Could the type of motivation you have affect whether or not you choose unhealthy snacks after exercise?
Even though we might think that exercise makes us hungrier, we have previously found that this is probably not the case – since there is more evidence that exercise reduces our appetite in the short-term.3
Yet people still claim that exercise makes them ‘snacky’, and there is definitely variability in how people respond.
Take Jill and Lisa. After exercise, Jill commonly eats more unhealthy snack foods after exercise, while Lisa does not snack at all, or chooses healthier options to supplement her dedicated exercise efforts.
On the physical, hedonic side, this snackiness makes sense. Let’s say you get done with your workout, what are you craving – a candy bar or broccoli florets or spinach?
This is what I mean.
One Snickers® bar is 250 calories, and loaded with 27 grams of sugar – 7% above our daily allowance of added sugar.
What about broccoli florets and spinach?
To get 250 calories, you would have to eat 13.5 cups of broccoli florets and 35 cups of raw spinach! Plus, there is no sugar in these foods.
In this way, the candy bar has more 'bang for the buck', so to speak. So, it is plausible that exercise can encourage us to eat unhealthy foods. But, any post-exercise snackiness does not destine us to eat unhealthfully.
Jill and Lisa both have hunger cravings following exercise, but why does Jill make unhealthy choices, and Lisa make healthy choices?
To answer this question, researchers are moving beyond the physical, to the psychological.
A recent discussion has proposed that one reason Jill eats unhealthy snacks after exercise, and Lisa does not, is due to their different types of motivation.1
Take for example participants who completed a 20-minute cycle session. When they were done, they were offered with a large bowl of pretzels – considered the unhealthy snack food.2
Interestingly, those who were motivated to exercise for personally enjoyable and self-determined reasons (i.e. autonomous motivation), ate less of the snack food than those who were motivated to exercise because of pressure, avoiding punishment, or guilt (i.e. controlled motivation).
In our example, Jill has the worse form of ‘controlled’ motivation, and Lisa has the better ‘autonomous’ type of motivation.
It is possible, then, that:
- Jill is more likely to allow food as a reward for her efforts, such as an unhealthy snack, because she did not really want to exercise in the first place. She chose exercise that was not enjoyable or valued. The feeling of immediate pleasure form the snack food over-ruled her knowing that it is not the healthiest option.
- On the other hand, Lisa, wanted to exercise in a more self-determined way, without feelings of pressure or guilt, thus may not indulge in the unhealthy snack. Even though the unhealthy snack would taste really good, it is unhealthy, which is not in line with her goal.
There still needs to be a lot more research on the potential of motivation type to influence post-exercise snacking, but I think it is a plausible concern for some people.
If you relate more to Jill and that pesky ‘controlled’ motivation, here are some tips.
- First and foremost, choose exercises or physical activities that you find more enjoyable. Don’t feel forced or pressured to do the treadmill at the gym, if you hate the treadmill. If you would rather go for a walk outside, go for a swim, garden, or watch your favorite exercise video, then do those things.
- Also, choose activities that you feel competent doing – ones that are challenging, yet attainable. We want to feel successful in our efforts.
- Finally, seek opportunities that allow you to connect and have meaningful relationships with others. This might be a workout buddy or a group exercise class that you enjoy and connect with.
If you do these things, hopefully you will be on your way to be more like Lisa, and a little less like Jill.
- Dimmock, J. A., Guelfi, K. J., West, J. S., Masih, T., & Jackson, B. (2015). Does motivation for exercise influence post-exercise snacking behavior? Nutrients, 7(6), 4804-4816.
- Fenzl, N., Bartsch, K., & Koenigstorfer, J. (2014). Labeling exercise fat-burning increases post-exercise food consumption in self-imposed exercisers. Appetite, 81, 1-7.
- Schubert, M. M., Desbrow, B., Sabapathy, S., & Leveritt, M. (2013). Acute exercise and subsequent energy intake. A meta-analysis. Appetite, 63, 92-104.