Play to Win

The Ultimate 'Game of Thrones' Workout

‘Temptation Bundling’ ties your ‘should be doing’ behaviors, like exercise, to your guilty-pleasures, such as binge watching Game of Thrones. It is known, Khaleesi.

04.19.15 4:01 AM ET

If you haven’t heard, the first four episodes of HBO’s fifth season of Game of Thrones leaked last week, giving us a free pass to lie on our couches and binge on fantasy drama. Will Tyrion Lannister flee the realm? Will Khaleesi keep her dragons locked up forever? Can Cersei Lannister successfully run the House of Lannister? Whether we indulge in all four episodes in a row (unless HBO seals the leak), watch it one episode at time on Sunday nights as HBO intends, or use our old coworker’s parents’ HBO GO account log-in info to access the show whenever we please, why not use the time spent watching this epic saga to benefit our health by temptation bundling it with exercise? What if we only let ourselves watch Game of Thrones while we exercised?

Instead of sitting for an hour, imagine the health benefits we could achieve by watching a TV show while on the treadmill. With the incline set to 6 percent and speed at 4.2, you’d be precisely matching the gait of the Hound—schlepping up a hill with Arya Stark by his side.

Temptation bundling—coined by Katherine Milkman, an assistant professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania—is the coupling of “instantly gratifying, but guilt-inducing activities” she calls “want” experiences (listening to podcasts or audio-novels, binging on television series), with valuable “should” behaviors (doing household chores, exercising, writing thank-you cards), which offer delayed rewards. I learned about Milkman’s work when I was listening to the podcast Freakonimics last weekend while jogging along the East River in New York City. I was literally practicing a type of temptation bundling but I didn’t realize it at the time—how meta.

For those of us who lack the willpower to work out (including me, at times), and the vibration from our Nike Fuel band isn’t enough to motivate us to move, the strategy of bundling what we enjoy with an activity we hate doing might just be the magic pill to consistent exercise. You might realize you are doing this already (like I did, by fusing my podcast listening to jogging), but the conscious act of limiting your guilty pleasures to only the times you exercise is the difference and what separates the idea of temptation bundling from, say, listening to Freakonomics all the time.

Milkman put her idea of temptation bundling to the test with exercise in a seven-week study, using page-turner audio novels like the Hunger Games as the lure. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, each of which had restrictions for when they could listen to their audio novel. Group One could only access their audio-novel when at the gym. If they wanted to listen to more, they had to come back and exercise. Group Two had no restraints on when they could listen, but as part of the study, the audio-novel was downloaded onto their listening devices beforehand. The control group was given a gift card to Barnes & Nobles, where they could purchase the audio-novel themselves, but it was up to them to go to the store and download the audio-novel themselves.

Milkman’s study found that temptation bundling worked well, with members of the first group visiting the gym 51 percent more than the control group. The second group frequented the gym 29 percent more than the control group.

So, if you are looking to practice Milkman’s idea of temptation bundling, why not use Game of Thrones to motivate yourself to exercise? And in honor of the Hound, slam a glass of water instead of an ale before you head to the gym.

Or, here’s an idea: Hop on the treadmill or cardio bike and increase the incline or resistance by one point whenever you see the golden hand of the Kingslayer Jaime Lannister. Specific to the treadmill, whenever you spot Tyrion Lannister drinking wine, you could increase the speed on your treadmill by two full points. If there’s a scene with the cherished Sansa Stark, pop your feet off on the sides of the treadmill, fire out 25 body-weight squats, and hop back on. You could also spend your time during the week, when the show isn’t on, memorizing the characters in alphabetical order as you walk briskly.

Afraid the vigorous activity of exercise will sabotage your amusement of viewing another Red Wedding-like episode? Studies show you may not necessarily have to work out that hard to reap the rewards of adding life to your years and years to your life—one of my favorite sayings. Meaning, as long as it’s moderate activity (brisk walking of 4 mph, bicycling 10-12 mph), you are enduring enough cardio that your health will benefit and keep you alive longer than those who don’t exercise. Point being, walk on a treadmill for 60 minutes and pretend you are marching as a free person for Khaleesi.

As Gretchen Reynolds writes in The New York Times regarding a new study that pooled data from six studies about not too much nor too little physical activity—the Goldilocks problem—it seems that hitting the 150 minutes a week minimum of moderate physical activity (walking briskly five days a week for 30 minutes) improves your longevity and makes you 31 percent less likely to die prematurely compared to those who don’t exercise. If you’re hitting these numbers, and think you can afford to watch Game of Thrones from your couch, consider the benefits of what a little more physical activity can do for you.

The exciting news from the study, with data from 661,000 participants, suggests that if you walk for about an hour each day of the week, instead of just 30 minutes five days a week, (about one episode of Game of Thrones), you reduce your chance of premature death by 39 percent compared to those who don’t exercise—and 8 percent more over the minimum. Anything more and the study shows the benefits level off. With this in mind, and if you’re not hitting an hour each day of brisk walking, you have one very simple question: What would Tyrion Lannister do? (Don’t answer that; but we do know that actor Peter Dinklage would probably walk but may not need to temptation bundle because he has a dog.)

If temptation bundling isn’t your thing, and you still prefer to revel in the Game of Thrones leak on your couch all afternoon, you might be doing yourself real harm. According to the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source program, a 160-pound person burns about 70 calories while sleeping, depending on his or her level of fitness (based on Metabolic Equivalents or METS). Remaining sedentary all weekend, slumped on the couch or in bed (have you changed your underwear?), binging on seasons three and four of Game of Thrones (plus bonus footage) and the season five leak, will probably result in weight gain. Unless you did CrossFit all week and possess a super-jacked, revved up metabolism and high level of fitness, your couch-sitting marathons will slowly kill you—from heart disease. I’m serious.

The weekend is when we do the most damage on our health, as they become a Winterfell feast. Most diets have a free or cheat day, and that typically means Saturday or Sunday (or somehow it becomes both days) we gorge on goodies but not on exercise. And we eat as if we’ve chopped wood all day in a forest. This cheat day serves as freedom where we subconsciously trick ourselves into believing we “earned it” and deserve the free pass to cancel off the healthy practices of the weekdays by brunching, partaking in bottomless mimosas and breathlessly mourning the death of yet another favorite character, like my favorite, Ygritte.

So consider temptation bundling. It’s a great strategy to help get you into the gym to feel better, be better, and not look like the Spice King. And this spring, Game of Thrones could be your gratification bait to get you to tackle your “should be doing” behavior—like hitting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. By only letting yourself watch this epic fantasy drama while at the gym, it might just be the plot line of a character like Jon Snow that saves you from an early death of heart disease. Unless you find yourself at a Westerosi wedding, that is.