Fitness Is NOT A Punishment
Despite what a huge chunk of the fitness industry seems to want you to think, fitness is not a punishment. You don’t need to earn your meals, you don’t need to “make space” for a meal you’re about to have and in a lot of cases, worrying about calorie burn from your workouts is unhelpful.
As in all cases, if you like doing the above, and you find it helpful in you leading a happy and healthy life, don’t let me stop you. I 100% back anyone that is working on making themselves healthier and happier – as long as it is safe.
But most of the people I work with don’t want to go through a cycle of needing to earn their meals or punish themselves for food choices and try to burn them off.
How Do You Know If That Culture Is Affecting You?
You may be wondering if you have been swept up in this fitness punishment culture that seems to be rampant.
Do any of the following statements or questions apply to you?
- You have said you need to burn off extra calories.
- You have said you need to make space for extra calories.
- You said you were good on your diet so you deserve a break/treat/cheat. (Cheat meals/days is a whole separate point by the way!)
- Your goals are much more focused on weight change or appearance.
- Your main focus for your workouts is burning calories.
If any of those apply, there is a good chance that either now, or at some point in the past, you have been pulled into this fitness punishment culture.
To break it down, I’m going to look at it from both a fitness point of view and a food point of view.
Addressing Fitness Morality
If your fitness or workouts are focused entirely on calorie burn, and your goals are focused pretty much entirely on weight change or appearance, then you are quite likely to be on the road of viewing fitness as a punishment or something to be endured.
If you can switch your mindset to finding a way of exercising or doing physical activity that you actually enjoy, that is going to make you feel empowered and will change your perspective on exercise entirely.
It’s very easy to scroll through your Instagram feed or on the Explore page and just see loads of fitness influencers, or fitness models promoting certain workouts.
And it’s human nature – it’s not ideal, but it’s human nature – to look at their bodies and for whatever reason, we all think, “Ooh, I want to look like that!”
And you start comparing different parts of your body to the tensed, angled, airbrushed, and filtered images that you get bombarded with.
Number one – like I already mentioned, the way someone looks on Instagram, especially if they get paid for their appearance, is often going to be miles off from what they look like in reality.
Number two – even if they do look like that, or even close to that, remember that it is part of their job to look like that. They are literally getting paid to maintain that appearance. In most cases, they aren’t doing a day job and then looking like that on the side.
Number three – you have a different background – different lifestyle, age, background, training history, and genetics. You’re a 100% completely unique individual so drawing direct comparisons to anyone else isn’t helpful, especially if they make you feel inferior.
You Are Unique
You also need to understand that unless you’re training for a specific sport or have a very specific performance goal, there’s no perfect workout. There’s no perfect exercise. There’s no perfect workout routine.
So you can ignore all the social media posts, YouTube videos, blog articles, or whatever that say,
X is the best exercise for something.
How To Turn Around Your Fitness Mindset
Now that we have looked at not comparing yourself to others and why you shouldn’t view fitness as a punishment, let’s delve into how to turn things around.
And the quickest and easiest way is to have a performance-based goal of some kind, and not just focus on appearance or numbers on a scale.
And the way to do that is to find an exercise, activity, or sport that you genuinely get fulfilment from doing, and gives you an endorphin high. It could be weightlifting, yoga, running, walking, climbing, or combat sports – there is a huge range of choices.
One of my previous clients took to axe-throwing. I didn’t even know that was a thing, but eventually, her training became completely focused on how to get better at throwing axes and how to keep both sides of her body balanced.
She has never been more focused or more consistent with her training than when it started fueling something that makes her feel alive.
Once you find something you enjoy, the next thing is to make sure it is something you can do safely.
If you have knee trouble, long-distance running might not be a great match for you.
Lastly, make sure it is something you will be able to access easily. My axe-throwing client would have never gotten into axe-throwing as a regular thing if she had to drive an hour and a half or two hours each way. But fortunately for her, it is only a 20-minute drive.
Similarly, I have an interest in trying bouldering and think it’s something I would really enjoy. The closest place for me is about a 30-40 minute drive, which might not be entirely feasible as a regular thing for me with my current workload.
So those are your three focus areas:
- Find something you enjoy
- Make sure you can do it safely
- Make sure you can access it easily to fo it consistently
And then when you find that thing that works for you, you’re going to have your own goals. And then it moves from being something you feel obliged to do, and it becomes something you look forward to doing – like a hobby.
