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Exercise Campaigns Lead to More Eating

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Exercise and eating

Something about encouraging exercise seems to lead people to eat more food.

According to a study, published in the journal Obesity, some health campaigns may actually have the opposite effect on individual health behaviors - exercise campaigns may lead us to the food table, rather than to the gym.

Psychology professor Dolores Albarracín led research showing that campaigns encouraging people to exercise may subliminally have the opposite effect of the intended message. Albarracín says the findings are important for those who design public health campaigns.

The study supports previous research from Albarracín that shows exercise campaigns can actually have negative consequences. General messages designed to change health behaviors, such a posters encouraging exercise may be of little value, and drive us to eat more food.

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In the current study, people who viewed posters saying, “Join a gym”, or “Take a walk” ate more food compared to those who viewed posters that said, “Make friends” or “join a group”.

Neutral messages may subliminally influence health behaviors more positively than direct messages. Albarracín says, individuals who looked at exercise messages …”ate one-third more when exposed to the exercise ads," whereas neutral ads did not provoke more eating.

Exercise campaigns designed to change behaviors are …”likely to influence …other behaviors that might be somewhat remotely linked," says Albarracín. In this instance, the study showed that viewing posters designed to promote exercise only led to more eating.

The study from the University of Illinois shows that directly telling people to exercise more may have the opposite effect on healthy behavior. Direct messages from health campaigns, telling us to exercise, or join a gym, may subliminally drive us to eat more rather than the gym.