HEALTHY LIVING
06/25/2014 10:14 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2014

This Simple Mental Trick Can Keep You From Sabotaging Your Workout

Brook Pifer via Getty Images

You're absolutely spent after a crushing workout class -- and now you're going to reward yourself with a big plate of fries and the juiciest burger in town.

Sound familiar? Overcompensating for an intense workout with extra food is a known phenomenon, and it's the culprit behind the dreaded weight-loss plateau if the point of the exercise is to shed pounds.

But a new study shows a simple shift in perspective could be all it takes to keep from packing in too much food after a workout: Instead of focusing on how tough your workout is, focus on how fun it is.

The study, published in the journal Marketing Letters and led by Carolina Werle, an associate professor of marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France, included several experiments. In the first, she asked 56 women to walk the same mile-long path at individual times at their own pace. Half of the group was told the purpose of the walk was to exercise, while the other half of the group was told the goal of the walk was to "do something fun" and test the music-listening quality of a new MP3 player.

After the women went on their walks, they were invited to eat a buffet lunch that included pasta with meat, green beans and bread. They were also asked to make two choices for a dessert and drink: applesauce or chocolate pudding, and water or Coke.

Werle found that both the "fun" group and "exercise" group ate about the same amount of calories for their main course from the buffet lunch; they were also equally split in choosing between the healthy drink and dessert options. Where the two groups did differ, though, was in the amount of drinks and desserts. Women in the "fun" group served themselves fewer calories' worth of drinks and desserts, compared with those in the "exercise" group. In fact, the "exercisers" served themselves 42 percent more pudding and Coke than those who were told they were just on a fun walk.

Similar results were shown in subsequent experiments included in the study, including one that involved having participants either exercise or take a "fun" sightseeing tour of a campus, and then serve themselves M&M candies. Just as in the first experiment, those who were told they were exercising served themselves twice as many M&Ms after the walk than those told they were just sightseeing.

"I think we can frame our workouts in different ways, focusing on whatever we consider fun about it (listening to our favorite music while running or chatting with a friend during a brisk walk) instead of focusing only on the effort that will be performed," Werle wrote in an email to HuffPost. "The more fun we have during the physical activity the less we'll feel the license to indulge or the need to compensate for the previous effort."

Need some advice for staying positive about your workout to make it less of a chore? Here are three tricks:

Take time to remember one positive thing about your workout that day.
A small study from the University of New Hampshire found that people who were asked to think about positive exercise memories actually worked out out more than people who had no memories about their exercise. In fact, people who had negative memories meant to inspire them to exercise also worked out more than the zero-memory participants -- but not as much as the positive memory participants.

Don't make it a competition! Think about exercise as a game.
In a study of Division 1 soccer players, researchers found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol and anxiety rose after playing a match, but not after practice. With that in mind, since most exercisers aren't actually playing an official game, there's no real reason to stress yourself out as if you were playing in one, according to celebrity trainer Lacey Stone, who likes to emphasize sociability and fun at her classes instead of rivalries (no matter how friendly they are).

"Don't go against your friend, play with your friend," Stone told HuffPost. "We're trying to have fun together, which gives you an endorphin rush rather than a cortisol rush."

Transform exercise into social events.
This concept goes way beyond accountability buddies, who can sometimes guilt or pressure you into working out. Instead, gather a group of people who have the same passion for fitness as you do, and then pick new activities for all of you to try together. The idea comes from Australian fitness expert Michelle Bridges, creator of the 12 Week Body Transformation. She suggests taking turns having one person be responsible for coming up with the group's weekly physical activity, whether it be a workout class, hike, or group run. The only condition: it has to be something social, new and exciting. "Through creating a social community and environment for adventurous physical activity, you'll regard your exercise as an ever-changing activity with friends, not a chore," Bridges wrote in an email to HuffPost.

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