It’s no secret that regular exercise offers numerous physical and mental health benefits. But what happens when you find yourself in an exercise regimen so strict that you’re wracked with guilt when you miss a day? As great as working out can make us feel, there are many valid reasons to take a day off, and you should be able to do so without spiraling into negative self-talk.
It’s easier said than done, which is why we’re here to walk you through where some of the unrealistic expectations around exercise come from, plus how to reframe your thinking and develop a healthier relationship with physical activity. With some mindfulness, you’ll be able to discern when taking a rest day is exactly what you need, and how to enjoy it guilt-free.
Where does Exercise Guilt Come From?
Exercise guilt is feeling guilty about skipping a workout, doing an “easier” workout than you normally do, not hitting your fitness goals, or any other guilt surrounding doing exercise “wrong”. While guilt can sometimes be a motivating factor, inspiring us to make healthy choices, oftentimes it can spiral into shame and have the opposite effect. Guilt can leave us paralyzed, turning our rest day into something not particularly restful and creating a longer road to feeling better and getting moving again.
Where does this guilt come from? Alex Bryson, Certified Personal Trainer and CEO and Founder of Mooh, says she believes societal influences play the biggest role.
“With fitness pages and models on social media constantly advertising “fit” individuals, it can truly impact how we view ourselves and our changed bodies,”Bryson says. “Women posting gym videos only “x” amount of weeks or months after a baby can make you feel like you’re not doing enough.”
Fitness culture can breed fertile ground for comparison, making you believe if you’re not constantly exercising and monitoring your body, you’re doing something wrong. Depending on the media you consume and the people you surround yourself with, the pressure to be fit and never miss a workout can feel extremely strong.
So when you feel guilty about not exercising, remember the bigger picture. It’s likely your guilt is informed by larger cultural narratives and not necessarily coming from a place of objective truth or wisdom.
Normal Resistance vs. Bigger Issues
So, when is it a good idea to skip exercising? Most of us are familiar with feeling resistant to working out, despite all the evidence we have that we’ll feel better afterward. Many times, you go to bed with every intention of going to the gym the next morning, but when your alarm goes off, sleeping in an extra hour sounds extremely enticing.
““Normal” exercise resistance is all about where our priorities are placed. Everyone struggles to find balance between work, family, our favorite TV show, etc. but the difference lies with those who are willing to put their physical fitness first,” Bryson says. “The goal is to get yourself moving even when other things might sound more appealing.”
That said, there are many valid reasons to forego exercise that go beyond the standard hump of resistance many of us have to get over. According to Bryson, almost all of these reasons are medical in nature.
“If your doctor has told you that exercise should be avoided due to a preexisting condition or some other reason that can be exacerbated by elevating your heart LISTEN,” Bryson says. “He/she might be able to prescribe you something or refer you to a specialist that can help get you moving again.”
Dealing with an injury is another issue that can, and often should, keep you from exercising. Additionally, overtraining to the point of severe pain is a sign you may need to take an extra few days off to give your body proper time to recover.
“Listening to your body can be very important in the recovery process,” Bryson says. “If you are not allowing your body to heal you won’t be able to maintain your activity level over long periods of time.”
Next time you find yourself wanting to skip a workout, take a few moments to tune into where this thought is coming from. Is it a familiar sense of resistance, one you often feel better once you push through? Or does it feel like something bigger and out of the ordinary, perhaps a sign from your body to take it easy today? With time, distinguishing the difference will become easier. And remember, you can always end a workout halfway through if you start it and realize your body and mind are not in the right space for exercise.
Consistency, Flexibility, and Fun
Working out consistently and the endorphins released by doing so, make us feel better. But within that consistency, there has to be some room for flexibility. When your body is sending you signals to not follow your normal workout routine, listen and make adjustments accordingly. This could mean taking a rest day or finding a more gentle form of movement to engage in, like walking or light yoga. It’s not giving up, it’s keeping a healthy mindset and granting yourself the flexibility to keep going in a way that works for you.
Additionally, Bryson suggests finding the forms of fitness you most enjoy, so exercise doesn’t end up being something you have to constantly coerce yourself into doing.
“Activity should be fun and not everyone opts for the gym. Maybe you prefer cycling over lifting weights or joining a group class over swimming. If you love to be outdoors, stick to hiking,” she says. “Learning what makes you excited to get moving is the best place to start. The point is to stay active, not to force yourself into something you’re dreading. Plus, a lot of the time you can meet other like-minded individuals who are in the same boat which can help create a circle of accountability.”
Practice Self-compassion and Find Support
Exercise guilt may stem, in part, from our desire to be healthy, but paradoxically, it can be an incredibly toxic force in our lives.
“Exercise guilt, while sometimes motivational, can also be very detrimental to our mental health and overall well-being,” Bryson says. “When our guilt causes us to turn to drastic measures or unhealthy habits such as working out 7 days a week or checking the scale twice a day, we begin creating a harmful pattern.”
With that, try your best to practice self-compassion when you deviate from your exercise routine. Remind yourself that your worth isn’t determined by how strictly you follow a workout plan or how many calories you burn each day.
Finally, reach out for support if your guilt is constant and you think you may be developing a toxic relationship with exercise.
“Talk to your health care provider or partner to see how they can best support you. Consistent support may be all you need to keep you heading in a healthy direction,” Bryson says.
Remember, exercise can be a fun and nourishing activity when it’s not an obsession. Nobody can give 100% all of the time, and rest is just as important to your well-being as movement. So cut yourself some slack and trust that you know your body best!