Mindful Eating Programs and Training

Mindful Eating Programs and Training

Don’t exercise to punish yourself for eating

Michelle May


As a family physician, I often heard patients say, “I know I should exercise, but I hate it!” Clearly, the words should and hate signal a negative relationship with exercise, despite all the known health and psychological benefits. Where does this come from? One explanation is that people have learned to think of exercise as punishment for eating.

exercise-as-punishment-for-eatingI first recognized this in my own thoughts about exercise: how many calories I was burning per session (or even per minute), and whether I was even coming close to that “indulgence” I had cheated on my diet with.

For the first time, I saw what this graphic in an article called “Can You Afford the Extras?” was really saying. It showed it takes 20 minutes of bike riding to burn off 200 calories of truffles and I realized the authors were equating eating a delicious (“bad”) food with the need to pay for it with exercise. (Sort of like a criminal has to pay for their crime by doing time in jail!)

First, that is fuzzy math. Second, it is another example of our culture’s negative approach to eating and exercise.

They might as well have renamed the feature:

How to Turn Exercise into Punishment for Eating

Exerise as punishment for eating: Calories-in-a-burger-vs-calories-burned-swimmingYou’ve probably seen this sort of thing so often you don’t stop to think about how absurd it is. And lest you think it is an outdated idea, I assure you there are plenty of examples out there, like this one, equating the 343 calories in a burger with 30 minutes of swimming.

Exercise is for health and vitalitynot for punishing yourself for eating. And for that matter, exercise is not for earning the right to eat or for paying penance for eating something “bad.”

Besides, calorie counts on food and exercise are notoriously imprecise and subject to significant individual variability!

Not to mention how ridiculously time- and energy-consuming (read, wasting) it would be to calculate every calorie you eat and burn throughout the day. (Believe me; back in my diet days, I tried.)

Turning exercise into punishment backfires

Worse than being absurd, this kind of messaging often has the opposite effect. Instead of causing people to decide that the food isn’t worth it, they decide that the exercise isn’t worth it.

Subconsciously, the message people hear is, “If you eat _______ (fill in the blank with something you love), you have to do X minutes of _______ (fill in the blank with some dreaded exercise). No wonder so many people say they hate to exercise!

Exercise as punishment for eating:Swimming-vs-BurgerTo illustrate the stupidity of this kind of threatening approach to eating, just imagine if it were the other way around:

If you want to swim for 30 minutes, you have to eat a hamburger!

Ridiculous, huh?

Then why would it makes sense the other way around?

Now contrast that with this short video about the power of making physical activity FUN!

Separate eating from exercise

Exercise is not for burning and earningAlthough it seems counter-intuitive in our diet- and weight-obsessed culture, at Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs and Training, we recommend people separate exercise from calories and disassociate food and exercise. Food and physical activity independently impact our overall well-being, but they shouldn’t be turned into a complicated math problem!

Move your body a little and regularly because it makes it possible to move your body more and more easily! Exercise enables you to experience your life more fully and more vibrantly. Calories be damned!

This article has been updated from a previously published version.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you:

Change Your Thoughts about Exercise

Not getting enough exercise? Lower the Bar

Diet and Activity Trackers: The Next Generation of Misused Tools

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28 thoughts on “Don’t exercise to punish yourself for eating”

  1. Well, if we were to use the reverse then I’d have to eat 6 truffles so far today…and surely I’d have to eat more for the 40 additional minutes I just spent at the gym. LOL This might be a good idea. 😉
    But seriously, what the above ad fails to point out is that we have to eat to stay alive. Obviously, I live my life truffle-free for the most part, and I’m fine. But if I wanted a truffle today then there would be nothing wrong with that.
    And now regarding exercise..people will use all kinds of excuses, but the truth is exercise can be fun. You just have to do what you like..and the key is having a good attitude even on days you don’t want to do it.
    Okay, I’m done being preachy…;) This was an awesome post because you’re right…I do not and will not feel guilty for what I want to consume. I’ll just do what works for me and the goals I want to accomplish.

  2. Nice point.
    It sometimes seems as though the dieting industry isn’t really interested in helping people to permanently maintain weight reduction or a healthy lifestyle, otherwise it would go out of business.
    Getting the balance between the amount you eat and the energy you expend is key. If you sit around all day you won’t need as much as someone who more active. In many ways it’s more helpful to assist people change their desire for large helpings and/or break the connection between negative emotions and food. This change in habits and thoughts helps to reduce their weight and maintain it long term. It’s also important to help people build up coping strategies for handling the ‘bad’ things that happen in life. In my experience when they feel better about themselves they will naturally start to feel more comfortable doing a variety of exercise as it is easier for them.

  3. Keep it simple. Exercise first thing in the morning, every morning. Eat as good as you can, with no guilt attached. Once you are in the habit of exercising every morning and eating well, a little cheat here and there can be had without any guilt.
    To Your Health!
    James Reno (editor)

  4. Excellent article Michelle! Thank you! I know so many people who say, “I’m a runner so I can have all the ice cream I want.” I say the “exercise so you can pig-out” mentality is like filling your car’s gas tank with gas and then frantically driving all over town to burn up that gas.
    We were born with a joyous attitude towards movement. Do you know any toddlers who can sit still? Are they frantically trying to burn off the birthday cake they ate at their friend’s party? Of course not. Food is fun, play is fun, and our bodies are just fine thank you. We can reclaim that “go out and play” attitude and ditch “exercise” altogether.

