In my old gym, there used to be a food court. Every day, as I wandered up the cardio machines on the second floor, I was accosted by the beautiful smell of cooking food that would waft up the stairs. That food court itself was a big motivator to get me to the gym; it's what lured me there in the first place. Every moment of my workout, I was enticed by the scent, and I looked forward to the moment when I stepped off my machine and ordered some delicious food. And so, every day without fail, I hobbled back down the stairs after my workout and ordered an Italian sandwich dripping with cheese, processed meats, and ice cream.
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We've all heard of the phrase "you can't outrun a bad diet," which was true in my case. However, I took it one step further – because I had endured "pain" in the gym, I started compensating with "pleasure". I rewarded myself with food, believing I had somehow "earned" it by sacrificing some sweat on the treadmill. It shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone, especially me, that my weight reached its highest peak at that time; however, at the time, I was genuinely perplexed. I believed I had somehow "cancelled" my food rewards by working hard in the gym.
I didn't realise how detrimental this habit was until I sat down and researched how many calories were in my ice cream and sandwich (if my memory serves me correctly, it was 1250 kcal). At most, I was burning 800 kcal in my gruelling, punishing sessions. The math stared me in the face – there was no way I could work off an extra 450 kcal in my session to break even and maintain my current weight. My food reward system had me on an upward trajectory for constant weight gain. The only solution was to adjust my calorie intake and stop treating myself after every hard workout.
The desire to treat yourself after something gruelling or difficult is "hedonic compensation."
Now, I see it everywhere, with almost every client. Their frustration is understandable; they work out extremely hard, but the scale increases rather than decreases. It can demotivate many people on their journeys, causing them to give up on their health goals. Hedonic compensation is slightly different from simply feeling hungrier post-workout. Feeling hungry post workout is because your body needs food to recalibrate its energy resources – hedonic compensation is "wanting" food to compensate for the feelings post-workout.
A paper titled Compensatory Health Beliefs describes hedonic compensation (which they call compensation health beliefs), which is the feeling you have been deprived of pleasure and, therefore, you deserve to compensate for that pleasure through food. It's the same as going to a friend's house and being offered cake – if you worked out earlier, you might say "yes" to the cake, believing that you can offset the extra calories from your workout. If you haven't worked out, you may be more inclined to say "no" because you don't feel like you've "earned" it. To be clear, it's not that you decided to eat one piece of cake; cake as an occasional treat is fine. Its detrimental behaviour is continually choosing the cake to compensate for punishment in the gym, as this can become a habit. If we know anything about delicious habits, it is that they tend to stick around.
As I uncovered this phenomenon, I found two ways of combating it. The first was to enjoy my workout; the second was to change my workout environment.
When digging into this further, I stumbled across a great solution called the activity engagement theory. In an article titled Why Working Out Causes Weight Gain, written by a Precision Nutrition Master Coach, Craig Weller, tell us how you feel about your activity is essential to mitigating these compensatory food choices. The activity engagement theory is that if you like or enjoy an activity, the hedonic compensatory behaviour may decrease – because the activity is the reward. As Weller describes, rewards have two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you're exercising for an intrinsic reward, you're exercising for fun or enjoyment or derive personal pleasure from exercising. Exercising for an extrinsic reward means looking for outside validation like an award, medal, or someone saying, "wow, you look great today!". Therefore, the more you can enjoy your workout, the less you feel you need to compensate for punishing yourself. This may mean you need to change your exercise format – instead of sweating away on the treadmill, try running outside. If you love to dance and the vibe of great music, why not try out a Zumba or salsa class? Or, if you prefer solitude and to hear nothing but muffled sounds, try swimming instead.
Secondly, the paper The Impact of Physical Activity on Food Reward also discussed that food cues could trigger your desire to treat yourself. In my case, this was the delicious food smells wafting from the food court, and the food court strategically placed its restaurants by the changing rooms and exit doors of the gym. The gym set up those triggers to maximise profits – and I constantly fell victim to their ploy. I had to choose to remove this trigger to uncouple the need for a reward after a workout. I had to remove myself entirely from the temptation to reward myself.
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My solution was to go for long walks outside and finish with a short bodyweight strength circuit in my living room – which I enjoyed. I ensured my fridge had no junk available, only fresh fruits and healthy snacks, to remove the food triggers and temptation to treat myself. I discovered I could train less, make better food choices, and still see a dramatic weight loss – I lost thirty pounds!
So, if you're struggling with your weight, I want you to dust off your rackets, find your skipping ropes, get some rollerblades or blast the dance music, and have some fun.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach