healthy exercise mindset

You Don't Have to "Earn" Your Favorite Foods with Exercise

You Don’t Have to Earn Your Favorite Foods with Exercise

Even though I’m a dietitian and food is my favorite topic, it would be nearly impossible to avoid talking about exercise with my coaching clients. Almost everyone who comes to me is interested in health improvement in some form, and I approach each situation using a “whole person approach”, which means I appreciate how important things like stress level, sleep hygiene, movement and social connection factor into the equation.

One thing I notice repeatedly is that most people (at least my experience) tend to view exercise as:

  1. Solely a weight management tool

  2. A way to “earn” food, specifically indulgent food and alcohol

This is such a disservice to all of its amazing benefits! I do a lot work around why this tends to be an ineffective strategy for reaching goals, so today I thought it would be helpful to dive into this further.

Why Your Exercise Mindset Matters

Have you ever been in a group fitness class where the instructor keeps yelling out things like, “you gotta earn that wine later” or “work hard now so you can enjoy that Halloween candy”.

This is one of my biggest peeves. I get it, these instructors don’t mean any harm and are simply trying to be motivating. But this just isn’t how things work. Our energy needs vary from day to day and there is room for the fun stuff, within reason. Plus, elevating treats on a pedestal makes them way more alluring and scandalous than they need to be (how exciting that you “earned” a peanut butter cup, right?).

In short, you don’t need to exercise to earn your food, and here’s why this mindset can be problematic.

  • It becomes tempting to restrict on your sedentary days. We all have days that are lower in movement than others. Whether we’re not feeling well, are on vacation, or are stuck inside because of a snowstorm. Rest days are also an important part of muscle recovery and actually help us perform better overall. Regardless, we still need a substantial amount of food to fuel our organs and body systems properly, especially if we’ve been working out hard in the days previous.

  • You’ll start to associate workouts with indulgent food and/or alcohol which can lead to overeating, often followed by that vicious cycle of overeat/restrict. Using exercise as a tool to overeat and drink doesn’t teach you how to become a competent eater, it reinforces the idea that “calories in = calories out so we’re good", but there’s more to it. For example, I could skip meals all day and then just drink a bunch of wine to fit within my energy needs but that wouldn’t be doing any favors for my health.

  • It creates a negative association with exercise. If you view exercise/movement as something you have to do to compensate for a fun meal out with friends the night before, you probably won’t find it very enjoyable and remember, enjoyable movement usually results in consistent movement.

Practical Tips for Shifting Your Mindset

If you have a love/hate relationship with exercise, what can you do to make it more positive?

Try a bunch of different things until you find something you actually enjoy. There are so many different options these days, surely there is something for everyone. If motivation hinders you, make it social and connect with friends. If getting out of the house is a barrier for you, find something you can do at home. If time is an issue, try starting with just 15 minutes. Depending on what your current routine looks like, making exercise less structured might be a good thing too.

Next make a list of all of the reasons why you enjoy said workout. Here are some reasons why I love my favorite class:

  • It gives me a chance to take time for myself

  • It wakes me up and gets me laser-focused first thing in the morning

  • It’s gives me confidence that I can do challenging things and push through uncomfortable moments to achieve something great

  • I leave feeling strong and powerful

  • I leave feeling energized and ready to conquer the day

  • I love the sense of community at the studio

Lastly, be more cognizant of the language you use around movement. We had a great discussion about this topic on Healthy Buzz in episode 9 that you might find helpful. If you start talking about exercise/movement in a positive way instead of “omg I need to work off all of that pizza and beer” way, I would imagine you’ll notice a difference in how consistent you are fairly quickly.

Interested in working 1:1 to work on your relationship with food and exercise? Schedule a free 15-minute intro call to see what that might look like for you.