Cravings may be reduced by intense exercise, study suggests

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A new study found that rats who underwent intense exercise resisted high-fat food pellets more than rats who did not exercise, prompting researchers to believe that intense exercise may help individuals stay on track with their diet.

The study was published in the journal Obesity and was conducted by researchers at Washington State University and University of Wyoming. Researchers designed the study to observe a phenomenon known as “incubation of craving,” which refers to the theory that the longer a desired substance is denied, the harder it is to resist cravings for it.  

The experiment involved 28 rats who were trained to dispense themselves a high-fat food pellet by pressing a lever. Researchers split the rats into two groups: one group underwent high intensity exercise on a treadmill, and the other group had no addition exercise outside of their normal activity. Both groups were denied access to the pellets for 30 days. Once the trial period was over, rats were given access to the lever, however, this time, when pressed the level did not dispense any pellets.

The study’s results showed that rats who underwent the intense exercise pressed the lever significantly fewer times than rats with a normal amount of activity.

"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,'" said Travis Brown, PhD, corresponding author and Washington State University physiology and neuroscience researcher in a statement. "Exercise could not only be beneficial physically for weight loss but also mentally to gain control over cravings for unhealthy foods." The study suggested that intense exercise may curb some food cravings. However, because the study was conducted on rats, more research needs to be done on humans before official conclusions are made. In the future, researchers plan to conduct additional studies on the types of cravings that exercise may reduce, as well as the specific effects exercise has on the brain that are associated with the desire for food.

"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 said. "We're always looking for this magic pill in some ways, and exercise is right in front of us with all these benefits."