It sort of goes without saying that when it comes to weight loss, exercise combined with dieting works better than focusing on food alone. But a new study shows that it’s not just the extra calories burned exercising that makes a difference: Physical activity can actually make dieting easier, too, by priming your brain to avoid unhealthy eating.
A study from Harvard University notes that one of the most important factors in successful weight loss is ‘inhibitory control,’ the ability to resist temptation. But we live in an environment that, well, inhibits this inhibitory control; we’re barraged by images of unhealthy foods, fast food signs, advertisements, etc.
Lead researcher Miguel Alonso Alonso calls it an ‘obesogenic environment.’ And all these constant cognitive stresses impair our judgement, making it harder to control our impulses to overeat or choose unhealthy foods.
Exercise, however, becomes like a neuro-armor against these stresses. It actually bolsters the brain’s ability to employ inhibitory control, said Alonso. And it can also increase a person’s ability to feel satiated, or full.
All of this goes against an idea that’s been worming it’s way into health and weight-loss wisdom over the past few years: That exercise leads people to eat more—either because it makes us extra-hungry, or more likely to ‘reward’ ourselves after a workout—and is thus bad for dieting. According to Alonso, the data suggests the opposite: That a healthy diet and exercise go hand in hand—and an increase in physical activity is usually linked to a parallel improvement in diet quality.