How To Stop Using Exercise As Punishment For What You Eat

Unlinking exercise from food can have a profound effect on mental health, including helping to heal eating disorders. (Photo: Illustration: HuffPost/Photo: Getty Images)
Unlinking exercise from food can have a profound effect on mental health, including helping to heal eating disorders. (Photo: Illustration: HuffPost/Photo: Getty Images)

For many people, exercise and weight loss are seen as intrinsically linked. Between fitness industry messaging and the pervasive diet culture, it’s no surprise that we’ve developed a harmful connection between what we eat and how much we need to work out.

According to a 2018 study reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of American adults attempted to lose weight between 2013 and 2016. Almost 63% of those people chose exercise as a means to achieve that goal — along with consuming less food.

The desire to lose weight begins at a startlingly young age: The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 40% to 60% of elementary school girls are concerned about their body and weight — a concern that might endure throughout life.

Meanwhile, the fitness industry has long connected working out and losing weight, spreading the harmful belief that exercise is intended to reshape one’s body. Together, these messages can lead to a myriad of unhealthy behaviors, including exercise addiction or compulsive exercise.

The eating disorders association notes there’s a strong link between compulsive exercise and various forms of eating disorders: Between 40% and 80% of anorexia nervosa patients are prone to excessive exercise, and an estimated 90% to 95% of college students with an eating disorder belong to a fitness facility.

Recovery from any eating disorder or even just unhealthy habits can be an ongoing process, and one that often isn’t linear. But if you’ve struggled with exercise in the past, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy relationship with fitness in the future. 

This particular journey is one that Dani Tsukerman knows all too well. The fitness trainer and owner of Very Personal Training, a body-positive fitness center in Brooklyn, New York, has struggled with eating disorders since childhood and now aims to help others reframe the way they view exercise and their bodies.

“It’s so important to remember that working out is not a punishment,” Tsukerman told HuffPost. “It is a celebration of what your body can do. It’s an opportunity to achieve, feel strong and grow.”

Carving out a new perspective can be challenging even if you’ve never dealt with an eating disorder. While there’s no universal approach, there are some concrete steps you can take to view fitness as a celebration of your body instead of a punishment.

HuffPost talked with a few experts about ways to reduce anxiety surrounding food and exercise, how to seek joy in movement, and why the fitness industry needs to become more body-positive.

(Photo: Cavan Images via Getty Images)
(Photo: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Choose a workout you’ll truly enjoy.

Restructuring your mindset should begin before your actual workout. When developing a new exercise regimen, for instance, you might want to avoid types of movement you focused on in the past.

“It’s helpful to think about restructuring the environments that lend themselves to exercising compulsively,” said Jessi Haggerty, a Massachusetts-based registered dietitian, intuitive-eating counselor and certified personal trainer. “For example, if running was your primary form of compulsive exercise, try taking a dance class or yoga class and limit running as you reintroduce exercise.” 

In addition to avoiding exercises that might be triggering or simply not engaging, think about what you genuinely find fun. Milwaukee-based personal trainer Chrissy King emphasizes the importance of joy within movement.

We spend so much time absorbing information about how our bodies are ‘supposed’ to look or what we’re ‘supposed’ to eat, and we lose touch with what we actually want and what we desire. Chrissy King, personal trainer

“When it comes to movement and exercise, I encourage my clients to ask themselves, ‘What do I really like to do?’” King said. “Maybe you really love nature, so perhaps your form of movement is hiking or swimming. It’s important to question this because we spend so much time absorbing information about how our bodies are ‘supposed’ to look or what we’re ‘supposed’ to eat, and we lose touch with what we actually want and what we desire.”

For folks who have struggled with an eating disorder in the past, reframing your mindset before exercise might also mean talking with a medical professional.

“For individuals with a history of an eating disorder that included unhealthy exercise behaviors, it’s important to work with a treatment team who can provide recommendations and guidelines for reincorporating exercise into your life,” said Elisha Contner Wilkins, executive director of Veritas Collaborative, a Virginia-based eating disorder recovery center for children, adolescents and adults. “Know your limits and set boundaries.”

Maintain a healthy mindset before, during and after your workout.

To get into the right headspace prior to exercise, Tsukerman suggests beginning each workout with a mindfulness practice of deep breathing, which can help unite your body and mind.

