“Excuse me; I just want to take another cookie…” The slim, almost gaunt man reached over my shoulder to grab a frosted chocolate cookie. “These are delicious,” he said. “I am eating my fourth,” he added, as he popped it into his mouth.

We were at a spring neighborhood social gathering, and the cookie eater was someone new on the block. “Are you a runner?” I asked, thinking that someone this thin who ate so many cookies must either be a devoted exerciser, or host to an intestinal tape worm.

“Oh, yes. I do marathons and train all year,” he replied. “My running group meets at 6 am every morning all year round,  unless of course, there is a blizzard or too much ice to run safely. “

My neighbors listening to this conversation nodded in understanding, and moved away from the tray of pastries.  None of us trained for anything, and our gym workouts were at most two hours long…but usually much shorter.  No cookies for us. Sure, we exercised as a way to keep healthy, but we also saw it as a defense against creeping weight gain. Indulging in pastries or any other highly caloric food would have undermined the effects of sweating on the treadmill or exercise bike.

“Maybe I should run a marathon,” a friend whispered looking wistfully at the cookies.

Exercise, aka physical activity, is marketed vigorously to motivate people to move more and sit less. Weight loss, or the prevention of weight gain, is its most attractive feature. Yet the benefits of exercise extend to better sleep, better mood, better cognition, and even longer life. Earlier generations did not need to be told about the importance of exercise. So many people needed to engage in hard physical labor to make a living that resting, not exercising, was an activity much to be desired.  Descriptions of food served to farm laborers during harvest time featured copious quantities of meat, potatoes, bread, and pies for both lunch and dinner. And it is unlikely there was much obesity, despite these menus, among the men and women who labored literally, from sunrise to sunset.  

Exercise is regarded as optional by many not engaged in hard physical labor to make a living. Most people have yet to be convinced of its importance (or benefit) despite vigorous marketing attempts. The problem is that messages about the virtues of exercise tend to be disregarded by all except those already hitting the gym. Those who don’t exercise say they know they should, but also admit they won’t.  Knowing the benefits doesn’t translate into doing.  

Years ago we asked volunteers who were being screened for obesity study whether they would exercise if it did not have any effect on weight loss. The unanimous answer was no. Better sleep, even increased longevity was irrelevant… A diet equaled exercise: no diet-no workout.  

Studies have been done to see if people would switch to lower calorie foods if told how many minutes of exercise it would take to burn off the calories in a particular food item. If it took 90 minutes running on a treadmill to work off calories in Food A, and only 30 minutes in Food B, then the researchers assume people would choose Food B. But the information didn’t seem to affect food choices; perhaps the volunteers just didn’t care because they weren’t going to exercise anyway.

Is it time to change the marketing approach from, ‘exercise is good for you’ to an incentive model of, ‘here is something good ‘(if you exercise)? What if people are told that if they exercise they can eat foods (in controlled amounts, of course) they have been told to avoid?  What if my neighbors who wanted to eat those chocolate frosted cookies were told that it is alright to eat a cookie or two at night, if they exercise a little harder or longer at the gym, or walk several miles? What if exercise was not seen as another form of deprivation to be endured, along with the caloric deprivation of a diet, but rather a means to a culinary treat?

Many years ago when a Boston runner, Billy Rogers, won the Boston marathon, he was asked how much he ate while training. His daily calorie intake was upwards of 5,000 and included foods that tend to be on the forbidden treat list. Many said they were tempted to start running just to eat the way he did. 

Giving people treats to motivate behavior is something we do with children (and often with adults) to get them to go to meetings or volunteer. Charity walks to raise money offer food along the route, and announcing that refreshments will be served probably gets people to attend a lecture or meeting who otherwise might stay home. So instead of telling someone that eating an ice cream cone will necessitate working on a treadmill for an hour to burn off the calories? The individual is told that if he or she exercises vigorously for an hour, they can indulge in a treat without admonishment?

What we keep forgetting is the importance of exercise on more than weight loss, or even preventing weight gain. Physical activity is essential for all aspects of our health. It is not necessary to hang a cookie over a treadmill to keep ourselves walking longer. But if we could link exercise to something we desire, it need not be limited to food, then maybe we will be willing to get up off the couch.


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