Diabetes Self-Management Blog

Is exercise good for you? Kind of, but recent studies show that having active fun is better. If physical activity (exercise) is seen as work, or as something you have to do, it’s not as healthful.

In recent studies published by researchers at Cornell University, New Mexico State University, and the Grenoble School of Management, groups of women were asked to walk a mapped course that took about 30 minutes.

In each case, the participants in one group were told they were walking for exercise and were asked to evaluate their energy level at different points on the walk. Those in the other group were given MP3 players and told they were walking for fun and to see the scenery and were asked to evaluate the music they had listened to.

Both groups walked the same distance for the same length of time. Afterward, they were served a meal and/or some snacks. The people who had been “exercising” ate more sweet, pleasurable (that is to say, junky) foods than the group that had been “having fun.”

This finding confirms that exercise for weight loss frequently doesn’t work, because people compensate by overeating afterward. They feel they need a reward, whereas people who have been having fun feel good already. If people with diabetes compensate for exercise by eating sugary foods, the effect on their diabetes might be worse than not exercising at all.

The researchers wrote, “Engaging in a physical activity seems to trigger the search for reward when individuals perceive it as exercise but not when they perceive it as fun.”

If these studies were all we had, I would tend to say it’s no big deal. But there is much more. Here’s an example: Researchers at Columbia University showed that people who had worked on a difficult computer task “are more likely to choose a chocolate cake over a healthier fruit salad.” They were also less likely to take on another difficult study, even to gain future benefits.

So feeling that we have put out effort stimulates us to seek rewards that make us feel good. That’s why “having fun” is healthier than “exercising.” If we are happier, we don’t need unhealthy rewards.

Interestingly, research has found that making people feel guilty about their health, behavior, or weight actually increased the “guilty pleasure” response. So it’s better to feel good about yourself and what you do.

Fun ways to move
So how can you move your body in a fun way, especially if you prefer sitting around? Richard Weil, MEd, CDE, gives a list of ideas here.

Weil’s suggestions include:

• Distraction, like “listening to music you like, a comedy CD, a book on tape, or even a college course lecture on CD while you walk, jog, or pedal.”

• Variety. If you go to a gym, for example, use different machines on different days. Try some activities or classes you haven’t done.

• Recreational sports like volleyball, kickball, softball, golf, tennis, croquet, swimming, bike riding, or bowling.

• Joining a club for walking, hiking, paddling, biking, or whatever you want to do.

• Making walking fun by varying your route, walking with friends, getting a dog, enjoying scenery (including window shopping at a mall), or going someplace new or someplace you want to go anyway.

• Including your family — kids have all kinds of ways of getting you to move. And for walking, having another adult to talk with makes the time more enjoyable.

• Technological fun. If you have access to a Wii or Wii Fit or a Dance Dance Revolution game, give them a try. They’re fun.

There’s always dancing, as well. I also gave some good ideas about fun in the first article I ever did for Diabetes Self-Management eight years ago. You can check it out here.

Weil closes by saying,

Ultimately, having fun during exercise may come down to your attitude. If you think of physical activity as a chore, it won’t be fun. But if you think of the 30–45 minutes you set aside for exercise as a break from your daily cares, it will be a lot more appealing. So challenge yourself to reframe your activity time with a positive spin.

Researchers who did the walking study agreed completely. “Key implications for the fitness industry and for health-care professionals are simple,” they wrote. “Advise consumers to make…their physical activity routine fun in order to avoid compensation.”

Remember also that fun is one of the best stress reducers. It’s difficult to feel stressed when you are absorbed in something fun. And stress increases insulin resistance. Another way fun helps diabetes control.

I wish you more fun in the coming months. Your diabetes control will improve and you will be happier. I’m going to have more fun myself.

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