I have a coaching client we will call Lucy. She has been working with me while in maintenance on her binge eating. She struggles with a desire to compulsively exercise. She is a people pleaser, and she has a hard time relaxing and taking a break. We have been working on being kinder to herself. One of her focuses is to slow down when she is tired and work on correcting the destructive thinking she has fallen victim to — the voice that tells her she needs to be a beast in the gym or she is somehow not doing enough.
One day she was struggling with thinking, “I have to be in the gym even though I am exhausted and just want to go home and rest,” and she asked me a fantastic question: “What is a healthy amount of exercise?”
I love this question because it is one I personally have struggled with and had to work on. I honestly don’t think there is one prescribed way of incorporating exercise that works for everyone, just like eating styles. I do, however, think we need to question or dissect some components of our thinking to make sure we are exercising for the right reasons.
If you have been overweight or obese and lost weight, you may be like me and feel terrified of gaining the weight back, so you often fall victim to the exercise trap: What you did to lose the weight is what you do in maintenance for fear of changing anything.
And, if you are like my client and struggling with binge eating, too much exercise can make it worse. When you are already tired and you still force yourself to go to the gym and run on the treadmill for an hour, then stumble into the house, only to clean, cook and do all the other chores you feel you “should do,” before you know it, your body will drive you to the kitchen to refuel on whatever is there.
You may end up eating a carton of ice cream, bowls of cereal or handfuls of chips or cookies. Your body is sending you signals it needs a break, but you keep pushing it like a taskmaster until you hit a wall where your body says no more, and demands food and a break.
I see this too often. Here is an easy way for you to determine if what you are doing is productive or ultimately going to cause you problems.
1. How do you feel? Are you excited and energized to do your workout? In your mental workout montage, do you see yourself dominating the gym and being a beast, or do you see yourself needing a shot of espresso on the treadmill to finish out your run?
2. What is the internal dialogue going on in your head? Is it encouraging or abusive? Does it say things like, “I should do ______ because I ate that cookie today,” “I need to beat this weight off my body” or “This is what I get for being so heavy and out of shape”? Or does it say, “I can’t wait to tackle the weight room today and set some new personal records” or “I am getting faster and stronger, and I can’t wait to see what I can do for my running speed today”?
3. When you are working out and you feel pain or find you are lacking in energy, what do you do? Do you treat yourself like a drill sergeant or a concerned friend? The drill sergeant says, “You will finish this hour-long run, whether you like it or not!” Or, “You’re fat and lazy, and you better get your butt moving to lose this weight!” A friend says, “You gave it a good shot today, and you got half of your run done, but you are exhausted, and getting some rest would serve you better than finishing today. You can get some rest and come back tomorrow and complete the run.”
4. After the workout, do you leave the gym feeling victorious, or exhausted and miserable? Do you find you can barely walk out to your car and would likely eat the first thing you come across because you are exhausted and tired? When you leave the workout, you should still feel good enough to go for a walk and be generally active. You should have a little fuel left in the tank.
5. Lastly, what are your general thoughts about exercise? Do you see it as a way to improve your life and health and something that gives you energy and pleasure, or do you see it as a misery, a time suck, pain? If you were told you could never exercise again and still maintain your weight, deep down inside, would you be beyond ecstatic? Exercise should be a way to enhance your life, like using seasoning on food. It should be something you enjoy that adds something nice to your day. It should not be a bowl of gruel.
How to break out of the exercise trap
Lucy realized her relationship with exercise was not healthy. We discussed her desire to be able to stop exercising without feeling guilt and to find a way to enjoy it without all the “I should” thoughts creeping back up. I am going to give you some of the tips I shared with her on how to give yourself grace and find balance with exercise in your life.
Ask yourself, “Why am I exercising today? What do I hope to achieve?” If you find yourself saying, “I am looking forward to improving my strength, speed and agility and feeling good afterward,” that is a good place to be and a healthy view of exercise. If instead you find yourself saying, “I should,” “I have to,” “I blew it, so I must” or “I hate my body and I need to change it,” those thoughts will not lead to a healthy relationship with exercise. Your reason and motivation to exercise is the biggest indicator of what a healthy amount of exercise would be for you. If you find your answer to these questions is negative, pass on the gym and find something to do that is enjoyable. Be kind to yourself.
Self-loathing never produces a happy body and life. It is important to stop seeing exercise as a way to punish yourself for things you don’t like. It is better to spend time with a friend, read a book, watch a movie you have been putting off or go for a nice walk in nature while catching up on your favorite podcast shows.Slowly cut back on what you don’t like to do. Don’t stop cold turkey.
Lucy found she liked weight training, but she was still also doing an hour of cardio after her intense weight training sessions. Why, you ask? Because she feared letting go of the cardio workouts. We worked on slowly decreasing the cardio over time.
She was doing an hour, so we reduced it by 15 minutes the first week. She gave herself permission to do 45 minutes instead of an hour. If you take classes, try cutting out just one class to start with and see how you feel. It is not about not exercising, but rather finding a good balance for you between helpful and hurtful levels of activity.
Check in with your body first before entering the gym. What are you feeling, and how are you doing today? Have you had a stressful day at work and done more than usual? Do you feel you need a nap or coffee to stay up? Then exercise today may not be a good choice.
If you are fearful of not exercising, chances are you have pushed your body in similar situations in the past. Pretend you are talking with a friend, and after sharing what happened in her day, she tells you she feels she must go to the gym for whatever reason. What would you say to her?
I love exercise, but after years of binge eating, fear of gaining weight back while in maintenance and finding balance in my own life, I have had to change my relationship with exercise, too. I used to punish myself with long workouts. I was in the self-loathing mindset, and I did not care how I felt; I was going to do it. Now I have a much more balanced and happy relationship with exercise. I have days when I just walk or do yoga.
There were times I would never have considered that acceptable. I would have felt I was wimping out if I was not drenched from head to toe in sweat. I have come a long way in my approach. It is not just about achieving a certain weight on the scale, but maintaining my weight and finding a sustainable way to maintain health and strength. I encourage each of you to evaluate your exercise routines from time to time to make sure they are serving you and not causing you to suffer.