The tricks (and treats) of working out at the gym

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Evelyn Lewin

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Photo: Guido Mieth

In the past year Rebecca Rogers, 34, has gained 15 kilograms. The reason, she believes, is that she has been exercising more. But Rogers doesn't attribute the weight gain to increased muscle mass: "The arm and tummy fat are really noticeable," she says. Nor does she blame it on increased hunger because of her extra energy output. Rather, she believes she is getting heavier because she likes to "reward" herself with treats after working out. "Generally, my thoughts are, 'I've been exercising every day this week, so I may as well have some chocolate because I deserve a treat.'"

In the past six months, Rogers has even amped up her efforts to shift those kilos, hiring a personal trainer and trying to "eat clean". But the weight keeps piling on. "The treats far outweigh the good I am doing," she laments.

So while we all know exercise is good for us, relying on it alone for weight loss may backfire. That's because when we tend to think of exercise as, well, "exercise" (and therefore "hard work"), we run the risk of negating all that "effort" by treating ourselves with indulgent food choices later, as a reward for "being good".

Such were the findings of new research published in the journal Marketing Letters in July this year. For the first study, 56 participants were led on a two-kilometre walk around a lake and were told it was either a "scenic" walk, or "exercise". They were then served lunch, followed by a chocolate dessert. Those who were told that the walk was "exercise" ate 35 per cent more dessert than those who believed that they had gone on a "scenic" walk.

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A second study supported these findings, showing that participants who did the same walk consumed double the amount of chocolate as an afternoon snack if they believed they had "exercised" earlier.

Brisbane-based psychologist Angela Bradley understands this phenomenon. She says that if you think of exercise as "a big effort", you may then tell yourself that you deserve a treat afterwards to "compensate" for doing something hard. But if your goal is to lose weight, that kind of thinking is counterproductive.

Instead, Bradley recommends being more honest with yourself and telling yourself that while you "can" have some chocolate (or even a whole block) after exercise, doing so may negate your all hard work.

She advises treating yourself in other, non-food-related ways, such as going for a massage, or seeing a great movie. Or, even better, she says, stop thinking about exercise as being something "so horrible" that you even need a reward after it. Telling yourself how much you hate exercise means you constantly have to fight to find the motivation to do it.

Instead, Bradley recommends that you embrace exercise as something positive. "If you ditch that negative attitude and instead think, 'Exercise is pretty tough sometimes but gosh, when I finish it, it makes me feel strong,' you'll remain inspired." How to stop yourself reaching for that doughnut after your next gym session? Make exercise more like fun, suggests Kylie Anderson of Melbourne's Radiant Personal Training.

• Play some of your favourite childhood games with your kids, like chasing, skipping, hide-and-seek or hopscotch.

• Dance around your home to your favourite tunes: "Let go and let the music wash over you."

• Turn exercise into a game. Write down 12 different exercises onto pieces of paper, scrunch them up and pull six out of a hat. Then, do 10-20 of each exercise.

• Do something relaxing, with the aim being to unwind, rather than to "work out", like yoga, Pilates or going for a leisurely walk.

• Turn exercise into a "fun competition against yourself". Record your exercise on a chart and constantly try to beat your previous week's effort. •