PULLMAN, Wash. – An intense workout at the gym may be just what you need to get over your craving for junk food. Researchers from Washington State University have found that high-intensity exercise reduces a rat’s desire to eat fatty food after a long period without their tasty snacks.
Study authors say their experiment tried to test resistance to a phenomenon called “incubation of craving.” It basically means the longer someone goes without something they crave, the harder it becomes to ignore their desire to have it — in this case, fatty foods.
Despite “incubation of craving” being a powerful force, results show exercise actually modulated how hard rats were willing to work to acquire a fatty food pellet during the experiment. For humans, researchers say this could open a new door for dieters trying to restrain their desire to fall back into an unhealthy pattern of eating.
“A really important part of maintaining a diet is to have some brain power—the ability to say ‘no, I may be craving that, but I’m going to abstain,’” says corresponding author Travis Brown, a Washington State University physiology and neuroscience researcher, in a university release. “Exercise could not only be beneficial physically for weight loss but also mentally to gain control over cravings for unhealthy foods.”
Break a sweat, break your craving
Study authors put 28 rats through a training program, teaching them to press a lever which would turn on a light and make a sound. This process also dispensed a high-fat pellet treat for them to eat. After their training, researchers watched to see how many times the rats would press the lever just to see and hear the same cues.
From there, the team split the rodents into two groups, one engaging in a high-intensity treadmill running program and one carrying on with their normal level of daily activity. Study authors kept the high-fat pellets away from all the rats for 30 days.
At the end of that month, researchers brought the food lever back. Unlike the first experiment, however, the lever only turned on the light and made the sound. It didn’t give each rat the fatty treat.
After giving the rats access to the lever again, researchers found that rats who didn’t exercise pressed the lever significantly more than the rats in the exercise group. The WSU team believes this clearly shows a diminished craving among exercising rats.
Is food really addictive?
The team plans to investigate how different levels of exercise impact food cravings. They’re also looking into how exactly exercise changes the way the brain curbs the desire to eat junk food.
It’s still unclear whether food can be just as addictive to people as drugs. However, Brown notes that “no one binge eats broccoli.” Despite that, there are signs food can still have a powerful impact on the human brain, with many people responding to things like fast-food ads. Finding a way to disregard these triggers could benefit many dieters trying to lose weight and avoid obesity.
“Exercise is beneficial from a number of perspectives: it helps with cardiac disease, obesity and diabetes; it might also help with the ability to avoid some of these maladaptive foods,” Brown concludes. “We’re always looking for this magic pill in some ways, and exercise is right in front of us with all these benefits.”
The study is published in the journal Obesity.