Exercise Guilt

As many of you know, I’ve had to cut way back on my workouts because of my latest shoulder and knee issues. I’m still maintaining my weight, but man, cutting back on exercise makes me feel like I’m walking a tightrope.

At least I’m not alone on that tightrope. Here’s a recent email exchange I had with my friend Shari, who’s maintaining a 35-pound weight loss and is training for a triathlon. However, the last few weeks she’s been laid low with a virus. Here’s part of our communication:

Shari: “This illness has taken a toll on my training. My workout schedule has gone to crap the past two weeks. Now, with the [triathlon] a week away, I should be backing off the exercise and resting my muscles, but I feel a little panicked about having so much time off. I know I still have the endurance to do the event. I just feel like I’m getting fat because my routine is out of whack. It wouldn’t have bothered me to take a week off before the event if the prior TWO weeks’ workouts hadn’t been so spotty.”

Me: “Isn’t it interesting how our brain tells us one thing and reality tells us another? I panic about exercise in times of stress, too, and underestimate my actual efforts until I breathe and recall. Breathe and recall. We live on the cusp of weight gain and weight maintenance. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. I’d like to place a hammock in between the two places and just swing and enjoy my life and not feel guilty all the damn time.

“You have NO reason to feel guilty, but I know that anything outside of ‘normal’ will create a sense of guilt, of not good enough. It’s true with exercise and it’s true with food. Just keep in mind, you navigated Christmas and the traditional foods you make with your family and things turned out just fine. Same thing will happen with this illness.”

Shari: “I was just thinking about how we feel about exercising/not exercising. It prompted me to go back through my tracker and add up all my exercise time for the past two weeks.

My perception is that I have NOT exercised enough because of being sick. However, I’ve actually done 13.5 HOURS of exercise in that two-week span. I’m feeling guilty and I’ve still done more than most healthy people.

That said, roughly half those hours were a combination of yoga and walking. Still, my walking speed has greatly increased. I’d consider it a moderate workout. That still leaves a good 3 hours a week of high intensity exercise that I’ve done while sick. I have no reason to feel guilty. So why do I?”

Ah…there’s the rub. Exercise guilt.

I’ve written about this many times before, how I CAN’T take two days off. I HAVE to find time. Must. Can’t. Have to. Must. Can’t. Have to.

As I wrote in March 2009 (“Are You ‘A Just-in-Time’ or a ‘Just-In-Case’ Maintainer?” ), I’ve been living in this regimented and worrisome way for three years now, to the point of excess. Part of this thinking has grown out of my fear of advancing arthritis. I HAVE TO exercise today because tomorrow (or next week or next month or next year) I might not be able to. And when I won’t be able to, I’ll gain 170 pounds, and…and….

Breathe, Lynn.

Unlike milk in the refrigerator, bodies don’t come with an expiration date. None of us know when or how our bodies will slow down and die, and we can only ask them to do what they can in the moment. But when we’re faced with studies such as the one out a few weeks ago from the American Medical Association that suggest that as we age, we need even more exercise to avoid gaining weight, it can really mess with our heads.

So today’s question: How do you navigate the shoulda/coulda/wouldas of exercise guilt?
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19 thoughts on “Exercise Guilt

  1. Its kinda weird, but since getting Noah, I committed to walking him twice a day. So I have guilt about Noah if I even think of not walking him, but I don't have exercise guilt, because I am walking twice a day and also getting to the gym 2-3 times a week. I would like to go to the gym a little more, but I don't have guilt over it. I just have to decide to make it my intention to exercise at the gym a little more.

    As usual, a thought-provoking post. And another good example of why an exercise/food journal can be such a helpful thing.

  2. I think guilt is the enemy of all women. we feel guilty about exercise, not spending enough time w/ the kids, not eating as well as we should, this, and that. It's always something. I finally just had to let it go.
    I'm never going to be guilt-free. If only. But at the end of every day if I can ask myself, “have I done the best that I could do today?” Most times it's yes, sometimes it's no. But all we can do is all we can do.

