Food is not a reward, and exercise is not a punishment.
On its face, that seems like a simple idea. It’s also one that has the potential to completely remake your relationship with nutrition, exercise, your body — and, ultimately, your results.
But it’s not as easy in practice. Think about how many times you’ve said, “I’ve been so good this week, I deserve a treat.” or “I’ve completely gorged myself today. I need to get to the gym to work it off.”
This is a self-defeating cycle, in which two things that should both nurture and fuel our bodies — food and exercise — erode our self-esteem and put us down, explains Michelle May, MD, founder of Am I Hungry? mindful-eating programs.
Exercise becomes a way of fixing perceived shortcomings. And food, depending on its calorie content, either becomes a treat or a tool for self-deprivation, says Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in body image and weight loss.
When you think about it like that, no wonder most people hate healthy eating and exercise — and often have a tough time sticking with either.
“When people learn to get away from this learned mindset, and treat both food and exercise as ways to fuel and care for their bodies, they are more likely to find mind and body balance,” May says. “They are more likely to sustain healthy behaviors over the long term.”
5 WAYS TO FLIP THE “REWARD VS. PUNISHMENT” SCRIPT
1. FIND NEW REWARDS
“When you hear yourself say, ‘I deserve a reward,’ make the reward fit the action,” Albers says. “So, if you worked hard all day, it’s likely that, what will truly be rewarding, is a minibreak.”
Have some ideas on-hand and ready to go. Spend five minutes brainstorming five things that you find soothing to your body, five things that can give you a minibreak during the day and five things that are fun. Post this list in an easy-to-see location for whenever the need-to-reward urge strikes.
2. REMINISCE ABOUT A FUN WORKOUT
Think back to when you had a really fun time working out, maybe you were participating in a bucket-list run, playing soccer with your friends or going on a relaxing hike in nature. Whatever it is, thinking about that memory may help you look forward to future workouts, suggests 2015 research from the University of New Hampshire.
3. HIT “PAUSE”
When you hear yourself trying to rationalize a food choice, stop yourself right there. Take three deep breaths and remind yourself that your behaviors don’t determine what you can and can’t eat, Albers says. Then, decide if you really want that food and, if so, why. For instance, you might say, “I want chocolate, because it tastes good — not because I do or don’t deserve it.”
4. TRY A NEW WORKOUT
If your workout doesn’t make you feel good, it’s time to change it, she says. If you usually run on the treadmill, try lifting weights for a change. If you usually go cycling, try swimming. There’s no limit to the options.
5. GET CREATIVE
Oftentimes, junk foods feel indulgent simply because we don’t know how to create healthy meals that are also tasty. Try one new healthy recipe each week that’s full of flavor and makes you feel good — before you know it, you’ll have a healthy-cooking arsenal at your fingertips.