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Breaking free from the Chains of Exercise Guilt

Ever felt guilty for taking a rest day? Or for doing a Pilates session instead of the intended 40 minutes of cardio? 

If the answer is yes, then trust me…you are not alone! 

Welcome to part 3 of my series ‘The Dark Side of Fitness’ where we are diving into the feelings exercising – or not exercising – can give us.  

Guilt training, or ‘exercise guilt’ is a very common phenomenon, especially across us fitness enthusiasts and where exercising has become a priority in our lives. We all participate in physical activity because we want to practice a healthy lifestyle and we all know about the numerous benefits it can bring. 

However, sometimes this empowering feeling can sometimes turn into guilt and self-criticism and can take a toll on our mental well-being. 

What is Exercise Guilt?

I am sure we all know what I am talking about, but to make it clear: exercise guilt is the feeling we have when our actions don’t meet our expectations, maybe even because we set unrealistic standards for ourselves or we compare ourselves with others. Like with many other things, it can arise from external influences like societal expectations but in most cases, WE are the ones making ourselves feel guilty for:

We skip or we miss a workout

Yes, sometimes we are stuck at work, we have personal commitments, we are hung over and can’t get up in the morning or we are sick and feel like a walking dead. Sometimes, attending that group fitness class, lifting some weights or joining into hot yoga just does not work out, for several reasons. 

And that is when the guilt comes in. 

We feel awful that we hit the snooze button too many times and now need to go to work without that morning sweat. 

We are regretful for having that third glass of red wine last night and our head is pounding so much that a HIIT class seems like absolute torture. 

We are furious for not leaving work early enough and are not stuck in traffic so we won’t make it to the gym in time anymore. 

Research actually shows, that our guilt feeling is a lot higher when we think that we are the reason for missing that gym session other than an external factor like a work event I had no control of. 

This was not intense enough.

We do exercise but we aren’t satisfied with how it went.

The group class today was boring, it didn’t give us the usual pump. We didn’t sweat us much, we didn’t burn as many calories. 

Or, we didn’t push ourselves hard enough. Maybe we felt a bit off, maybe something was still on our mind and we couldn’t 100% focus on pushing ourselves physically. 

We didn’t have enough timCe today, it was rushed. Our usual 1.5 hours in the gym just got cut into 50 minutes because we have an early meeting to attend, we have to take the dog out, we have dinner plans. 

There can be heaps of reasons why the workout we had today just didn’t go as planned, it didn’t feel as desired and we didn’t achieve the results we wanted. 

This is completely normal, not every session can be perfect. But, our head tells us something different. 

Comparing ourselves with others.

Isn’t it interesting how much we are focused on other people? Looking at that girl working out next to us, her broad shoulders, her flat stomach, her nicely rounded butt. And even though our bodies are built completely different in size, shape and bone structure, we still believe we could look the exact same when working out a bit harder, more often or longer. 

We just looooove comparing ourselves with others instead of focusing on our own positive aspects. 

Now, imagine we missed that workout yesterday, still feeling miserable about it, and today we are standing next to this goddess of fitness and we hate ourselves even more. This will not only carry through our workout, while always having our ideal body in the corner of our eye, it will also put us in a bad mood for the whole day. 

And ultimately…

The perception of our body image suffers

So, we blamed ourselves for not working out, we are doubting ourselves because we don’t like someone that is 2 feet shorter and now we are standing in front of the mirror. 

What do we see?

We see someone that could have worked on that stubborn belly fat yesterday, but we had to miss that bloody session. We feel like we have put on 3 kilos since yesterday because we ate the same as if we would have burned those extra 300 calories. We look at ourselves and think: ‘now I have to start from scratch.’

I know, I know. This might seem a bit extreme for some of you, but this is what exercise guilt can do to us. 

How can exercise guilt harm us?

The feel of guilt can detrimental effects on our mental health. When this guilt relates to exercising, our physical wellbeing is also at risk. If we constantly feel guilty about that missed workout or the PB we haven’t achieved, we get stressed, miserable and burnt out. 

It may even impact our whole relationship with fitness. The main purpose of exercising, the purpose of a healthy lifestyle and achieving some realistic goals, can turn into a form of punishment or a cycle of overtraining. (link to overtraining) 

Guilt is my daily companion.

Have I been guilt training? Of course. Have I felt guilty for not training? Hell yes. 

I have always exercised a lot…six, sometimes 7 days a week. Weeks without any rest day. So, for that time frame there wasn’t too much guilt for not training but I definitely had the ‘that workout today didn’t give me my usual sweat’ or the ‘I didn’t burn enough calories’ feeling. 