  3. I struggle with this as a maintainer as well. I have trouble letting myself just take one day off of my workout routine let alone when I get sidelined because of an injury or sickness. Each time it happens it seems a little easier cause I then can refer back to other times I have had to reduce workouts and didn't loose progress with my fitness. Also has helped that, as I studied to be a certified personal trainer, that I learned about the benefits of varying workout intensities/time to promote further gains.

  4. I was forced into dealing with this issue after herniating my disk a few weeks ago. Realizing that my normal workout regimen is weeks away, I had to fight panic about this. It wasn't guilt that I felt, but panic that I would wake up 100 pounds heavier.

    This has really forced me to realize that it is okay to take it easy. Exercise is not the be all and end all for maintenance. Who knew? I have to be more conscious of food, but it wasn't the disastrous outcome I thought it would be.

  5. Glad to know that I'm not alone in A) feeling that I could wake up 100 pounds heavier overnight; and B) feeling that missing a couple of workouts will set me back to day one. I think we all remember how we used to be and feel like we are one slip away from that person, when it really isn't the case.

    That said, I had a tough time getting myself to go running this morning – I finally did it, and I'm not going to give myself sh*t about my feelings beforehand.

  6. I worried about this, too, when I was sick and feeling like doing absolutely nothing. I was glad I tracked, because my lunchtime walks (which was about all I felt motivated to do for a couple of weeks) did add up.

    I've learned that for my health goals, I don't need super intensity every day. Athletic goals, well, those mess with my head sometimes. I was so worried about getting out of condition for racing this summer…but my next race, a bike leg of a non-competitive sprint tri, was 2 months away at the time! (Not to mention, racing is hobby, not career, for me.) But then, Lori of “Finding Radiance” wrote about going to a talk with 4 riders from the Livestrong Trek (bike) team, and one point was that “you can’t be in peak condition all year long.” (As for her, the lightbulb went on for me, too.) If pro athletes strategically plan to be at less than peak some of the time, then it's probably a good thing for me to learn to accept, and even plan for, as well.

    I wonder if part of the exercise guilt, too, is trusting that we'll come back to it? When I was about 3 months into getting back into fitness and had been exercising my prescribed 30 minutes/5 days, there was one day when I was running behind, and I had the choice: 20 minute run or scrap it. I scrapped it, and was feeling upset with myself, and my husband asked, “Why? Are you afraid that taking a break one day will make you quit?” *Ding! Ding! Ding!* He got that one exactly right. I did do a long walk at lunchtime, but I had trouble shaking the feeling. MizFit kindly commented, “remember that a day off is a TREAT for your body. a healing day. and you WILL come back the next day to run strongerharderfaster.” She was right, of course, and that was one small thing that helped build my trust.

    (Oh, and I enjoyed going back and reading the just-in-time vs. just-in-case post. I've been listening to a Martha Beck book, and so of course this felt like a *ping* from the universe for me. 🙂

  7. Gotta respond. I'm just 2 months shy of keeping 100+ lbs off for a year . Technically, I still have about 100 lbs more to lose –at 234 and at 5 ft2 (shrunk an inch)…but I'm just shooting to lose to just below 200lbs. About 34 ish pounds to go..many months of being plateaued at this weight though I exercise on average 6-8 hrs a week. Tummy troubles for 3 days..I've missed cardio, daily dog walks, Zumba, a weight training session, and realize I must bypass Kickboxing tonight. No way I could run , kick or do ab work tonight..ARGH..and I'm supposed to leave on vacation this weekend.

    Glad to know the fear of regaining overnight is common with us maintainers…I really miss the exercise though. That feels good.

  8. This is an on going issue with me since I hurt my knee. I could not walk or exercise for two weeks and I was so scared I was going to go off the deep end and over eat. Yes I feel like this is a common problem for all women, but we are strong. Women are the carriers of the world..

