Do You Use Food As A Reward? Why you need to pick a new reward system.

Ever woken up early to go on a 20 minute run and then spent the rest of the workday rewarding yourself for your efforts with food?  I used to use food like my bronze, silver and gold medals.  If I did a 30 minutes workout, you got a bronze medal – a kids size snickers bar.  If I did 45 minutes, I’d win the silver medal – a white bread bagel with cream cheese.  If I did 60 minutes I’d won gold – a burger.  I realised that this dangling carrot reward based system is unhealthy for the body and the mind, so I wanted to learn more about why we use food as a reward and how to stop it.  There is a curious theology behind the post workout binge, which seems to be both a physical and psychological reaction.

Why We Use Food As A Reward

When we exercise, our bodies release the feel good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin, and reduce the stress hormone cortisol.  Those hormones make us feel invincible and like we have run a marathon.  We perceive ourselves as healthier and slimmer right away, and think the benefits from exercise will be immediate.  Exercise can also trigger hunger, so it’s often not your imagination that you feel more hungry after you exercise.  Therefore, on a physical level, we think we can eat more to satisfy our hunger and ‘replenish’ the energy we have lost through exercise.

Emotionally, when we exercise it makes us feel satisfied, accomplished and deserving of reward.  Hard effort has been mentally connected to the need for reward.  If we work hard in the corporate setting, we expect a promotion, a pay rise or at the very least some recognition.  The same goes for exercise.  We perceive that the effort put into training requires reward, and as a result, we use food as a way to mentally satisfy ourselves.

Why We Shouldn’t Use Food As A Reward

In relation to the physical side, the number of calories that you actually burn while exercising is surprisingly small.  The fact is, even the most intense workout is not an excuse to indulge on sugary treats and carbohydrates.  Plus, when you consume these type of carbohydrates, it creates a vicious cycle where it actually makes you even more hungry!  Sugar interferes with ghrelin and leptin which are the hormones that signal to your body when it is full.  Throw out these hormones and you will never feel satisfied.

A majority of people grossly overestimate the amount they are burning in any given workout while simultaneously overindulging on foods that you may not normally eat.  The table below has approximate figures on what you are likely to burn and equated to the amount we can ‘reward’ with.


Source: © Institute of Integrative Nutrition 

It’s not that much is it!  If you want to lose weight, you need those 298 calories from your 30 minute jog to burn the calories you’re consuming throughout the day, not going towards an extra reward.  You can see that using food as a reward can be extremely detrimental to your health goals.

What To Reward Yourself With Instead

It just becomes a habit to reward ourselves with food or drink.  My little medal system was comfortable and satisfying (even if temporarily).  But as I began to understand the harm it was causing, I started to look for alternatives.  I also had to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t need to reward myself for every workout.  Setting goals and having milestones that needed to be reached before a reward was given made it seem much more worth the effort.

Below are my three top rewards that I now use for myself when I reach my exercise related goals:

#1 Workout Gear

What better way to reward yourself than with new workout gear?  When milestones are reached (like a new weight goal, a new PB for lifting, or a race run well), reward yourself with some new training clothes, shoes or accessories.  Again, you can stagger the levels depending on how big the achievement has been, and you can buy something small like a new running hat, or splurge on a new pair of running shoes.  The benefit here is two fold; not only do you get something tangible that you can keep as a reward, but it also spurs you onto a new goal because you want to use the new workout gear!  It’s a win win.

#2 Indulge Yourself

There are lots of ways to indulge that don’t include food.  For the ladies, rewarding yourself with a manicure, or a hair styling session, or new makeup is a great way to reap the benefits from your exercise goals.  For the gents, go and buy some new sporting equipment (a new golf club, or tennis racket, or wakeboard), take a weekend trip with some friends, or buy a new accessory or clothes for work like some nice cufflinks or a suit.  Again here, when you’ve set milestones that take time and effort to achieve, a gratuitous reward can make all the difference for reaching the goal in the first place!

#3 Recognition 

Sometimes, a little bit of recognition of reaching your fitness goal is all you really need.  Like in the workplace, a ‘thank-you’ or ‘well done’ from the boss actually can mean a whole lot more than a job title change.  Use recognition for your fitness goals as well.  This can be something public, like posting on social media after a race or after your weight loss goal, and sharing with your family and friends how well you’re doing.  You’re sure to get a lot of recognition through that!  But there is also internal recognition.  Write down the feelings that you are experiencing from reaching that goal, and focus on what has motivated you to get here, and what will push you for the next goal.

Exercising is wonderful, and the endorphins and energy that you get is now enough for my weekly routine.  Instead, with milestones, celebrate the wins (small or big) through non-food rewards, and see your progress skyrocket.


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