By Birau Mia and Carolina O.C. Werle

Ever wondered why you reach for a snack after hitting the gym? Research shows that physical exercise often leads to increased food consumption, whether it is treating yourself for a job well done or replenishing the energy you have burned. With countless sports events airing and our screens constantly filled with sports’ competitions, a new question arises: Can watching sports on a screen also influence how much we eat?

The answer is yes. Our research reveals that watching sports’ videos can increase candy consumption. But there is more to the story: the difficulty of the sports you are watching plays a crucial role in these effects.

We first invited 112 students to watch a video and test some candies. Half of the students watched a video with men and women playing sports, while the other half watched one without any physical activity. We then gave each student a 70g cup of candy and asked them to judge its quality for three minutes. The students who saw the sports’ video ate more candy than those who saw the one without physical activity.

Our initial test thus revealed that watching sports’ videos can boost candy consumption, but here’s the twist: male students indulged in far more candy than female students, so maybe the results were triggered by males’ consumption. Plus, we were still unsure if the type of sport watched affects the candy intake.

To learn more, we invited just the female students to watch videos portraying either easy (light running) or difficult-to-perform sports (athletics long jump, gymnastics, baseball, rugby or rock climbing). After, the students were invited to test the same candies as before. Students who watched the easy sports video ate much more candy (30.1g) than those who watched the difficult sports video (18g).

We can thus conclude that the ease or difficulty of the exercise shown significantly impacts candy consumption.

Our research suggests that merely watching sports can lead to a sense of vicarious fulfilment of fitness goals. When people can picture themselves doing the activity they are watching, they feel as though they have already exercised, which can lead to more-indulgent food choices. If they perceive the exercise shown as easy rather than difficult, they can more easily imagine themselves doing it, leading to greater feelings of progress toward their fitness goals. This perceived achievement can make them feel they have earned the right to indulge and influence their search for a reward, often resulting in increased food intake.

This knowledge can be used by policymakers or marketers who aim to encourage healthful lifestyles. When promoting healthy activities by picturing physical activity that seems too easy, people may feel a greater sense of achievement that could backfire and lead to increased consumption. We suggest showing an easy exercise (like walking or jogging) followed by a tougher one (like sprinting or marathon running) as an alternative solution. This approach can motivate people to start with basic exercises while reminding that there is still a long way to go to reach their fitness goals. This strategy could offer an alternative to promote physical activity without giving a false sense of accomplishment.

So what is the takeaway for us? Be mindful of how watching sports can affect our eating habits. If you are aiming to stay on track with your diet, watch more challenging sports – it might just help you resist that extra chocolate bar. Moreover, when setting dieting goals, remind yourself that real progress comes from consistent effort, not just imagining yourself doing a workout. Engage in activities that genuinely challenge you, and pair them with mindful eating habits. This way, you can avoid the trap of feeling the fitness goal to be prematurely accomplished and then overindulging.

In conclusion, should you watch the Olympic games if you want to keep up with your diet? Of course, but it might be better to choose the physical activities you find the most difficult to perform – and watch them without moderation.

Birau Mia is Associate Professor of Marketing, EM Lyon Business School and Carolina O.C. Werle is Professor of marketing, Grenoble École de Management (GEM). This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence