out.” Instead, view it as a fun activity–something that you enjoy doing as an end, not as a means. For example:

  • Take a walk with a friend just to enjoy the conversation
  • Go swimming in the lake just for the feeling of the cool water on your skin
  • Play a game of pick-up basketball just for the friendly competition
  • Go hiking just to be in nature and enjoy the outdoors
  • Get a punching bag to work out some frustration

You can do all sorts of things to get into shape and be physically fit without explicitly “exercising,” and none of these things will make you feel compelled to compensate yourself by eating more food.

So, if you feel so compelled, go ahead and keep at it with your work-out routine. Let me know how that goes for you. As for me, I’m through with exercising. Instead, I think I’ll just have some fun.


Carolina O. C. Werle, Brian Wansink, and Collin Payne. (2014). Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking.Marketing Letters.10.1007/s11002-014-9301-6


About Douglas E Rice

Douglas E Rice is just a guy who likes to learn stuff.
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