Why Viewing Exercise As Punishment Only Harms Your Relationship With Yourself

The prevalence of diet culture in modern society has made it nearly impossible for most people to think of exercise without equating it with weight or fat loss. Through an endless loop of marketing and imagery splashed across popular culture, exercise has become seen as a solution to the problem of being overweight: People who are overweight start exercising to lose weight; people who aren't overweight exercise to prevent becoming overweight.

Of course, exercise isn't the only factor in someone's weight — and depending on the person, trying to lose weight may not even be a healthy goal. But when weight loss is inappropriately moralized and exercise is tied so tightly to weight loss in the collective consciousness, it's no surprise that so many people make the jump to viewing exercise as a punishment. When you overeat, eat foods you've labeled as "wrong," rest too much, or partake in any behavior that promotes fat gain, it might feel appropriate to punish yourself with exercise. This behavior, however, is actually far from functional and is likely to damage your relationship with your own health in the long run. If you view exercise through the lens of punishment, consider the ways in which you might be limiting yourself and ignoring the benefits exercise has to offer.

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Negative associations

When you think of the term "punishment," do you imagine enjoyment? Probably not. By definition, a punishment is an unpleasant experience inflicted as retribution for breaking a rule or causing harm. Think of it this way — if your parents used extra chores as punishment when you were a child, do you have a positive association with cleaning now? You may still hate it even if you recognize the benefits and necessity of doing those chores. The same thing can happen to your relationship with exercise: When you use exercise to punish yourself, what you're really doing is training yourself to dislike, dread, and avoid physical activity because you associate it with the negative feelings that come along with failing and being punished.

Instead, try reframing the way you think about exercise. Not only should exercise be held in separate regard from weight management, but you should also consider thinking of it as a privilege instead of a punishment. The next time you find yourself thinking unhappily about how you have to exercise, flip the script. Instead of tying activity to food or weight shame, think about the fact that a healthy body that is capable of movement is a privilege denied to many. You don't have to exercise; you get to exercise to help keep your body and mind healthy.

Exercise for health

Regardless of what the endless marketing of weight loss and fitness programs might make you think, exercise can provide countless benefits to your body that have nothing to do with your size. Exercising on a regular basis can help you think more clearly and sleep better, preserve your bone mass as you age, and lower your chances of developing clinical depression or anxiety. It can also help fight off heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Exercise is vital for living a life with a reduced risk of chronic pain and disease, and using exercise as punishment means that you'll not only deprive yourself of those benefits but also be less likely to embrace regular physical activity as you age. Instead, view exercise as a joyful way to increase your chances of living a healthy life for as long as possible. Put your energy into finding a form of exercise that you truly enjoy instead of reserving it for a way to torment yourself for simply being human, and you'll find yourself engaging in physical activity a lot more often.