The topic of punishing yourself through workouts is important and has an emotional context, one that might require unpacking with a licensed professional. However, this article gives some practical advice on the truth behind this habit to help you to start to recognize and move away from using exercise as punishment.
What Is Considered A Good Workout?
Popular workouts are marketed as good workouts because they are so intense. These include Orange Theory, Crossfit, HIIT, and other group classes that are hyped with a lot of sweat and a lot of burn. It’s part of “the no pain no gain” mentality that is especially toxic in the fitness industry.
However, the reason you sweat during a workout is to cool your body down, and does not actually equate to a good workout. The same goes for feeling the burn or feeling totally destroyed and too tired to do much the rest of the day. Feeling that way is actually an indicator of overtraining, not a good workout. Overtraining can lead to a slew of health problems such as burnout, anxiety, and more susceptibility to injury. Before you reach that point, however, you will see a plateau in your muscle gains, and will feel fatigued and tired.
In reality, a good workout is one that makes you feel good after. You should have increased energy for the rest of your day. On occasion, you can feel tired after a workout, but not to the point of compromising other aspects of your day.
What Is A Punishing Workout?
A punishing workout can look a number of different ways, but a key signature is that the workout itself contains some negative self-talk. An example of this is when people want to “earn” their food or they feel they’ve overindulged and decide they are going to train extra hard to make up for it. This negative self-talk has deep roots that are exacerbated by the current culture of the fitness industry and body standards. Usually, people that have a “punishment” mindset with workouts are not happy with their current body composition, regardless of how they look. And the conversations with themselves might look like “I did a HIIT workout today, now I can eat that piece of cake.” or “I ate fries yesterday, I better run 5 miles today to make up for it.”
You should talk to a professional if this is an ongoing theme in your life. It can feel like torture being caught in the middle of using workouts for punishment, and that is no way to live. Everyone, regardless of how they look or think they should look, has the right to live a happy life!
The Best Workout Mindset
When you overindulge, the best thing you can possibly do is return to your normal and consistent workout routine – keep growing the habits that are nurturing you. Reframing is key for this. You are not a bad person for eating pizza and ice cream – You’re an adult, you made the choice, you’re not a child that needs to be punished for enjoying food. In reality, stressing about what you ate is only going to prolong the inflammation in your body from eating processed foods, so you’ll probably feel bloated for longer. Reframe food as fuel. You can “use” these extra carbs and calories for your strength training. And reframe working out as a benefit to your long term health goals.
Everyone has the right to love where they are at. You can still want to improve your fitness level, but you need to truly love and appreciate your body first to improve your fitness and incorporate habits in a healthy way. Think about all the ways your body supports you, and think about all of the ways your body moves that you truly enjoy, whether that’s through dance, a movement practice, hiking, building, yard work, etc. Instead of thinking about calories burned at the gym, focus your attention on improving your movements by hyperfocusing on certain parts of your body while doing the movements.
Reframing food as fuel is key. Eat the cake, but also focus on hitting your daily protein and water goals too. Don’t deprive your body of real nutrient dense foods because you ate ice cream, that’s not fair to you or your body.
Final Thoughts On How To Stop Punishing Yourself With Workouts
This is a deep topic that requires a lot of self-reflection to untangle. Understand your motivation for training for the long term. If your long term training goals feel nurturing to your life, allow those goals to be your northern star. There are also a number of techniques available to develop more self compassion, whether that’s through meditation, reading books, and/or seeing a therapist. It’s impossible to be perfect, but practicing kindness and compassion with yourself in general will reflect in your workouts and your overall habits as well. You might even see yourself naturally and effortlessly starting to gravitate towards a more balanced and healthy outlook on food and working out.
It’s also important to hire a coach or trainer to write your programing and manage your workout intensity. Your trainer is also there for support, questions, or if you need to vent. They can also talk you off a punishment workout ledge, need be.
Remember, if you leave your workout with more energy than you came in with, you had a successful workout. Go into a workout because it’s something you actually enjoy doing. Despite feeling a certain way about yourself, you and your body still deserve to have fun and be healthy. In this way, going all out once in a while on your workouts is to work towards a balanced fitness goal instead of punishment.
Want to learn more? Listen to episode #136 of the Stronger Than Your Boyfriend Podcast: Workout Mindset: How to Stop Punishing Yourself with Your Workouts.