Why we always feel guilty about exercise

Article published in The New Daily on 2/4/17, written by Harriet Edmund

Have you ever felt guilty for not exercising enough or not trying as hard as you ‘should’ at the gym? What about the feeling of guilt when you actually do manage to work out because you’re sacrificing family or work time to do it?

Sometimes it feels as if, no matter what stage of life you’re at, the pangs of exercise guilt are never far away.

Dr Zac Elizabeth Buchanan, clinical psychologist at Foundation Psychology Victoria, explains that guilt is an emotional combination of anger and shame directed towards yourself.

What’s more, feeling guilty usually means you have self-deprecating, regretful thoughts with lots of self-talk around how you ‘should’ have behaved or acted.

In the example of exercise guilt the problem is exasperated because we often set ourselves high expectations such as losing a certain amount of weight, getting fit by a set date or running mega distances within a short timeframe. But, in reality, we’re unlikely to ever meet those expectations.

The result? Guilt’s vicious cycle of self-blame begins and it can sometimes lead to a less fulfilling life, anxiety or depression, Dr Buchanan said.

“As guilt is an unpleasant emotion, and now associated in our mind with unrealistic goals for working out, we will most likely try to avoid this pain again by not attempting to exercise at all,” she said.

“This avoidance, however, will eventually lead back to increased feelings of guilt for not doing what we originally wanted.”

Pushing yourself towards larger,
less achievable goals could be doing
you more harm than good. 
Photo: Getty

To help overcome feelings of exercise guilt – and to break the cycle – Dr Buchanan shared these three strategies.

Break it down

Breaking your goals into smaller, more manageable tasks means you are more likely to make them a reality and, as a result, feel good about your progress.

“This can help reverse the negative guilt loop by halting your avoidance of painful experiences and instead pursuing things that make you feel good,” Dr Buchanan said.

Reward don’t punish

Find healthy ways to reward yourself for your achievement rather than punish yourselves if you think you’ve failed.

“You are far more likely to continue striving to meet your goals and actually enjoy the process,” Dr Buchanan explained.

“For example, on your return from working out at the gym you may decide to reward yourself by watching your favourite TV show. Alternatively, you might choose to join a fitness class rather than run around the block, because you enjoy the social aspect and group motivation. And, sometimes even a big tick on your to-do list can be enough of a reward.”

Practice of self-compassion

Unlike self-esteem, which is roughly based on achievements, self-compassion is about being your own friend and not beating yourself up for slipping up.

Remember to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you are allowed to prioritise your needs.

“If you do find yourself struggling with negative self-talk, it can be worthwhile seeking help from a psychologist to support you in finding ways to overcome the vicious guilt cycle,” Dr Buchanan said.