Exercise help burn extra calories and have a protective effect against overeating


Following a dietary weight loss program can be difficult. Many factors trigger diet lapses, which can lead to weight loss failure.

Experts disagree on whether physical activity increases risk or protects against diet lapses.

While some studies show exercise leads to overeating by increasing appetite and/or a person’s justification for eating, other studies show exercise regulates hunger and may help reduce overeating.

Researchers from the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science (WELL Center) in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University found exercise to be a protective factor in a study where participants in a weight loss program, who were following a reduced-calorie diet, engaged in exercise in their real-world environments.

“Almost all behavioral weight loss programs prescribe exercise because of its health benefits and because it expends energy or ‘burns calories,’” said Rebecca Crochiere, a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences and lead author of the study.

“Interestingly, our study suggests that exercise may also aid in adhering to a reduced-calorie diet, perhaps through improved regulation of appetite or eating behavior.

It adds another reason to engage in exercise if one is seeking weight loss.”

The study found that exercise was protective against overeating. When participants did not engage in exercise, the risk of overeating in the following hours was 12 percent.

Whereas when participants engaged in 60 minutes of exercise, the risk of overeating was cut by more than half, to five percent.

For every additional 10 minutes of exercise a participant engaged in, the likelihood of overeating decreased by one percent in the few hours following exercise.

Researchers collected data from 130 participants using novel methods, like ecological momentary assessments, or brief surveys, that were delivered to participants’ smartphones multiple times a day to measure overeating and hip-worn fitness trackers to measure exercise.

“These findings can help researchers to better understand when participants who are seeking weight loss are at risk of overeating,” said Crochiere.

“It can inform the development of treatments that prevent overeating and facilitate weight loss.”

Crochiere cautioned these findings represent patterns observed across the sample as a whole; a goal for future research is to investigate if the effect of exercise on eating behavior differs from person to person.

Crochiere cautioned these findings represent patterns observed across the sample as a whole; a goal for future research is to investigate if the effect of exercise on eating behavior differs from person to person.

The results also hinted that the effect of exercise on eating behavior may depend on the intensity of the exercise, with light (versus moderate-to-vigorous) physical activity showing the strongest protective effects against overeating, though more research is needed to support this finding, said Crochiere.

The study, “Is Physical Activity a Risk or Protective Factor for Subsequent Dietary Lapses Among Behavioral Weight Loss Participants?” was published January 2020 in Health Psychology. 

It was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Co-authors include Elizabeth Lampe, graduate student; Stephanie Manasse, PhD; Meghan Butryn, PhD; Evan Forman, PhD, all of Drexel University; Stephanie Kerrigan, PhD, of Yale University; and Ross Crosby, PhD, of the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute.

Although this study has concluded, the WELL Center continues to recruit for other weight management studies, including a study investigating effective cognitive and behavioral components of weight loss.

Body dissatisfaction, the subjective experience of negative thoughts and feelings toward one’s own body [1], is so prevalent among young people (defined by the United Nations as those aged 15 to 24 years [2]) in modern Western societies that it is regarded as normative discontent [3,4].

Body dissatisfaction has been linked with a number of maladaptive eating and exercise behaviors, including restrained eating practices, consuming less fruit and vegetables, low levels of physical activity, excessive exercise, binge-purge cycles, and anabolic steroid use [5,6].

Furthermore, body dissatisfaction is regarded as both an important risk factor for, and is symptomatic of, clinical eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia [7,8], the majority of which develop during adolescence and early adulthood [9].

The causes of body dissatisfaction and associated maladaptive eating and exercise behaviors are diverse, with research implicating a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors [7,10,11].

Sociocultural theories emphasize the role of specific agents, such as parents, peers, and the media, in shaping negative attitudes toward the body [12], with body dissatisfaction arising because of perceived pressure from sociocultural agents to conform to an unrealistic, culturally defined body and beauty ideal.

For women, this has been described as thin and toned, yet curvaceous with pert breasts and buttocks, whereas for men it is muscular yet lean with little body fat [13]. The complex and unrealistic nature of this ideal makes it impossible for the majority of young people to achieve, leading to negative feelings around their own bodies [7,12].

In turn, these feelings can motivate an engagement in maladaptive eating and exercise behaviors, aimed at changing the body [7,12].

Perpetuating these social and emotional pressures is the fact that many of these behaviors (eg, clean eating, over-exercising, and cutting out food groups) have become the cultural norm, with magazines and celebrities on social media advocating calorie restriction as an everyday part of how we think about food [14].

Following this longstanding cycle of diet culture, parents, who themselves engage in dieting behaviors, can be the ones who convey messages on calorie restriction and good versus bad foods to children from a young age [15].

Thus, to many young people growing up in this environment, these ways of thinking about food and exercise are seen as the norm and are often engaged with regardless of whether the young person is overweight or not [16].

Ironically, calorie restriction has been demonstrated to lead to weight gain and eating disorders over time in young people [17].

In recent years, the emergence and increasing availability of new digital media and technologies has drastically changed the social landscape.