  9. I hope this doesn't come off sounding trite, because I truly mean this: I love your comments. Thank you so much for writing so thoughtfully on my question. Ever think we could all write a book about this subject? I'm thinking Oh heck yeah. Your thoughts?

  10. Such an excellent topic!

    As long as I'm eating healthy and missed workouts are sporadic (or are replaced with something functional, like vigorous yard work or house cleaning), I'm okay with it. But my conscious has developed a more finely-tuned BS meter, and it chimes in when I've skipped a workout for no authentic reason.

    when I had my toe surgeries and couldn't work out, I really didn't feel guilty, because there was a legitimate reason. I did worry, though, that I'd lose interest before I could heal. Fortunately, I had training sessions already paid for, and there was no way I was wasting that expenditure! 🙂

  11. I have to let the guilt go. And most of the time I am pretty good at it. Until I read posts like this and then I have to say that all you women who work out to maintain make me feel guilty that I don't work out to maintain. I walk when I can, (I live in the city) but no formal exercise any more.

    Five and half years into maintenance I've tried to let go of that guilt that I have figured out maintenance without that hour of exercise so often cited. For me at 33, my body won't last that long… Stage 4 osteo and a host of other knee problems prevent me from working out now in case I can't later. I've already gotten to later. Making peace with maintenance without lots of exercise was hard because to be honest, I feel like a failure. Everywhere I go, I read about all the running and lifting and whatnots that others can do… Even though I am keeping off 185 pounds, am at a normal weight and sit happily in the hammock with regards to food the fact that I can't exercise like the rest of you makes me feel like a freak sometimes. But we all find our own path and for me guilt has no place on it. I have a hard enough time navigating the pain.

    ** deleted previous post, it was rife with typos.

  12. guilt? Meh. I've learned that just like the oreo afternoons, that I've got to let it go. Exercise isn't something I have to drag myself to do, I've worked it into my schedule just like any other commitment. On the days I choose to not exercise, it usually means my body needs a rest or I really need to attend to something else in my life that has been neglected.
    (like this morning, skipping AM workout to make my daughter breakfast before school-her thanks was priceless)

  13. Lynn–this post generated some GREAT comments. That is a gift you have, I have noticed. I nominate you to do a book where you include ohter maintainer's stories/life strategies, etc. Those are my most favorite books to read–Ann Fletcher's Thin for LIfe books, some of the Weight Watcher's materials, etc.

  14. The key is that if you make a mistake/can't do it/ won't do it – shake it off and do it the next day.
    We can't be perfect, so just keep trying!

  15. `We live on the cusp of weight gain and weight maintenance. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. I’d like to place a hammock in between the two places and just swing and enjoy my life and not feel guilty all the damn time.' – oh my, that is exactly what I have been trying to articulate all week. I am a two-year maintainer but lately I just feel exhausted. I said this morning I wish I could just not eat – no more planning, decisions on what to eat, when to eat it, balancing nutrition etc etc. And in the back of my mind I am terrified one day I will wake up and find I have regained all the weight I lost. I guess I need to just take a breath, go for a walk and calm down. Of course the fact we are about to head off to spend a month with family and I will be out of my usual routine (and heaven knows I love my routine!!!) is probably contributing to it all. Sorry for ranting on but, as usual, you just hit the spot Lynne!

  16. Maintaining lost weight is controlling a chronic illness, and that is really what we are all doing. Obesity IS a chronic illness, and if I had realized this twelve years ago after I had lost 140 pounds I wouldn't have gained back 100 of those. You can NEVER let up or you will be back the way you were because I think our bodies want the extra weight because of our genetics. I am no doctor or scientist, but I think I might be on to something. Why else would it be so hard? I am on my way to losing the weight again with the realization that I will have to be diligent FOREVER. I hope you don't beat yourself up when you have a hard day, or can't maintain your exercise schedule. To do what you have done so far is nothing short of a miracle in my book. You will prevail!

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