We all have some memory where we have been punished with exercise. Show up late to practice? Do extra laps. Miss a catch? Do push-ups. Talk too much in gym class? Sprints. It’s no wonder many people see exercise as a punishment and not as a celebration of the capabilities of our bodies. And now, as adults, we use the same methods to punish ourselves for indulgent eating or taking a day off from going to the gym.
We don’t think about how using exercise as a punishment ruins our relationship with the gym and with eating. I’ve said it, and because it’s a hard cycle to break I know I’ll say it again, “Oh, I’ll have [insert indulgent, delicious, calorie dense food of your choice here] cause I’m going to be bad today.” Which, after words, leads to feelings of guilt, and if we learned anything growing up it’s that bad behavior needs to be punished. So, what better way than getting on the stair stepper for an hour of grueling cardio followed by a shitty lifting session (since you’re wiped out from all that cardio). And while you’re at it, follow the next few days with eating healthy foods you hate to make up for the indiscretion. Then, after a few days of pushing yourself to complete exhaustion in the gym and eating food you hate, you break down in the grocery store and grab the Hershey’s bar that’s practically screaming your name. You eat it in the car (so no one can see the evidence) and the whole cycle starts over again.
Too many fitness professionals espouse this method of punishing yourself in the gym and with healthy foods. They get on social media after a cheat meal and talk about how they need to make up for it. How they plan to atone for their culinary sins with extra cardio and severe calorie restriction because nothing says long term adherence like slashing your calories and working out til exhaustion. But the truth is, you’re not going to hate yourself into a better physique. These actions will always lead to a breaking point. For some it could be days, for some it could take months it’s just a matter of time. Eventually, your body and brain will fight back. The deprivation and fatigue will drive you to a binge, or worse sickness/injury.
Exercise/training should be something you enjoy. But we diminish that joy when we turn movement into a punishment. We are programmed to avoid discomfort, and exercise is already uncomfortable (to a degree) so when we use it to beat ourselves down it also becomes psychologically miserable. It leads to resentment, and hatred of the gym and exercise, and that’s not going to help anyone achieve their health and fitness goals.
I wish I could tell you that it’s as easy as deciding that you’re not going to label food as good or bad. And that you’ll never feel guilty after eating of high calorie, low nutrient density foods. Or that you’ll never feel bad about skipping the gym to hang out with friends instead. I wish I could tell you that by making this one simple change you’ll fix all of your problems, but I can’t. Life is too complicated for that. But if we work on changing our narrative, and correcting our thoughts when our actions don’t line up with our goals we can get a few steps closer to having a healthier mindset when it comes to food and exercise.
Move because it's amazing! Our bodies are capable of so much! Fuel them with healthy foods and sprinkle in foods that are good for the soul. It's not who suffers the most by the end who wins. It's who can find the most joy and love for their lifestyle that sees true, lasting changes.