Are You a Victim of the Reward Factor?
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Photo by Christian Cable

Exercise alone with not give you the results you want if your goal is fat loss. Exercise can help balance the energy intake equation or create a calorie deficit, but you must address food choices and habits to see real and lasting results. You have to get real with how you use food for things other than hunger. For me I had to deal with eating out of loneliness and using food a distraction, for recreation or as a reward.

One of my first half hearted at attempts at fitness got hijacked by the “reward factor”. I got a gym membership (my first and at a gym different then the one that would later become my gym home for over a decade) because my employer at the time paid half. It was a great benefit and certainly ahead of the curve at the time, almost 17 years ago. One of my co-workers had just had a baby and she also signed up to try to work off some of the baby weight.

Neither of us had a clue what we were doing. I had taken a weight training class in high school but the coach spent most of his time with the basketball and football players. My lifting partner and I did the occasional leg press or a few seated rows but mostly we sat around and gossiped.

When I attempted to start exercising with my coworker we basically did the same thing. We wondered from weight machine to weight machine and spent some time on the Stairmaster gossiping. I don’t even know how long we actually were there that first workout. I don’t think we cared.  We were at the gym and that was something, right?

In fact it was such a good thing we felt we should reward ourselves for our hard work. How about the Olive Garden just around the corner? Yes, ma’am pasta and breadsticks sounds like a great idea after a “hard” workout. I don’t remember how many times we did that, treating ourselves to something after fledgling attempts at fitness. Needless to say, our workout plan didn’t last long. We didn’t see any results from those evening trips to the gym. So what was the point? The gym continued to bill me long after I stopped going, only stopping when they went out of business. Sound familiar?

I know better now but there are many other gym goers who still think and experience the same thing. I see them grabbing a calorie-dense post workout smoothie or treating themselves to over sized bagels or protein cookies. I see them frustrated at their lack of progress. It’s an easy trap to fall into. I know I’ve worked hard, so I deserve this little treat, they are telling themselves.  Meanwhile all their work is slowly undone by excess fat and sugar. When they step on the scale a day or 2 later they just can’t figure out what the problem is. I’m working so hard, they think to themselves, why isn’t the number on the scale going down? They haven’t done the work on getting real with food. They can’t see the connection.  The haven’t realized that the “reward factor” is what is holding them back from reaching their goals.

You can’t out train a bad diet.

Exercise doesn’t justify eating excessive amounts of food, no matter how “healthy” it is.

If you’ve hit a plateau or your body isn’t changing the way you want it too despite regular workouts you need to be honest about your food.

  • You can exercise all day long but if you refuel with too much of anything you won’t see the results you want.  You must balance calories in with calories out, no matter if these calories come from protein shakes or gluten free organic cookies.  Quality and quantity matter.
  • Exercise is not and should not be means to a reward. Don’t negotiate with yourself, saying that so much exercise equals so much ice cream or pizza. Exercise for the calorie burn but also for the joy of movement. Exercise to create shapely and strong muscles. Exercise to keep your body functioning at an optimal level. Exercise IS the reward.
  • The truth is you are probably burning fewer calories than you think during a workout.  Calorie calculators on many machines and web sites can be way off. Even our wearable activity trackers have a margin of error. Don’t use them as a justification for additional snacks or treats. Treats should be treats, without strings or guilt attached.

Exercise is good for health and the calories burned will help you reach your fat loss goals. The key is to not use exercise as a justification for the foods you know aren’t good choices but want to consume anyway.  Refuel post workout, but do it with a balanced and healthy choice.

Have you had to overcome the reward factor? What caused your thinking to shift?

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