New Study: Do Exercise Ads Make You Fitter…or Fatter?

New research suggests that advertisements designed to promote physical fitness may have an unexpected consequence—they actually make people eat more.


When I signed up for my first half-marathon back in 2007, I tore a full-page ad for the event out of Runner's World magazine and hung it on my bedroom wall, so it was the first thing I saw when my alarm went off in the morning. Good thing I didn't hang it in my kitchen. New research from the University of Illinois suggests that advertisements designed to promote physical fitness may have an unexpected consequence—they actually make people eat more.

The study published this month in Obesity observed 53 college students as they looked at posters from an exercise campaign and later looked at posters that did not mention exercise. The participants were given a handful of raisins after each session. And after looking at the exercise posters they ate one-third more than they did after looking at nonfitness pics—an average of 18 calories, compared with only 12.

Similar results were found with a second test, in which different students played a computer game involving either action words like "active" and "go" or neutral words like "pear" and "moon." Those who heard the action words ate more peanut M&Ms afterward than the neutral group.

Where and when these ads appear is also an important factor, says Dolores Albarracin, the study's lead author and a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. "When the setting of the advertising is more conducive to eating than exercise, people eat," she told The New York Times last week. "If you just wallpaper everyplace with these kinds of posters, it may not do much good."

I admit, when I'm really being good about working out every day, I tend to allow myself a few (hundred) extra calories—especially in the form of desserts, drinks, or other "rewards" for making it to the gym. So maybe that's what subconsciously happened to the people in this study. They thought about exercising and decided to indulge a bit more in return.

But this makes me wonder about the age-old practice of using motivational photos or objects—such as hanging up a bikini, a pair of skinny jeans, or a picture of a celebrity role model—as an inspiration to lose weight or get in shape. I recently replaced that old half-marathon ad with the brand new Team in Training jersey that I'll wear for my first triathlon in July. Now, whenever I spot it in my bedroom, I'll try to be aware of any mysterious hunger cravings!

Have you ever used fitness-related props like these as a gentle reminder of your goals? Have they worked? And do you think we need to watch out for absent-minded eating?
Amanda MacMillan
Last Updated: March 12, 2009

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