Stick to your fitness goals for just one more week: researchers at the University of Texas, Austin recently discovered that previously sedentary young adults instructed to exercise regularly began choosing healthier food options without prompting. Indeed, almost 3,000 inactive young adults chose to eat more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats, as opposed to fried foods and sodas after exercising for only a few weeks.
This is not an isolated incident either. Another research team from Indiana University followed more than 6,000 people at different stages of their life and also noted this “transfer effect,” in which improvements in one area of one’s life quickly trigger a desire for improvement in another. In fact, smiling gym buff Waleed Mujib, a second-year biology student, knew exactly what we were talking about when we began talking about how exercise affects one’s life, having experienced the effect firsthand.
Wrestling ignited Mujib obsession with exercise during his freshman year of high school. Athough Mujib did not recall immediately switching to healthier foods, he remembers “not feeling good about putting in so much hard work at the gym and then coming home and eating unhealthy foods that weren’t the best.” He knew that “eating healthier foods would accelerate the process” and that “it just wasn’t worth it to invest so much time in the gym and then make it worthless through his eating choices.”
However, because Mujib did not immediately crave healthier foods and instead made a conscious effort, he is a prime example of an individual that followed the transfer effect. Like many other young adults who’ve experienced the phenomenon, the novelty and positive results Mujib experienced in exercising encouraged him to try and find healthy foods he enjoyed, despite his continued desire for junk food. With exercise and nutrition complementing one another, since both work towards one’s overall health, it’s no wonder one might crave a smoothie after hitting the gym.
However, other research extends beyond this psychological connection and explores the scientific mechanisms at work behind these changes. For example, research shows that even moderate exercise can cause changes in dopamine levels, and as a result, can reduce preference for high-fat foods. Other projects have shown that high intensity exercise has actually increased appetite-regulating hormones in the body.
Ask any NJIT student if they have goals to become healthier, and most of them will say yes. However, it is evident that many students have trouble committing to healthier lifestyle habits. Mujib testified that he noticed many of his friends who started exercising would not make dietary changes.
His explanation is that it “might have just been because they weren’t consistent with the exercising.” Mujib also stressed that the school’s dining hall contributed to a severe lack of healthy options available on NJIT’s campus. For example, Mujib notes that main meals are often “fried or breaded, and the pastas are always white and never whole wheat,” and the healthy options that are available are, as Mujib explicitly put, “horrible. They actually taste disgusting.”
Regardless, these studies are invaluable in understanding the relationship between diet and exercise and most hopefully, a new source of motivation.
Photo via U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Clay Murray