Having the right mindset for exercise takes balance. I’m sure experts will give you research and studies done to help people get off the couch and get moving. Kudos to the experts.
I’m going to give you my thoughts for having the right mindset for exercise developed through the window of an eating disorder and disordered eating. My perspective is not the perspective of someone who doesn’t have a problem with food or who needs to begin an exercise regimen for their own health. The right mindset for exercise from my perspective demands an attitude shift from food as the enemy to an attitude of balance. This for me is a shift that takes intentional and conscious control over our own thoughts.
Have you heard, or made, statements like this before?
“I exercise so I can eat.”
“We’re going out to eat tonight and I want dessert so I’m going to exercise a little longer.”
“I need to burn off the steak I had last night.”
“I’m doing penance for the ice cream I ate this afternoon.”
“Oh, I can’t eat that because I didn’t exercise today.”
The comments may vary, but the meaning is the same: exercise is a punishment for eating. These comments imply that eating and exercise are a constant trade off. Calories in vs calories out.
Exercise for Punishment or Exercise for Health?
I lived for 17 years believing this as truth. Whether or not I enjoyed the exercise, I felt compelled to exercise. I believed I needed to exercise in order to have permission to eat. An eating disorder does not always include this compulsive exercise, but mine did. It is no way to live. Even outside of an eating disorder, this belief that exercise is punishment for eating is wrong. It creates guilt, and that is unfair.
Food is not the enemy. No one should have to punish themselves at the gym because of the food they have eaten. No one should have to feel guilty for enjoying ice cream without exercising to make a calorie deficit for those two scoops. No one should use exercise as an excuse to stuff themselves beyond comfort. I understand the mindset, because I lived those thoughts for many years. It’s how I felt I could maintain control of my body. I became an expert at calories in vs calorie out. My calories out far exceeded my calories in. I made sure of that.
When I found myself in treatment for my eating disorder, one of my biggest questions was how they were going to cure me of the mindset I had toward exercise. I knew that I used exercise as my purge, my way to get rid of calories. I felt at that point that I had ruined any chance I had of ever exercising for pure and healthy motives. I didn’t know how to separate from the belief that exercise was only for making room for calories.
How Exercise Fits into Balanced Living
But then I met the physical therapist at my treatment facility. The first meeting I had with her, she showed me a chart that upset all those beliefs I had built my life around. This chart completely undermined the lies I had believed about how to keep my weight in check. I believed that exercise was the only way I burned calories to make room for food. I believed food was the enemy that I had to keep in check through exercise. I believed I had to punish my body through crazy amounts of exercise because of food that I chose to eat. I believed these lies until my physical therapist showed me this chart.
This chart broke through ED’s lies concerning exercise. Physical activity is only 15-30% of energy expenditure. But what struck me even more was how many other ways my body needs calories, or in other words, energy, in order to function properly in a day. My physical therapist pointed out to me that I could lay on the floor all day not moving and my body would be burning 1500 calories just to keep all it’s functions functioning properly. So, the 3 to 4 hours of hard exercise I had been doing each day was stealing calories from the normal day to day needs of my body.
My heart rate was dangerously low. My blood pressure – low. My energy I needed to be a mother of four boys – low. My ability to focus and concentrate – low. The health of my hair and skin – low. For 17 years I had been stealing energy from my bones, cells, kidneys, hormones, muscles, liver function, digestion, even my relationships. So many parts that needed that energy for me to live a healthy, balanced life had suffered.
My life had been completely out of balance.
Having the right mindset for exercise means having balance. I have written posts about balance in eating. I don’t believe in counting calories anymore because treatment taught me that eating is about balance in the different food categories. It is balance in listening to my hunger and full cues. Those cues let me know when my body needs more fuel for carrying out its needed tasks. Being full means I need to stop eating because my body doesn’t need the energy right then.
When I eat for balance, the need to punish my body for the food I’ve eaten is gone. Instead, exercise becomes a healthy activity for a balanced energy expenditure. I’ve learned to turn my focus toward exercising for heart health, for mental clarity, and for strength.
I will admit right here that sometimes my mindset toward exercise drifts to the calorie burn. But that is when I need to take control of my thoughts. I need to talk to God about helping me focus my thoughts on truth rather than lies.
I know when my focus is off because my attitude toward exercise changes. When exercise becomes a chore rather than an activity I enjoy, I know I’m sliding backwards. I know my balance is off. This is my thermometer for my mental health toward exercise.
Finding the Right Mindset for Exercise
In treatment, I wondered if I’d ever want to run again. I wondered if I had ever truly enjoyed running or if I’d ruined my ability to enjoy it because of ED’s compulsive thoughts. But over the past three years, as I’ve extracted lies from truth, I’ve learned that I do in fact love exercising. I love pushing my body. I love feeling strong and healthy. I love the mental space my time exercising gives me. I love to see improvement in my running distance and my times. I love using weights and feeling my muscles burn. I do love exercise for the effects it has on both my physical health and my mental health. I will never stop exercising, not because it burns calories, but because I enjoy it.
But I also know that I will always have to be intentional in realigning my mindset.
I know my weaknesses in exercise and so I know I need to be vigilant. But I also don’t want that vigilance to detract from what I enjoy. I know I can’t get a fitness app on my phone. I know I can’t use a Fitbit or any other device that counts my steps and my calories burned. I know I can’t purchase a fitness monitor from Snap Fitness so that my percentage of energy expenditure is shown up on the monitors in the gym. I can’t let numbers become my reason for exercising.
For some people, tracking the numbers is their motivation, and I respect that, but I know my triggers, and so I steer clear. I use my body cues rather than the number cues as a monitor for my fitness level.
If you find yourself using exercise as your permission to eat, stop. If you use exercise as your calorie purge, stop. Instead, eat for balance. Balance your food categories; balance your hunger vs full cues. Then you won’t feel that you need to tip the balance by using exercise.
Exercise for balance as well. If you find yourself focused on numbers rather than how you feel, stop. Focus on heart health, mental clarity, strength in your body. Exercise in ways you enjoy, not in ways you feel you have to for the most calorie burn. Don’t let exercise become a chore.
Having the right mindset for exercise is tricky in our society that googles website after website outlining the best ways to burn calories, how many calories you should be taking in each day, and how you can track your calorie in and your calorie out. Create the right mindset for exercise that speaks to balance in your life.
Be healthy in your exercise, not guilty for eating.