Redefining Attitudes Towards Food and Exercise

I often find myself talking with clients about the complex relationship between food, exercise, and mindset. Two common topics that come up are the use of food as a reward for exercise and the concept of “cheat days.”

The idea of food as a reward for exercise is so ingrained in us – that after a challenging workout or reaching a fitness goal, a favourite treat is often seen as a great way to celebrate and reinforce our efforts. And while it can provide short-term motivation and satisfaction, we really need to consider it’s long-term impact on our relationship with food and exercise.

Food rewards can be motivating, but it can also lead to a mindset of exercise as a means to justify indulgence. I’ve talked about exercise as punishment for the food we eat before and this flipside is equally damaging. It can create a cycle of restriction followed by overindulgence, potentially leading to feelings of guilt or shame around food choices. Also, relying too heavily on food as a reward can overshadow the intrinsic benefits of exercise, such as improved mood, energy, and overall health.

Related to the concept of food rewards is the idea of “cheat days” or “cheat meals,” where specific days or meals, usually regarded as ‘off limits’, are designated to be consumed at a certain time.  It might feel liberating, something to look forward to, like we ‘deserve’ for working so hard and being so “good”.  It also promotes a dichotomy of “good” and “bad” foods, fostering a mindset of deprivation and indulgence and by extension we become “good” or “bad” because of our classification of food.  I’ve talked about this before too.

I want encourage a more balanced and sustainable approach to food and exercise. With this in mind, here are some strategies to consider:

  1. Mindful Eating: Rather than using food as a reward, practice mindful eating. Pay attention to hunger cues, savor each bite, and choose foods that nourish your body and satisfy your cravings in a balanced way.
  2. Flexible Eating Patterns: Instead of strict “cheat days,” embrace a flexible approach to eating. Allow yourself to enjoy your favorite foods in moderation while prioritising overall balance and variety in your diet.
  3. Focus on Nourishment: Shift the focus from using exercise to “earn” indulgences to viewing movement as a way to nourish your body and promote well-being. Appreciate the physical and mental benefits of being active.
  4. Challenge Food Myths: Challenge the notion of “good” and “bad” foods by focusing on the overall quality and variety of your diet. Avoid labelling foods and instead aim for a balanced intake of nutrients.
  5. Cultivate a Positive Mindset: Foster a positive attitude towards food and exercise. Practice self-compassion, celebrate non-food achievements, and embrace a holistic approach to health and wellness.

Redefining attitudes towards food and exercise involves embracing a balanced approach that prioritises nourishment, mindfulness, and self-compassion. By moving away from rigid reward systems and cheat day mentalities, we can develop a healthier approach towards food, exercise, and ourselves.