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How to Deal With Exercise Guilt: Yours, Mine and Ours

Posted Feb 18 2013 1:13am


Game night at our house always opens up some interesting conversation. (“Mommy? Why is there a candlestick in Clue? How do you kill someone with a candlestick?!) And tonight was no exception. We were playing “Whoonuu?” with some friends and in case you’ve never experienced the tiddlywink awesomeness of it all, the point of the game is to guess the other players’ favorite and least favorite things from a given list. The better you are at guessing your friends’ preferences, the more you win. So imagine my surprise when it came my turn and a friend gave me a card that said “working out”… for my least favorite thing.

“Wait, what?” I looked at the card wondering if I’d read it wrong. “I love working out! I do it almost every day!”

“Well, yeah, but you can do something every day and still hate it,” she explained.

“True, but kickboxing isn’t cleaning toilets. Exercise is my job, my entertainment, my passion!”

“But…” As I looked at her crestfallen face, I suddenly remembered that for some people exercise is exactly as fun as cleaning toilets. (And for those of you now wondering why I’m cleaning toilets every day: three boys, bad aim.)

“I freaking love it,” I said adamantly. And as soon as the pronouncement left my lips, I felt it: the guilt.

In fact, just typing this all out makes me kind of embarrassed. Do I sound like one of those over-bearing prats at parties who chastises the hostess for not using nitrate free bacon for origami prawn-wrapping and then exhorts all the guests to do 10 squats every time they use the toilet (preferably while using the toilet since it’s so great for getting that digestive tract moving)?

But then I quickly remembered a different conversation from earlier in the week and felt the guilt disappear… under a wave of completely opposite guilt. Allison and I had been talking about her return to running (she’s doing her first race next month since the birth of her baby and she’s super excited!) when another friend asked me about my race calendar for the upcoming season.

“Nothing,” I answered. It’s true. I haven’t registered for a single race. I ran the charity 5K in January with my family and while it was fun, it made my heel pain flare up* and so since then the longest I’ve run is two miles and have instead just focused on other more HIIT-oriented workouts. I’m enjoying my workouts and while I do love a good run, foot pain sucks all the joy right out of it. Plus, racing gets pricey.

“Oh, what a shame!” she exclaimed. “You haven’t lived until you’ve run a marathon! At the very least, sign up for a  couple of half-marathons to keep your base training.” As she went on to list her very intensive race schedule, my first instinct was annoyance – this is a person who  knows about my over-exercising history and yet is still always telling me I need to do more (because she does and since she doesn’t have a problem then of course I shouldn’t either) – but that was quickly superseded by that panicky guilty feeling of wondering if she was right. Maybe I should be doing more? I probably could do more if my stupid brain weren’t so broken, right? And maybe that’s why I don’t have the perfect body?  If I just ran more, maybe I’d magically lose all my wobbly bits, get abs and, while I’m imagining, grow that mane of thick, red Anne Shirley hair I’ve wanted my whole life.

I argued with Runner Girl in my head the  whole car ride home. The thing is, I have run a marathon distance. I did 26.2 miles on my own, as training for the marathon I was intending to do, and then went to a kickboxing class after for an hour without any rest or refueling in between, fainted, woke up with a heart arrhythmia, refused a Vitamin Water because it had calories in it and then decided I was having a heart attack – all of which pushed my husband into finally intervening in my downward spiral and –  bam – that’s how I found myself back in eating disorder treatment 5 years ago. And also,  hasn’t she heard the most current research about how marathon running is not terribly good for your health and may actually make you more likely to die? And then I realized that there really is no good way to tell someone that you disagree with them about their health decisions without it sounding like a personal indictment and so I should just shut up already. I felt guilty for over-exercising and under-exercising all at the very same time!! Don’t I get a medal for that?

Ah, exercise guilt, my old friend. If there was a race in feeling guilty I would so totally win that one. And there are so many different types of exercise guilt! Just for funsies, let’s break it down:

Types of exercise guilt:

1. “Why aren’t I an ultra trail runner?” guilt: Feeling bad you’re not doing as much as someone else. Often induced by watching the Tour de France, training with a group  of local die-hards or even just watching a runner bounce in place at the stoplight because you always use the red lights to rest. Mitigated by: Listening to any of the previous people complain about their overuse injuries.

2. “Why do I love something most people hate” guilt: Feeling bad that you’re doing more than someone else. Often induced by talking to people who have a lot of guilt themselves about not exercising and/or listening to people say things like, “You’re ditching us again for a 2-mile swim? Aren’t you basically made of steel already?” Mitigated by: Listening to any of the previous people complain about how they get out of breath going up stairs.

3. “Why can’t I  force myself to do something that’s so amazingly good for me” guilt: Feeling bad that you don’t exercise. Often induced by watching TV, reading magazines, listening to health gurus, reading the Internet, talking to the skinny mom at PTA who sticks her 3-month-old twins in the jogging stroller so she can use nap time as running time. Mitigated by: Realizing that the experts are experts because they’re good at what they do and then realizing how many other people are in your same boat.

4. “I pity the fool” guilt: Feeling bad that you don’t agree with someone else’s philosophy. I get this one a lot. Turns out that after 6 years of writing about this stuff I’ve developed some pretty strong opinions about what I thing is based on good science and what I think is not. And while I’m sometimes surprised by things I thought were bunk but turn out to be awesome, more often I find myself overly irritated when someone tells me I need to eat more low-fat dairy or that sugar-free Jell-O is nature’s perfect food. And then I feel like a jerk  for being sanctimonious. Mitigated by: reminding myself that everyone is entitled to do what makes them feel happy and also that I am only the expert of me and therefore should only offer my opinion when asked.

5. “Life’s not fair” guilt: Feeling bad that you have it better or worse than someone else. This one can swing so many ways – you feel guilty that you never work out and yet maintain a perfect size 2 figure effortlessly. Or you feel guilty that you have the money and opportunity to workout and yet you still can’t find the motivation. Or you feel guilty that you’re not a good example for your kids. Or you feel guilty that exercising takes time away from your kids. Or you feel guilty that you work out all the time, eat perfectly and still fight to stay just this side of the obese cut-off. Or you feel guilty for not caring at all. Mitigated by: Helping someone else who hasn’t been dealt the best hand.

But here’s the thing about guilt. It’s so totally normal. It’s also so not productive. You have to turn it into something else – humility, empathy, action, motivation, a stand-up comedy routine – to make it meaningful. I think for me, wallowing in my guilt (whatever the flavor of the day is), is my way of procrastinating the hard work of doing what I know I should be doing. I think that if I feel bad enough about it that will excuse me from fixing it. As an inveterate navel-gazer, I’ve had to learn this the hard way: No one ever changed something by simply feeling bad about it.

Is this my own particular brand of cuckoo or does anyone else get exercise guilt? How do you overcome it? Or are you one of those super self-confident folks who never feels guilty? Anyone else wish they had Anne Shirley hair?

*Several of you have asked about how my plantar fasciitis is doing and the answer is… okay. The only time it ever bothers me now is when I run for more than 20 minutes. I kickbox, do cardio classes, lift weights and don’t feel so much as a twinge but running, for whatever reason, still isn’t working. I’m not fighting it.


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