Training and exercise are amazing tools. They can be used to create whatever adaptations we want to pursue. Whether that means bigger delts, a stronger grip, the ability to perform pull-ups, or a thicker booty, these goals can all be accomplished through training.

This is part of why I absolutely love training! However, this love has not always been part of the equation. In fact, I actually hated exercise growing up. Unless I was playing a game or sports, I was not interested in any sort of training or exercise.

This mindset continued into college. I began lifting and exercising regularly in part become healthier, but mostly because I was extremely dissatisfied with my body and wanted to lose fat. Thanks to some oversimplification, I thought that an energy deficit was all that mattered for fat loss. In my mind, this meant I just needed to eat less and exercise more. And if I overindulged in treats or ate a little extra, I could just exercise even more.

Wishful thinking, right? This mindset let me think I could “get away with” any extra treats I may indulge in.

It was like an insurance policy: if I ran out of willpower with food, I could just rely on exercise as a backup plan.

Not only was I not seeing the results I was pursuing, but I was also making myself miserable. In the end, it turned out I needed to confront my mindset about exercise and food.

I see this same cycle in my clients and friends/family. Over-indulging in restricted treats or food, then feeling guilty, followed by extra time running or climbing stairs. This is a vicious, unhealthy cycle that can even lead to health issues- the very things we are trying to avoid with exercise!

We are logical creatures, which means we love reasoning. And we can reason ourselves into or out of almost anything. Using exercise as a punishment or a way to earn our food is one way that we reason the allowance of treats or indulgences. The fitness world loves encouraging this mindset. We see it after every holiday. The signs come out about how many burpees you need to do to “work off” your Halloween candy or Christmas cookies. In reality the body doesn’t work this simply, and these signs or pictures are detrimental to our mindset on exercise and food.

So where do we even begin with a mindset change? How do we change from thinking of exercise as a punishment instead of a privilege? As with most things, it all starts with identifying the struggle within yourself,being aware of your thoughts regarding food and exercise.

Below are a few statements around exercise and food that I hear or used to think in my early exercise days. If any of these sound familiar to you, your mindset needs some work.

  • I can “let go” or indulge this weekend because I worked hard all week.
  • I ate too many treats this weekend- I need to train extra hard on Monday.
  • I feel guilty after eating those cookies or drinking that glass of wine.
  • It takes everything I have to drag myself to the gym.
  • I hate working out/training.
  • I can eat doughnuts and pizza today because I worked out this week/today and I earned it.

“I think these things all the time- help! What do I do now?”

Here are a few tips to help you get started shifting to a more healthy mindset regarding exercise:

1. Choose forms of exercise that you actually enjoy.

If you are forcing yourself to do forms of exercise you do not enjoy, you will definitely feel like you are being punished every time you go. If you would rather go to a Zumba class than spend another minute on a treadmill- do it! It is important for your mindset and mental health to do things you actually enjoy. Not all exercise needs to suck!

2. Re-evaluate your nutrition plan.

Are you eating foods you actually enjoy or are you restricting yourself too much? If you are restricting yourself too much all week you are much more likely to over-indulge when a chance presents itself. And this typically leads to using exercise as a way out.

3. Set a goal unrelated to what your body looks like.

A goal focused on something your body can do rather than what it looks like is key. This changes the focus of your training to help you view exercise as a tool, rather than a punishment or backup plan that often leads to the ‘exercise is punishment’ mindset. Examples: get your first pull-up, set a deadlift PR, run a 5K, or improve your blood chemistry (cholesterol levels, blood sugar, triglycerides, etc.)

These are just beginning steps to shift your mindset on exercise and food. Mindset shifts are journeys, not switches that can be flipped. This will require active work on your part, but it will be worth it!