As a consequence, theories of body dissatisfaction and maladaptive eating and exercise behaviors have needed to be adapted. ù

Research in this field has typically focused on how social media influences how young people think, feel, and behave with regard to their body. For example, research has highlighted the role of social media image sharing practices in body dissatisfaction [18]; the further normalization of maladaptive body shaping strategies through user-generated social media content [13]; and the use of social media spaces to create communities centered around maladaptive eating and exercise behaviors [19].

Healthy Eating and Fitness Apps

The rise of healthy eating and fitness apps is considered to be yet another type of media-influencing body dissatisfaction [20].

The nature of personal mobile engagement itself poses a significant challenge, with vulnerable populations freely accessing content without the extent of their engagement becoming visible to others (eg, a parent who might be unaware of their child’s engagement in calorie-counting practices).

However, although there is a wealth of research exploring the dangers of social media use in the development of maladaptive behaviors in young people, comparatively little attention has been paid to healthy eating and fitness mobile apps, despite their ability to become a tool for supporting restrictive eating behaviors (eg, following a 1200-calorie-a-day diet regardless of hunger levels).

The Health and Fitness category accounts for a large proportion of apps in both the Android and Apple app stores (recent statistics place them as the 9th and 8th largest categories of apps, respectively) [21,22].

Although this category includes a variety of health-related domains (including mental health, smoking cessation, and women’s health), a significant portion relates to diet, healthy eating, and fitness.

In this paper, healthy eating and fitness apps refer to mobile apps that aim to promote healthy eating and fitness (exercise) activities supporting users in monitoring or attending to food and exercise, typically by providing users with additional information about these activities such as calories consumed or burned as well as projections on weight loss goals.

The top 10 lists for this category, in both stores, are dominated by apps such as MyFitnessPal [23], Fitbit [24], Strava [25], and Sweatcoin [26], all of which are focused on self-tracking of food or exercise in similar ways.

Healthy eating and fitness apps incorporate a variety of strategies to promote health and fitness behaviors including behavior tracking, goal setting, feedback, rewards, social connectivity, and remote coaching [27].

Adolescent users of Fitbit (a wearable activity monitor with an associated mobile phone app) found that the technology encouraged them to engage in physical activity and increase knowledge of their own health behaviors in the short term [28].

However, there may be a dark side to healthy eating and fitness app use. Many apps are centered on weight loss, encouraging users to set weight-related goals that are achieved through calorie restriction and exercise [28,29].

This emphasis is problematic as the benefits of weight loss to physical health remain a controversial topic within the medical research literature [30,31]. In particular, weight loss is generally only advocated for individuals with high body weight [30], raising concerns about how the cultural preoccupation with weight loss stigmatizes overweight bodies, which may actually demotivate such individuals from engaging in healthy practices in the first place.

The growing body of research also shows that body size is not necessarily indicative of good health [31,32]. In addition, calorie restriction has been widely recognized as an ineffective method of weight loss in the long term and an inefficient way of promoting more healthy eating behaviors. Instead, approaches focused on mindfulness and self-awareness, such as intuitive eating, have been advocated more recently [33,34].

The weight loss frameworks that underpin many healthy eating and fitness apps may not be conducive to the formation of positive health and fitness behaviors.

In support of this, Eikey et al found that around 7% (1261/18,601) of female app users set weight goals that are under what is considered to be healthy [29], indicative of a desire to achieve unrealistic appearance goals, rather than improved health.

The same study found that users felt encouraged by apps to engage in, what the authors considered to be, maladaptive eating and exercise behaviors [29].

For example, some participants described how app feedback following the logging of calories over their set daily target led them to engage in purging behaviors, whereas others described feeling obsessed with thoughts of food and calorie content.

Thus, apps focusing on weight loss may inadvertently promote maladaptive eating and exercise strategies.

Research suggests that healthy eating and fitness apps in the personal health domain employ behavior change models because of their potential to support individuals in the process of adapting and maintaining a new healthy behavior [35,36].

The majority focus on habit formation, where habits are defined as automatic responses to contextual cues and are formed as the behavior is repeated in a stable context [37] (eg, using reminders, goal setting, and positive reinforcement). In addition, some apps (eg, Fitbit’s companion app) use competitive techniques such as leaderboards to persuade individuals to be healthier in a playful sense [38,39].

The vast majority of healthy eating and fitness apps implement functionality for the user to self-track, which refers to recording and analyzing data about oneself on a regular basis to monitor a behavior [40]. Self-tracking is largely believed to only be effective if the monitoring continues [41]. Hence, self-tracking can become a system of constant recordkeeping and monitoring, requiring repetitive behaviors [42].

The literature has shown that self-tracking practices, promoted by healthy eating and fitness apps, can have a negative impact on the well-being of young people, by encouraging addictive tracking behaviors and negatively influencing body image [40].

Theoretical work [43] argues that long-term use of digital technologies to monitor health behaviors may objectify the body, encouraging a mind-body dissociation that results in negative affect and the anaesthetization of the human experience.

Such experiences may prevent the active adoption and ownership of positive health and fitness behaviors [43].

Drexel University


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