And when it becomes a hobby, when it becomes something you enjoy, that’s when everything else lines up. That’s when you start to hit your training consistency, that’s when you start to enjoy it, that’s when you stop seeing it as a punishment.
That’s one of the best ways to stop stressing about burning calories or trying to look a certain way – because you’ve got that external focus.
Food Is Fuel
Moving on to tying emotions and punishment to foods, you have probably heard the phrase “food is fuel” before.
And while it is a simple 3-word phrase, it can have huge negative OR huge positive implications, depending on who is hearing it and how they are interpreting it.
Someone with a history of undernourishment or malnourishment may need to remind themselves that is food is fuel, and not something to be scared of or demonised because your body needs it.
In these cases, it can be helpful to acknowledge and appreciate that your body needs it, especially if you find something physical that you enjoy doing and want to continue making progress in that.
Coming back to my axe-thrower – she used to follow the “Special K diet” which is where 2 meals a day are bowls of Special K, and you would then have 1 “normal” meal per day.
It’s not exactly a great plan for nourishing yourself or giving your body the energy or fuel it needs for swinging axes around.
On the flip side to understanding where “food is fuel” can be positive, it’s important to understand it’s not a helpful idea for everyone.
We use food for emotions a lot, whether it’s to deal with stress, just to feel a little bit more comfortable. There are a ton of reasons.
Plus when you go out or when you’re seeing family or friends or other special or important people in your life, food does more often than not become part of it.
And appreciating all of that, it’s okay to have emotional attachments to food. Maybe “attachments” isn’t the right word, but some emotional link to food. Maybe instead of saying food is fuel, it’s better to say “food is not just fuel”.
And lastly, let’s circle back to cheat days and cheat meals.
I usually recommend trying not to see food as a reward or turn it into a moral issue by saying it’s a cheat or something like that. Because when you do that, you start to demonise certain foods. You only see them as something you can have as a reward, which is where words like “guilt” and “cheating” start to creep in.
Then that turns food into something of a moral issue. And then if you feel like you’ve had one of those foods and because of your fitness, you didn’t “earn it” then you can easily feel guilty, or ashamed.
If you still have emotional attachments, and you feel like you’ve got a disordered pattern of eating, whatever that may look like for you, then it’s important to address that.
If you get yourself a fitness goal that has nothing to do with appearance and start to get passionate about that, then your nutrition will naturally start to align with that goal.
In other situations, it depends on what that emotional link to your food choices is.
For example, if you go for particular foods that aren’t great for your health when you’re stressed, then maybe it’s a case of finding a different way to deal with your stress, whether it’s through breathing or meditation or journaling, or just doing something active to change your physical state and your mental frame of mind.
For example, with my history of binge eating disorder, I know stress or work frustration are amongst my most common binge triggers. I have enough self-awareness to know when I feel my mind going down that path toward binge urges. I have found that if I opt to do a quick set of 20 kettlebell things as soon as I feel it coming on, it changes my mindset completely and those hints towards bingeing disappear.
If it’s a more positive thing, like a reward, then maybe try to find a non-food related reward or that’s treating yourself to an outing, some new clothes or something else.
When I was studying to be an accountant, we had 3 phases of exams.
I bought myself a TV when I passed phase 1, a Nintendo Wii when I passed phase 2, and an iPad when I passed phase 3.
Please don’t take this as an invitation to splurge unnecessarily on material goods that you might not necessarily want or need. This is just the first example that came to my mind on non-food rewards for good things that I have given myself.
Overall, when you can stop linking your emotions to that specific food then that’s when things really start to change, like allowing yourself to nourish your body and give it what it needs because it’s part of a greater fitness goal.
Remember – Fitness Is Not A Punishment
Being present with the special people in your life and enjoying the memories that you’re making, which food just happens to be a part of, is an epic experience.
Finding a way to calm yourself or eliminate stress that doesn’t rely on specific foods is a sign of growth.
When you can do that, you start to strip back the emotions and you get a much better relationship with food.
You’re not going through that reward and guilt and cheat and treat cycle.
That’s how I link fitness, not being a punishment and actually being something that empowers you and something to be enjoyed with food, not being a reward and not being something to link your motions to too much.