Heal Your Relationship With Exercise

There’s this gym I often run by that almost always has an eye-catching sign up front. During the bleak fall days, right before Thanksgiving, the cheerful advertisement was inviting people to come exercise so they could feast without guilt later. Right now, the bright-colored sign is trying to lure people in with a promise to help them get “beach bodies.”

The first time around, I just rolled my eyes: Shaming people for eating is wrong, and so is creating this negative association with exercise. But the current sign made me straight-out furious. Not only is every body a beach body, but the gym is sending out a message that exercise is a tool for manipulating our body shapes, and worse, that exercise is a punishment for enjoying food.

“It gives the message that you’re not good enough the way you are and that in order to be lovable, or acceptable, you need to have this perfect beach body,” says Nancy Clark M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., a sports nutritionist and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, based in Newton, Massachusetts. “Every body is a beautiful body.”


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This is just one of the reasons exercise feels like a chore to some people and an activity associated with negative feelings for others. So let’s talk about how to break away from that mindset and make exercise a positive experience.

Get Rid of Negative Associations From Childhood

I remember in elementary school gym classes, running was used as a punishment for chatting with classmates or goofing around. We were made to run around the gym until heavy breathing took over the talking, the last one to finish often being further punished by having to put away whatever equipment we were using. Later in high school, we had to comply with a table of standardized times for various distances our teacher had in order to get a good grade. No wonder I used to hate running!

“Punishment often leads to the opposite effect, which is lack of enjoyment,” says Holly Serrao, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Clifton Park, New York, who specializes in sports psychology. “We learn to see exercise and diet as short-term fixes that we can’t wait to get over with and be done with, rather than lifelong habits. In essence, what this does is set up some very unhealthy and negative lifelong associations.”

Enjoying exercise means different things to different people. It’s not a one-size-fits-all; instead, it depends on personalities, backgrounds, abilities, interests, and lifestyles, Serrao says.

So don’t compare yourself to others; do what you enjoy doing. Don’t be afraid to go smaller, slower, or lighter than you think you should, and be kind to yourself in the process. Being kind includes verbal affirmations.

“The words we use affect how we think, the thoughts we think then affect how we feel, and the feelings we have affect how we behave,” Serrao says. “So it’s really important to keep that in mind when thinking about the messages we send—even at a young age—about exercise and diet, because they impact our emotional health and long-term behaviors, too.”

What you want to do, Serrao suggests, is:

  • Find ways to enjoy healthy habits and ways to make them realistic enough to incorporate into your everyday life.
  • Using words like “have to” or “should” when it comes to exercise makes it feel like an obligation or punishment right off the bat. Switch to phrases like “it would be nice to” or “I’m lucky I get to” instead.

Don’t Use Exercise to Punish Yourself for Eating

Speaking of our diets, negative childhood associations in need of fixing don’t include only exercise, but also food. Adults often use food as a reward or a punishment with kids.

“If you do something well—even as a toddler learning to potty train—you get a ‘treat.’ If you do something wrong, ‘no dessert tonight,’” Serrao says. “This often, sadly, carries over into the athletic world where we’re measured and weighed and told to cut back on certain foods or cut calories in order to ‘perform better’ or to be looked at as a ‘real athlete’ with more respect.”

Despite what the fitness industry pushes onto us, exercise may not equate to losing body fat.

“Creating an energy deficit is how you lose fat, and exercise can contribute to that discipline,” Clark says. A study published last year agreed that exercise—especially on its own—is not the best way to change body composition. But a food deficit can work against you as well. “If you’re more than 300 calories in deficit during the majority of your day, your metabolic rate slows down, and that’s really counterproductive if weight loss is your goal,” Clark adds. “You want to fuel by day and then eat a little bit less at dinnertime and while snacking in the evening. Then you can lose weight when you’re sleeping. The goal is to wake up ready for breakfast.”

Think of food as a source of energy. At the same time, though, consider foods that bring you enjoyment and don’t cut them out.

“There’s no good food or bad food—an apple is good food, but a diet of only apples is a very bad diet,” Clark says. “Similarly, there’s no junk food, but there’s a junk diet. So we’re looking at balance, we’re looking at moderation.”

Here’s what Clark recommends to create healthier eating habits:

  • Work with a registered dietitian who’ll help you come up with a food plan you’re willing to follow long-term. You should never start a diet you don’t want to maintain for the rest of your life; otherwise you’re in food “jail.”
  • Be intuitive and honor hunger signals. Hunger is a simple request for fuel. The overall goal is to be at peace with food, and at peace with your body.
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Beware of Unhealthy Exercise Obsession

We talked a lot about exercise being seen in the unfavorable light, but on the opposite side of the spectrum is exercising obsessively, to the point where you push through pain and stop listening to your body’s needs. That’s where exercise addiction starts.

“Exercise addiction is a means of escape behaviors behind which one can hide without social prejudice, in contrast to alcohol and drugs,” says Attila Szabó, Ph.D., an exercise addiction researcher. “While this form of self-induced pain relief or escape is masochistic because it requires time and exhaustive physical energy, this investment and the delayed reward, instead of instant gratification by certain substances, is a mental reassurance for maintaining the social image.”

Because exercise addiction is subjective, it’s difficult to diagnose. The line is where the exercise controls the individual rather than vice-versa, Szabó says. And the loss of control can lead, among other things, to injuries.

To find positive associations with exercise. Szabó shared these tips with me:

  • Recognize the point where exercise is no longer pleasurable and be disciplined to say to yourself “I love my body” or “I respect my body” and stop at that point—that’s a winning stage in fighting or preventing exercise addiction.
  • Exercise is a good thing that makes you feel good about yourself and in social settings, makes you feel good with others, so look for the joy of exercising and plant in your mind that despite the “no pain, no gain” principle for some, there is a limit where the pain hurts your body more than your mind, and instead of helping you it will handicap you sooner or later.

Think of Movement as a Reward

Having a positive attitude about exercise is key. Running can help you live longer, reduce stress and make you happier, and that’s not even listing all the benefits.

Running—and all sports for that matter—should be thought of as a medicine for your mind and body, not a punishment. Celebrate your body for what it can do for you. Enjoy all the movement and enjoy all the food—and let go of any shame, thoughts of punishment, and negative associations. You’re perfect the way you are.

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As newsletters editor, Pavlína Černá is the person behind all membership emails sent on behalf of Runner’s World, Bicycling, and Popular Mechanics. When she doesn’t edit, she writes; when she doesn’t write, she reads or translates. In whatever time she has left, you can find her outside running, roller-skating, or riding to the beat of one of the many audiobooks on her TBL list.