“I worked out really hard today; I deserve this.”
“I ate too much this weekend, so I have to work it off this week with extra cardio.”
“I’ve been really good on my diet, so I earned this treat.”
“I drank too much wine last night, so I need to go to the gym twice today.”
If you’ve ever found yourself saying or thinking something along these lines, I promise you—you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in pretty good (and extensive) company.
Back in my days of obsessive exercising and restrictive dieting, food and fitness were not things that added value to my life—they were factors that controlled it. As someone who closely (and mistakenly) tied her physique to her worth, I’d often find myself on Friday nights desperately binging on cookies, Chinese food, and wine—all because I was “so good” during the week with my calorie counting.
I’d think, “I counted calories all week and didn’t cheat once—I deserve this!” Of course, that binging would often continue all the way through Sunday night, which meant that I’d wake up Monday morning feeling bloated and ashamed. And what do you do when you’ve binged all weekend and feel like a corpulent, worthless failure?
You punish yourself with exercise, of course.
As I write this, I realize that putting it on paper makes the insanity of it awaken to reality—and that’s the way it is with me. As a writer; writing things down often brings me to the truth. My truth in this instance was realizing that this is no way to live—yet so many of us find ourselves in this vicious cycle.
So many of us struggle with using food as a reward and fitness as a punishment.
We reach for a pint of ice cream after a tough workout or an emotional day, and we get in some extra fitness the next day to “pay” for this reward. Personally, I still find myself in this mindset to some degree; I still find myself reaching for wine or chocolate as a reward every now and then after an especially long or exhausting day of work. This isn’t an easy trap to escape, but then again, none of the truly impactful mindset shifts are usually easy, are they?
This particular cycle is crucial to break because, once we do, we can open up the door to extensive healing.
Food Is Not a Reward
And while we’re on the topic, neither is wine (even though I hate that I have to admit that!).
When I was moving from Baltimore back to Los Angeles, I found myself packing up an apartment that I had lived in for over six years. Can you imagine all of the stuff I’d accumulated!? After hours of going through clothes, books, and memorabilia, I was emotionally and physically drained.
If you know me, even peripherally, you know what happened next.
I termed that week “The Wine and Cookie Diet” because I literally ate a box of cookies and drank a bottle of wine each day. And while I firmly believe that wine and cookies are an important part of my diet (hello, freedom!), indulging in them as a reward or as an emotional outlet puts me on dangerous terrain.
I know it’s tempting to use food and drink in this manner, and in some purely emotional ways, it makes sense—there’s a very palpable sense of comfort there. On the surface, it feels good to “earn” a box of cookies and a bottle of wine. But while this behavior might seem otherwise benign, what it actually does is place food in a position of power—and if we give food the power to reward us for good behavior, we can find ourselves completely and painfully at its mercy.
When we continuously use food as a reward system, rather than indulging mindfully and practicing moderation, we begin to associate it with whether or not we’re worthy of success, gifts, and indulgences. Instead of using food and drink to add value to our life experiences, we use them to determine whether we’re good or bad.
We associate junk food with “good behavior” if it’s a reward, but that association is only temporary. After feelings of guilt and failure arise, we shift that association to “bad behavior.” But the truth is, this association between food and our behavior doesn’t really exist, and by creating it we put ourselves in an untenable and unhealthy position.
Fitness Is Not a Punishment
For over two years, Monday mornings were my absolute worst nightmare. Because I’d binged all weekend, the first thing I did when I got to the gym to coach clients was strip naked in the bathroom and weigh myself. I needed to assess the damage.
And, of course, the result was always that I’d gained four to eight pounds in just two days because I’d stuffed my face with every “bad” food I could get my hands on. So I’d steel my resolve to get back on my diet, and as an added measure, I’d do extra cardio—sometimes twice a day.
My workouts weren’t fun or enjoyable. They didn’t make me feel grateful or powerful. I felt like a child who’d been scolded for putting her hand in the cookie jar and was made to do extra chores. I did them because I felt I had to, not because I wanted to.
Do you see the cycle here?
I rewarded myself with junk food for being “good” with my diet all week, and then punished myself with exercise because those “rewards” made me question my worth, discipline, and general right to exist in the fitness world.
I’ve often heard that shaming people into exercise is a good thing—it gives them motivation to change their lives. Except that it doesn’t; research has actually shown that shame is not a sustainable method for impacting positive change. In fact, shame is the enemy of worthiness.
So when we use fitness as a means to punish ourselves for over-indulging or for missing a workout, what we’re actually doing is using shame as a tool to manage our behavior. Anyone who’s done this knows that it doesn’t work out well; it doesn’t feel good, and actually hinders us from developing intrinsic value through exercise.
Utilizing fitness as a punishment keeps us from being grateful for movement or feeling powerful in our skin.
So what can we do about it? How do we escape this trap of using food as a reward and fitness as punishment?
Choose Non-Edible (Or Potable) Rewards
Rewarding yourself for developing a new habit or spending hours on a project is actually a fabulous idea. Psychologically speaking, celebrating the culmination of great effort and dedication will ensure that you have positive associations with the work.
So go ahead, treat yourself! Buy a new gym outfit, book a massage, or simply share your feelings of success with someone who can celebrate with and hold space for you.
And then, after the celebratory acts have transpired, keep going. Keep doing the thing that led you to success in the first place. This is where, unfortunately, many people go wrong—they taste a little bit of victory and then fall back into old habits.
Make Fitness Playful and Adaptable
Movement is, at its core, a way to express our bodies’ strength, power, and skill. If we can keep that close to our hearts and use that affirmation to guide our workout choices, we can find so much joy and enthusiasm through the act of movement.
Rather than seeing workouts as a necessary evil, try to approach your fitness endeavors with more playfulness; this will help bring a more lighthearted energy to your workouts and encourage you to take them less seriously.
In the same vein, practice being less attached to your workouts or their outcome. Being able to adapt and go with the flow will allow you the pleasure of seeing fitness as valuable and malleable.
What You Do Deserve
At the end of the day, remember that should you relate to this struggle, you aren’t alone—far from it. You are a human being with complex emotions, and you are not alone in your struggles.
There are plenty of women in the Girls Gone Strong community who can relate to this type of struggle, and who can understand your pain. We know this is a journey, a daily practice—this type of healing doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, commitment, courage, and most of all, a willingness to give yourself grace. Using food as a reward, or fitness as a punishment, is nothing to be ashamed of, or harbor a stigma toward.
We might tell ourselves that we deserve to have a treat or a bottle of wine because of our “good” behavior, or that we deserve to do extra cardio because of our “bad” behavior—but the truth is that we deserve to live full, vibrant, wholehearted lives, because of our inherent worthiness.
Hang in there, babe; you’ve got this.