Exercise guilt. Let’s lose it.

Not guilty stamp or seal, isolated on white background.Raise your hand if you feel guilty when you miss a workout. I blog a lot about missing workouts, scaling back, taking rest days, lowering our expectations, doing less, etc. This is a recurring theme of mine.

If someone “explored” my psychological commitment to that theme, they might uncover something like guilt-avoidance at its root. I want to reassure myself on a regular basis that it is perfectly okay to miss workouts because….drum roll please….I happen to miss a lot of workouts.

For me, finding a balance between rigid adherence to a plan and being totally off my game is a tricky business. Like lately I haven’t been making it to the pool for my 2x a week 6 a.m. swims. It’s so darn early. So. Early.

I used to be good at leaping out of bed and not giving it any thought. Last week I was even thinking maybe I should just quit swimming to alleviate that sense of guilt I experience every time I roll over in the morning and say “I’m going back to sleep for another 90 minutes.” 90 minutes! That’s a lot of sleep. But it’s also a lot of swimming.

If I stopped swimming and let go of my Y membership, I would alleviate the additional guilt of (1) spending money on a membership I hardly use and (2) never making it to spin class.

Dr. Anita Harman (who also contributed an article about guilt and exercise/fitness discourses to our special issue of the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics) did a study about exercise guilt. She found that:

the grip of exercise-related guilt is not a feature exclusively of those who health promoters and fitness advocates might deem “slackers.” Whatever the activity level or fitness gains my participants had achieved, they felt they should be doing more. There was always some aspect of their health or fitness or body they could point to as not good enough.

I like that I do my best, even if it means repeating myself, to let go of exercise guilt because it doesn’t serve me well. It’s not a great motivator. I mean, it does sometimes get us moving. But it’s not a healthy motivator. In an article about her study, Harman writes:

Although guilt might bring some women to exercise, and thus seem potentially beneficial, psychotherapist Maud Purcell (2012) suggests instead that guilt is a “destroyer of emotional energy,” which “leaves you feeling immobilized in the present by something that has already occurred.” For example, a recurring perception of constantly falling short requires significant amounts of emotional energy that renowned feminist scholar Adrienne Rich (1976) describes as “an undramatic, undramatized suffering” (in Ehrenrich & English, 2005, p. 251).

Yes. That.

I’ve had a few conversations with different women friends lately about how they feel they’re falling short in the exercise department. The language they use is about “should” and “need to” and so forth. There’s lots of eye-rolling directed pejoratively towards their self-perception as falling short. Often the guilt actually tilts into shame–a sense not just that they are doing something wrong in not sticking with a plan, but that there is something wrong with them for their inability to stick to a plan or start a plan. They wonder about their will power. Their self control. Harman found a huge correlation between feelings of guilt and the sense that a regular plan of activity requires discipline.

Often, friends will start this conversation with me because they think that if I’m co-founder of a fitness blog I must be super committed all the time. Okay yes, I get stuff done much of the time. But my level of dedication waxes and wanes. And for the most part, I can roll with that.

But I do need to keep reminding myself that this is okay. And I like to remind others. In fact, I literally said to a friend the other day, during one of these conversations: “You’ve done nothing wrong. You are not a bad person.” That is my expert opinion (as a fitness blogger, right?).

Those were pre-election conversations of course. Post-election it’s all been about shock, weeping, fear, violence, and safety pins.

Anyway, the message: let’s lose the guilt. There are no “shoulds” about it and there is nothing wrong with not sticking 100% to a plan. It is perfectly fine to start, commit, falter, quit, get back to it, get to something else, decide sleep is more important, do something less ambitious and more fulfilling. Yep. That’s all okay.

[Correction: An earlier version of this post wrongly attributed the research in question to Dr. Pirkko Markula. The article under discussion in this post is from Markula’s column, but it was written by guest columnist, Dr. Anita Harman, University of Otago, New Zealand, about her PhD research on guilt and exercise.]




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