When I had a rest day once in a while, then I have to admit, it wasn’t easy. I felt horrible sleeping in. I felt horrible for getting up and doing f*** all. And the worst part was to get up and eat. I hadn’t burned anything yet, how could I possibly eat? This probably stems from my eating disorder more than the guilt though. 

Anyway, training and nutrition has always gone hand in hand with me and no training meant less food. So, a rest day and indulging in a big brunch was rather difficult. 

The worst time for guilt is when you are injured. And although I have trained through injuries before, sometimes you literally can’t. You need to take it easy or you need to take a break all together. And this means, not missing out on one day of training, this means missing out on multiple days. 

It went that far, that I was in a really bad mood all day, every day. I was depressed, I could not stand the people around me talking about their workouts and what great results they had achieved. 

And of course, I also got to the point standing in front of the mirror, telling myself that this little pinch of skin on my hips came from the 3 days of not training while starving myself. 

How did I make the turn?

A schedule always helps. Not only a training schedule, but also a overall schedule. I used to work in the gym Sunday mornings which meant there was no time for me to train that day. I got used to it and I accepted it.

After I got my Sunday back, it became a training day and rest was more a rarity. Whenever I had one though, I wasn’t struggling too much. Simply because I knew I somehow made up for it with my intense sessions on all the other days. 

The main turning point came with my breast augmentation surgery. I had time to mentally prepare for it. I knew I would be off the training for a few weeks and even then I had to work my way back very slowly. It was the first time in my life I actually allowed my body and my soul the time to heal. 

I had no idea how I would feel post-surgery, everyone is different. I was prepared for a few weeks of doing the bare minimum, I was prepared for the worst. Thinking about putting weight on during that time? Not great. But again, I knew I had to give my body the nutrients to heal. If I wouldn’t, then my recovery would take even longer. 

I tried to turn my guilt into something positive and to see the benefits in my time off. And it completely paid off. I recovered in no time, I now have one set rest day per week and my nutrition is on point.

How to keep the guilt on a simmer?

Why I say simmer? Honestly, turning the guilt completely off I don’t think is possible. Mainly because a little bit of guilt for not training that day or maybe being a bit slack can actually be a good thing…to some extent, of course. If we wouldn’t feel anything for missing a workout or not giving it our all, where would our drive be? 

But, there is a fine line between a healthy and maybe ‘helpful’ guilt and the feeling that can affect our overall wellbeing. 

1. Set realistic goals. 

It all starts with goals. Your fitness goals need to be realistic and achievable. The more achievable, the less guilt will chase you. Look at your overall life, your work schedule, your personal commitments and see how much time you can put aside for your physical activities. If your expectations are too high and you aim for five workouts a week although you know you realistically only have time for two, then you are already doomed to fail. 

Don’t compare yourself with others, focus on yourself and YOUR abilities. You are doing this for yourself, not anyone else. 

2. A positive mindset

Turn your negative thoughts into something positive. Not every workout will give you the same effect, sometimes it is more intense, sometimes it won’t. 

Take me as an example: when I train lower body, I am getting a real good pump in, burning heaps. On upper body days I am not as puffed and my calories burnt are less, too. But hey, there is still a purpose in my upper body session. It is not about the numbers on our watch or how wet our towel is after a workout. Remind yourself of the purpose and your reasoning for fitness. Building muscle to protect your joints and bones, improved energy levels, stress relief. 

Whatever it might be, see the positive in your workouts and your rest days. 

3. Rest and Recovery

it will be hard at start because a rest day is usually the main reason why we feel the guilt. But, we need to acknowledge rest and recovery as an integral part of our progress on our fitness journey. It will help our body to grow stronger. 

4. Just Move

This means, it doesn’t need to be the 45-minute HIIT workout every day. Go for a walk instead, join a yoga class, or try something new. If you can shift your mindset towards accepting any form of movement as exercise – cleaning the house, doing some gardening, taking the stairs instead of the elevator – then the guilt will become a lot smaller. 

Exercise should be a celebration.

Not a punishment or obligation because of our guilt. Let go of unrealistic expectations, comparisons, and self-criticism. Focus on your overall well-being and feel empowered of what you have achieved on your very own fitness journey so far and be excited for what is to come. By embracing a passionate and balanced approach. 

Because at the end of the day, fitness is a progress. It is about living a healthy lifestyle, not perfection.