“Sit in a comfortable position on the floor and relax your neck, shoulders, hips and anywhere else you hold tension,” she said. “Breathe in for a count of five, hold for seven, and then breathe out for five. Repeat as many times as you need. Once you feel more relaxed, set an intention for your workout.”

Approach each workout by checking in with your body and see how you’re feeling that day. Dani Tsukerman, fitness trainer

Tsukerman added that it’s helpful to know your triggers so you can be on the lookout for them during exercise.

“For some people, setting any kind of goals can be triggering, so if that makes you anxious, just focus on slowing down your breathing so you can be present for your workout,” she said.

“You can even keep a log to jot down what kind of workout you did and rate your feelings,” she said, adding that any such record should be about your emotions and not a workout log.

Wilkins noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the way people exercise, leading to a heightened state of anxiety for some folks.

Changes in movement and daily activities can cause an increase in anxiety around exercise in particular, and isolation, news and social media can fuel this anxiety as well,” she said. Wilkins recommends that you implement coping strategies such as journaling, creating art, using mindfulness apps and keeping the lines of communication open with loved ones.

It’s also crucial to listen to your body. Pick a workout based on your body’s needs that day, rather than what you “planned” to do or feel like you “should” do.

“Approach each workout by checking in with your body and see how you’re feeling that day,” Tsukerman said. “Feeling energized and like you can conquer anything? Do some kickboxing or total body workouts. Feeling achy? Work on your flexibility and mobility. Feeling tired? Try a rebalancing yoga flow. It’s all about listening to your body and doing the workout that will make you feel fulfilled inside.”

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(Photo: Oscar Wong via Getty Images)
(Photo: Oscar Wong via Getty Images)

Know that it might take time to fully untangle food and exercise.

This connection has been burned into our minds for years; unlearning it will likely require some work.

We need to reframe how eating and exercise are linked in our brains,” Haggerty said, noting that fitness trackers and weight loss apps make it seem as if our bodies are “like bank accounts.” The reality is quite different.

“If we intend to gain strength, improve cardiovascular conditioning, and get those feel-good endorphins from exercise, we need to fuel our bodies adequately and consistently,” Haggerty said. “If we’re just exercising to ‘burn’ or ‘earn’ our food, we’re going to be left depleted, both physically and mentally. Think about it like this: We need to eat to move, not move to eat.

Think about food as a source of energy, rather than something to be “rid of” after working out.

“We need to eat to exercise,” Wilkins said. “We need to provide fuel … for the activity, just as we would provide fuel for a car.”

If we’re just exercising to ‘burn’ or ‘earn’ our food, we’re going to be left depleted, both physically and mentally. Think about it like this: We need to eat to move, not move to eat. Jessi Haggerty, registered dietitian

For folks with an eating disorder history, Wilkins emphasized the importance of using recovery-focused techniques, such as journaling or talking with a friend, to cope with anxiety surrounding food and meals.

Of course, food can be much more than fuel. As King put it, “Food is community. Food has cultural meaning. Food reminds us of our families.”

King said that thinking of food purely as energy might take the enjoyment out of it — and it’s OK to give ourselves permission to simply enjoy food. “Food helps us survive, but it can be enjoyable too because it means so much more than that. It’s how we have experiences, it’s how we share love,” she said.

The fitness industry has work to do, too. 

Ultimately, this isn’t something individuals must change alone. The fitness industry has continuously perpetuated the idea that exercise should lead to weight loss, when in reality, exercise is meant for all bodies.

There is still a high percentage of exercise professionals with weight bias,” Wilkins said. “Many exercise-related activities are now beginning to include body-positive affirmations as a part of the routine, but there is still a long way to go.” 

King agreed that the fitness industry has an important role to play in how people approach working out.

“A lot of people get into fitness with the idea that the goal of moving your body is to manipulate or shrink your body,” she said. “As people in the industry, we have to start detaching those things. Because in actuality, that doesn’t have to be the goal at all.”

This story is part of Don’t Sweat It, a HuffPost Life series on improving your relationship with fitness. We’re giving you a guide to the latest thinking on exercise and why we’ve been conditioned to hate it in the past. Mental health and body-positive fitness experts will also offer guidance and show you how to find a routine that works for you. Find all of our coverage here.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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