When it comes to improving health, food and exercise go hand in hand, as they are both vitally important tools in living well, feeling well, and improving longevity. However, it is important to understand that food and exercise are not a transaction, and therefore they should not be treated as one.
“I worked out today, I deserve this chocolate.”
“I ate too much last night, I need to workout today.”
“Today is a rest day, so I can’t eat carbs.”
“I need to run 20 minutes to work off last night’s pizza.”
The concept that you need to earn your treats, and work off your indulgence is just plain incorrect, and it is damaging to people, myself included. For many women (and men) the above statements are all too familiar. In fact, those little phrases used to echo in my own ears all of the time; “I was good this week, I can have ice cream”, “I was bad this weekend, I need to get a workout in.” When I was in my twenties this is exactly how I operated, I treated food and exercise as a transaction. I wanted to be fit and look good, so I set big goals for myself, and when I went overboard with food or exercise, I would try to adjust the “transaction” with more exercise or food.
In theory, it makes sense. If you burn a few hundred calories on the elliptical at the gym, you can eat a few more hundred calories, and if you eat a few hundred calories too many, you can simply burn them off at the gym. Although this seems like a completely logical thought process, it turns out that our bodies don’t work like a mathematical equation. Food and exercise are both essential for health, but they do not work to offset each other.
The Purpose of Food
Let’s get one thing clear, food is fuel, but it is not only fuel. From a biological perspective, the purpose of eating is survival. Food literally makes our bodies function, as it is one of our basic primal needs. If you think of the body like a car, the food we eat does much more than fuel our gas tanks. The food we eat provides us with the nuts and bolts to hold us together, the oil to run our engines, the transmission to help us run efficiently, windshield washer fluid, air conditioning, traffic signals, and the list goes on. The food we eat not only provides us with energy, but it makes up our brains, hormones, and immune system. There are literally millions of different uses for the food we eat, in fact, every single cell in our body is made out of the food we eat.
The Purpose of Exercise
I’ve got good news for you, you don’t need to exercise. Yup, you heard it here first. You don’t need to go to the gym, you don’t need to go for a run, and you don’t need to try the latest fitness craze. The only thing you need to do is move your body. The reason that we “need” to exercise is that our lifestyles have shifted from extremely active to extremely sedentary. Instead of hunting for our food or working on the farm, manually washing the laundry, or building a fire, we now drive to work, sit at the office and watch TV on the couch. When people are looking to lose weight, they are compelled with the need to join the gym, but truthfully, this is completely unnecessary. You don’t have to join the gym, you don’t need exercise equipment or the latest fitness gadget, what you need to do is move. You can walk to work, you can garden, you can hike in the woods or you can swim in the lake. What you need to do is find a way to move that you genuinely enjoy, without feeling like it is punishment.
Food is not a Reward, Exercise is not a Punishment
The purposes of eating and exercise are two completely separate entities and trying to combine them is a dangerous game. In fact, when you really look at it, it’s quite silly. If you are being good to your body, by eating “good” food, then why would you need to reward yourself with a treat? Isn’t being good to your body reward enough? From a young age, we are conditioned to look at food as a reward. You do well in school – you deserve a treat. You win your soccer game – you go out for ice cream. Even as an adult, when things are stressful at work there seem to be more pastries and chocolates lying around the office.
If you are being good to your body, by eating “good” food, then why would you need to reward yourself with a treat? Isn’t being good to your body reward enough?
I want to make one thing clear, I enjoy treats, and think you should do, I just don’t want to use them as a transaction for exercise. I want people to have ice cream on warm summer days, I want people to drink wine at the party, and I want people to order their favorite pizza on a Friday night. What I don’t want, is for people to enjoy these indulgences only to feel guilty (literally) minutes later, and then feel the need to “work them off”. In fact, I need you to know that “working off your treats” is an impossible thing to do. You can not gain 10 pounds overnight from eating a pint of ice cream, and you can not lose 10 pounds the next morning by going for a run. The body does not work like that – it is physically impossible.
Your Food Choices Don’t Define You
Although the idea of labeling foods as “good” or “bad” may seem like a helpful way to guide our food choices, it does not set us up for success. The issue with defining foods as “good” or “bad” is that people allow their choices to define them; eat something “good” and you are being good, eat something “bad” and you are being bad. In doing so, we create a vicious cycle that people can’t escape; I ate a bad food, therefore I am a bad person, I deserve to be punished, so I need to go workout.
Eating a “bad” food does not make you a bad person, it just means you ate some food. Every time you eat something, you are making a conscious decision to understand the consequences (if any) of your choice. In contrast, going to workout does not make you a “good” person, or deserving of a treat. If you chose to exercise (or move your body) you are simply allowing it to do what it was designed to do.
Shifting Your Mindset
The idea that food and exercise are a transaction is very easy to get caught up in; ads remind us to look for food items with “only 100 calories” and fitness apps help us track how many calories we burned in our workout. Of course, regardless of where you are in your health journey, it is important to consider how much you are moving your body and what foods you choose to eat, but you do not need to compare them to each other. Treating food and exercise as a transaction does not work because they are not a transaction. Food feeds your body, and it also feeds your soul. Eating mindfully with people you love or celebrating a special event with food nourishes your body in an intangible way. Moving your body is not about decreasing your body fat percentage, it is about thriving, living a life you love, and supporting your longevity.
The Bottom Line
So, you don’t need to count your calories, you don’t need to track your fitness and you don’t need to compare your food to your fitness. The way you treat your body is a representation of how you feel about your body, so you simply need to treat it with love.