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How to Have a Healthier Mindset about Exercise

One spring I enjoyed a large splashy event celebrating women’s accomplishments in business. I was wearing several "hats" at the time: retired public relations professional; adjunct faculty at Texas State University; a part time Pilates teacher; and a life and career coach. 


In that liminal space, I introduced myself by saying “I teach Pilates and coach people in transitions." (Saying “Pilates” and “life coaching” may inspire lots of conversation or none at all.)


A woman at our dinner table was talkative. She was newly married, relocated, and employed. She liked Austin except it was getting hot, and she didn't go for her walk that day because of the heat.


When the bread basket came around, she passed it saying  "I didn't walk today, so I can't eat the bread, you know. We only exercise so that we can eat, right?"


I laughed, and then I realized she meant it: no exercise = no bread or dessert.


I was curious. I asked her if she liked to exercise.


No. 


Why?


It’s just something we have to do, and then we can eat what we want.


A few thoughts crossed my mind that may or may not have been true for her:

  1. bread and dessert weren’t that important to her;

  2. neither was exercise; and

  3. it’s easier to skip bread and dessert than to walk when it’s hot.


What was true was her belief: we only exercise so that we can eat, right?


I don’t pursue uninvited conversation about what autonomous people choose to eat and drink. But when someone reads me a page from their book, I am curious. Over the years, conversations about life experience related to exercise, dancing, eating disorders, and other experiences enter conversations with strangers about life and our relationships with exercise, food, and alcohol. 


One of my “truths” (beliefs) is that a healthy relationship with our bodies means paying attention to our thoughts about what it can do and why, i.e. exercise.


And having a healthy relationship with our bodies also requires minding our thoughts about what we put in it and why, i.e. eating.


In the long run, “exercise so that I can eat” may feel like a useful rule to live by, like a carrot at the end of the stick that keeps us moving forward. 


It’s also subtly destructive. The downstream effect of believing that we only exercise so that we can eat might include:


Reducing our desire for healthy movement (because we learn to negotiate with ourselves, e.g. it’s hot, I'll skip food later)


and


Increasing our desire for food as a “reward” and subconsciously chasing the dopamine response from eating concentrated foods like flour, sugar and alcohol, e.g., I walked, so I can eat this roll.


What looks like self-discipline may be sabotage in the long run. 


“But Laura, that works for me. Just teach me Pilates teaser.”


Okay, I can teach you teaser. Real quick, though, consider the net effect of my dinner partner's mindset: no exercise. No walking, no emotional, mental, or physical benefits of movement: increased strength, stamina, mobility, bone density, etc.


That loss happened. It’s not offset by skipping the rolls.


Eating and exercising are two different roads with different destinations and multiple intersections. For example, a professional athlete has a well-planned intersection between their food intake and training output. A person with type 1 diabetes also has a sophisticated intersection to navigate every day. 


We have many thoughts about why we do or don’t eat dinner rolls. Maybe it’s more food than we want. We don’t like pumpernickel. Wheat irritates my system; white flour gives me a headache.


Let’s divorce them from our thoughts about and desire for exercise.


Our self-talk is our subconscious and deliberate belief system negotiating ease, efficiency and rewards. It might increase desire for food as a reward; reduce our desire to exercise; and perhaps miss the opportunity to enjoy food as fuel. That self-talk also might sound like:


  • If it didn't hurt, it didn’t count.

  • I can eat this tonight because I’m starting tomorrow.

  • I didn’t eat lunch, so I’ll have more now.

  • I’ll have some more because I’m going for a walk later.

  • I earned it.

  • I'll go hard today because I won't do anything while I'm on vacation.

  • And, we only exercise so we can eat, right?


The if / then strategy feels useful: avoid the discomfort of exercising when it's hot and simplify decision-making at dinner when offered food we believe is a "reward." Then, double down on belief.


Because in the absence of health conditions like diabetes, deciding what to eat and when depends on one simple question:


Am I hungry?


Faced with abundant choices, we also may ask:


Do I like it? Will it satisfy me?


To have a healthier relationship with our bodies and ourselves, what we do and what we eat, the first thing to do is become aware of our thoughts about exercising and eating


The second thing is to be curious about its effect on us.


I help people create healthier relationships with work, exercise, food and drink by starting with themselves.


If you’re curious about how you can feel better about what you do and why, send me a note and share one reason why you want to get more exercise.


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