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How to Stop Using Exercise as Punishment for Eating

By Michelle May, M.D.

We received this #AskAmIHungry question from Maruska: I’m reading Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat and I love it. I am changing my relationship with food, slowly but surely. I started taking online salsa lessons, but I am still not keen on exercise. How can I stop using exercise as punishment for eating?

Thanks for your question, Maruska!

#AskAmIHungry Video Transcript:

We’ve all seen those charts that convert minutes of exercise into calories or convert certain foods into the number of minutes of exercise you’d have to do to burn it off.

No wonder so many people say they hate to exercise! Some people don’t even like to use the e-word! So, whether you call it exercise, physical activity, or simply movement, remember, exercise is for health, vitality, and fun, not for earning the right to eat or punishing yourself for eating!

What is your motivation for being active?

The key is to look for your intrinsic motivation for being active. When your reasons are related to the intrinsic value, such as the way you feel or how you sleep, you may feel more inspired to exercise regularly. When your reasons are related to extrinsic rewards, such as the way you look, it might feel like exercise is punishment for eating.

To help you understand the difference, ask yourself the following question: “If I don’t exercise as I’d planned, do I feel disappointed that I didn’t get to be physically active, or do I feel guilty? In other words, do I feel like I am a bad person because I didn’t work out?

Feeling guilty or ashamed based on what you did or didn’t do usually means you’re judging or punishing yourself, and that doesn’t lead to a healthy, long term exercise pattern. Being mindful and removing judgment about exercise allows you to be present to experience moving your body for the sake of moving. This increases enjoyment and reduces the likelihood of burnout or injury because you are listening to your body’s feedback, instead of looking for external rewards.

Learn about your Exercise Personality

I love that you chose online salsa lessons, hopefully because they are convenient and fun—two factors that will make it easier to create a new relationship with movement! You’ll find an Exercise Personality quiz in Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat that will help you figure out what types of movement you are most likely to enjoy.

And when you notice yourself slipping into old diet culture thinking, like how many calories you are burning, pause and express compassion for yourself—like, “There’s that old thought again! I’m glad I can enjoy all the benefits moving my body without paying penance for eating!”

Then, turn your attention to the feeling of your body moving, your breath, or the rhythm of the music.

Maruska, I hope you are able to find your intrinsic reasons for being physically active and do what you love and love what you do!


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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