Exercise as punishment vs exercise as play

Originally written for www.stuff.co.nz, published 3 January 2017


“I’ve eaten way too much this weekend, so I’ll do extra workouts this week to make up for it.”

Have you ever stepped into a gym, or gone out on your run after making a mental note to yourself of the ‘bad food’ that you need to ‘make up’ for? You know – that Big Mac, large fries and coke (1330 calories) means approximately 2hrs 30min of running, 4hrs 57min of walking or 6hrs 16min of yoga to ‘burn it off’.  We can easily access articles and websites that to help us convert our food of choice to the amount of exercise we’ll need to negate it.

Thinking about food and exercise like this, and seeing your food as its exercise equivalent can easily lead to thinking about exercise as punishment – it becomes that thing we ‘should’ or ‘have to’ do to ‘make up’ for that bottle of wine, burger or chocolate bar, leaving us ‘guilt-free’ once more.

Besides the fact that biochemistry is not quite as simple as calories in, calories out, this way of thinking gets us into a potentially unhealthy habit of trading off food for exercise that can easily spiral out of control, become obsessive, or turn exercise, movement and activity into a negative experience that’s tiring, uncomfortable and hard. And that’s just no fun.

Going to the gym is often associated with ‘working out’. If you’re not too enthused about working to start with, then that very idea of ‘working out’ will also have negative connotations. Who wants to spend more time working on something? If exercise is work, it’s not surprising many people find it hard to stick to.

What’s more, punishing ourselves with exercise is still commonly seen as an admirable thing to do, and a sign of good discipline. If this works for you and a punishing, painful exercise routine to make up for your indiscretions rocks your world (I know there’s a few of you out there), that’s great, but if it leaves you feeling inadequate, unworthy and full of self-loathing, if it takes away the fun from your exercise, maybe it’s worth reconsidering your approach.

Being active doesn’t have to be work, and it shouldn’t be punishment for something we ate, or are about to eat.

If your attitude to exercise is focused on punishment and this hasn’t been working for you, maybe it time to change tack.

Movement, essentially, is a form of expression and a way for us to demonstrate (to ourselves more than anyone else, hopefully) the strength, grace and capability we all possess in our bodies. Our bodies are designed to move and to feel good when we get the right amount of movement.

Remember that Friends episode, the One Where Phoebe Runs? Phoebe runs with flailing arms and legs because it makes running more fun but Rachel finds it embarrassing. In the end, Rachel tries Phoebe’s running style and feels so free and great doing it that she doesn’t care people are staring, because it’s fun. I’m not saying we should all run like Phoebe, but finding how we can make movement fun will make it so much easier to stick to.

When we start to look for fun in our exercise, it’s not a workout anymore and definitely not ‘work’. When we shift the focus from what we think we ‘should’ do to be healthy and start thinking about doing those activities that we love to do for their own sake, we take the chore away from it, breaking down our resistance to movement and making it a lot easier to stay consistent.

When we take away the stress and guilt we put on ourselves for ‘bad’ behaviour, we can just be in the moment, enjoy the activity and appreciate how our body moves. Finding joy in activities that express our creativity and feeding our body the movement it craves, nourishes the soul and improves health and happiness.

Think about activities you like to do – whether it’s dancing in the kitchen with your kids, going for a walk with family and friends, rollerblading, rockclimbing or road cycling, if you think it’s fun it’s time to add it back into your routine if you don’t already do it regularly.

Add some play to your routine, find something fun and feel the difference it makes.