  5. I teach a joyous dance exercise class and I noticed that on Thanksgiving morning, for many years, I taught a class. I often heard participants say that they came because they wanted to exercise before they ate the “big” feast. I found myself using this as part of a marketing tool. Then it hit me – I didn’t like this relationship that I was creating with regards to food. I stopped teaching completely on that day. I enjoyed this article very much and am reminded to move for “Health and Vitality” and to eat for “Health and Vitality” and for all the joy in life sharing a meal can bring. I know as a wellness coach I will bring this article to the attention of many.

  6. Have we developed a cultural avoidance of fitness because of negative associations with exercise? All that structure and routine of a “work-out” is un-fun. I hear it all the time. Ohhh! but, It requires effort, discipline and discomfort. – Does it really?
    How do we get the message out that fitness is fun. It doesn’t mean being skinny it doesn’t require becoming a toned tanned glistening model of corporeal perfection.
    Exercise is best when the inner child is loose. Do what makes you happy. Leave yourself wanting more. Do it with people you like – do it alone. It’s not WHAT you do – it’s THAT you do. And all you need to do is an hour a day!
    The amazing thing is when your active you start making better nutrition choices. Maybe an apple is a better sweet snack than those cookies? Maybe unsweetened tea instead of a soda. A person who creates a 100 Kcal deficit per day = 10lbs of fat per year – whether they lose it or simply don’t gain it – it’s a win for our team.
    Thank you Dr. Michelle for the link to that really fun video (I put it on my blog and facebook too). Can you imagine piano stairs in every American city. Poof! 3 million adults loose 50lbs a year – piano stair social networks spring up throughout the world – local & regional competitions attract thousands -global conventions are televised. Every kids has to have a stair piano! WOOT!
    Once we have proof of concept….venture capital…viola! a new industry is born. In a few years a new school of thought emerges that increased activity and fun can reduce health care cost, strengthen human bonds and increase life span – Who Knew!!!???

  7. Originally posted on Linkedin
    Aloha Michelle! Great post as it is totally crazy thinking to eat or exercise to compensate for the other….and people do it all the time.
    I see clients who fall into one of two categories with this style of thinking.
    1) they really do try to calculate the time needed to burn off the food (does not even have to be a *goodie*) and they keep on going , well because their brain tells them if a little is good a lot must be better. (Exercise purge).
    2)This group tells themselves they *burned* off the *goodie* and now they are done. They will circle a parking lot for a close spot, and generally slide into couch potato-hood as they have already *exercised* for the day. (Compensation in obesity)
    Why the media has not caught on to how damaging these messages are for the overly body conscious American is curious, or maybe not, maybe they don’t care people and we all have to wake up and think for ourselves. They do not know the answer…you do!
    Really with some reflection and space (yes non-doing) you can begin to unpack the behaviors that lead you to search for the magic potion to no avail.
    Thanks for a chance to have a morning rant Michelle 🙂 Have a glorious day.

  8. And just a quick note after reading the comments Michelle.
    I feel exercising as a routine (short of a class to learn something new) is again boxing us in as human beings (vs human doings). As a menopausal woman I am thrilled to do what *feels* right and *when* it feels right. Such freedom everyone can have no need to wait for middle age!
    If I get up and want to do a TaiChi set or 8 sets it is up to my energy level, perhaps I feel more like walking on the beach and tackling the sand dunes for an adventure, knowing I can do what my mind and body feel like doing actually equates to MORE exercise than the prescribed to do work out One can learn to dread as it goes against one’s nature.
    Really we do know what to do if we listen in. Makes life so much more fun.
    Love your site and work Michelle keep it up!

  9. OK, so maybe I’m off here, but does everything have to be fun? As a former teacher, I definitely see this trend rising. Make homework fun. Make math facts fun. Make eating vegetables fun. Make doing chores fun. If it isn’t “fun” we can’t expect people/kids to do the work. Sometimes when I exercise, or clean my house, or save money it isn’t fun. It is discipline and hard work. Sometimes I don’t like it. But the consequences of not doing the right thing and the rewards of doing the right thing are the payoff.

  10. I, agree, wholeheartedly – but the point of indulging is just that: to eat for pleasure with repercusions. If you move your body everyday than what you eat fuels your normal activities plus extra exertions. We can all make ourselves crazy with this cycle of reward + punishment with food.

  11. Exercise can be as much fun as you want it to be. Bicycling is a great way to exercise, burn a lot of calories, and have fun. While you are riding, especially in a group, it is difficult to think of food. Actually I have to make an effort to remind myself to eat and drink while riding.
    Since I started riding I lost over 100 pounds. I met many people that lost a lot weight by cycling.
    One more thing. Cycling is a non weight bearing exercise. It is easy on the knees and hips.
    If you do a long bike ride, I do not think you will be thinking about eating truffles.

    1. Thank you Francis! I’m so glad that you have discovered an activity that you love! Rather than paying penance for eating, when people use exercise for enjoyment, camaraderie, stress release, energy boosting, they are far more likely to develop a sustainable program they enjoy instead of dread. I hope everyone finds something they like as much as you like cycling!

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