Exercise gives you more impulse control

You might have heard that weight loss is 20% exercise and 80% nutrition — but what if the former helps you control the latter? A new study from the University of Kansas has shown that regular exercise can help you control your impulses, which can significantly help with eating well.

When measuring impulsivity, the researchers used a “delay discounting” task. This presents the participants with a smaller/sooner reward versus a larger/later reward.

“It’s something we all experience in our lives. Do you want a little money now—or wait and get a lot of money later?” lead author Michael Sofis explained. “The degree to which one chooses that smaller/sooner reward is called impulsivity, and that has been linked to obesity problems, gambling, and most forms of substance abuse.”

Particularly when it comes to health and fitness, the degree to which a person values future events can impact what they do today. If you’re trying to lose weight, how much do you value that future goal when presented with a big, tasty and unhealthy meal right now? How much impulse control do you have to deny the meal for the sake of your future health?

This is where exercise comes in. The study placed participants on an exercise regimen for several weeks. They found that there were significant improvements in delay discounting during the experiment, with the majority of participants preserving their new impulse control in a follow up weeks later.

“I had people of all different ages, BMIs, incomes, and mental-health levels, and these studies suggested that nearly every single person at least improved their delayed discounting to some degree,” said Sofis.

“If anyone just exercises, it’s likely you will show some improvements. More evidence is needed to draw definitive conclusions, but it’s very encouraging to see people improving. Just show up and give it a go—it seems like people do improve.”