You’re not alone. Reddit is full of posts where users are asking how to cope with their regret when they don’t exercise. One pre-COVID study even found that 78 percent of participants felt less accomplished when they missed a workout.
One source to blame is fitness culture. You’ve probably seen it: the pressure in magazines, advertisements, and other media to take “no days off” and “crush your workouts.”
- Evan Lawrence, LMHC, Evan Lawrence, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor and certified personal trainer who specializes in combining mental health treatment techniques with physical health coaching. Evan is also the co-founder of a fitness class for mental health called Daily Defusion.
- Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC
- Rachel Trotta, NASM-certified personal trainer with specializations in women’s fitness, pre/postnatal, nutrition, and therapeutic exercise
But those messages largely benefit companies wanting to make money, not you or your health. Even some personal trainers aren’t fans of this kind of rhetoric.
“Our fitness culture puts an enormous (and unnecessary) emphasis on following a specific program or maintaining a ‘streak,’" says Rachel Trotta, a NASM-certified personal trainer. “This puts pressure on people to have a high level of workout adherence, which can trigger anxiety if you struggle with perfectionism.”
She adds that the anxiety—and even shame—that may result can lead us to procrastinate future workouts, too. Exercise can become a big “to-do” in our minds, and instead of just putting on our shoes and heading out for a walk, we wait until we feel up for a high intensity interval session, but that starts to feel harder and harder to do. It’s an awful cycle of guilt, then skipping another workout, then more guilt, and so on.
Does this sound a bit too relatable? Check out the following tips that can help you handle the discomfort and get your stride back.
1. Identify distortions in your thought patterns
Self-talk makes a significant impact on our thoughts, mood, and actions. Evan Lawrence, LMHC, a therapist with Choosing Therapy, explains that emotional distress comes in when we take a fact—such as “I didn’t go to the gym today”—and tell ourselves something about that fact, such as “I am not a responsible person.”
When you notice this pattern, he recommends reminding yourself of evidence that disputes the idea. “For example, if you realize you are telling yourself ‘I am not a responsible person,’ you can remind yourself of other times or aspects where you are/were responsible,” he suggests.
2. Remind yourself of how important rest is
Even though rest may not feel productive or “healthy,” it is. More than that, it’s necessary. “The truth is that it is easier to meet fitness goals when we allow our bodies to rest,” says Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC, a counselor with Choosing Therapy. She encourages listening to your body. “Working out when we need to honor our bodies through rest or recovery actually keeps us farther from our health goals.” In fact, rest and recovery can boost performance, repair muscles, reduce injury risk, and more.
Additionally, Heath encourages reminding yourself that a few workouts aren’t a “make or break” situation that affects your overall progress toward your long-term goals—and this truth goes for everyone. “Even professional athletes miss workouts due to travel, illness, or holidays,” she says. “It’s a matter of overall consistency versus perfection.”
Trotta points out that cardiovascular endurance only starts to drop after about a week of no training, and for strength training, that time frame is more like two to three weeks. “A day or two of rest has no effect—or could possibly have a positive impact—on your performance,” she says.
3. Remember the reasons behind your decision
Lawrence talks about making an active choice. In other words, “take time to think about your decision, then choose what to do based on the data available,” he explains.
For example, as non-diet, Health at Every Size-aligned, certified personal trainer Barb Puzanovova discussed in an article for Well+Good on “half-assed wellness,” it’s important to consider other factors from the day that affect how you feel and what you need. “If…you’re tired, kind of hungry, drank mostly coffee, and [are] super stressed, then it’s time to half-ass,” she says. “And if you’re somewhere in between—stressed but slept okay—then experiment with what’s planned and give yourself permission to back off [or] change the game plan.”
What does that look like in practice, though? For one, maybe reminding yourself after a sleepless night and busy day that your body needs rest most, and reading a book in bed. Or maybe after a stressful day, you’re more in the mood for a yoga class than weightlifting. Or maybe you want the energy boost of a bootcamp workout. Any of these options are totally valid!
The reasoning behind your choices is what you have to fall back on. “When you feel the cloud of guilt overhead you, remind yourself why you chose to do this today,” Lawrence says. “You can still remind yourself of the reasons you were debating, but I have found that it is a lot stronger when we make purposeful decisions that we can mentally support.”
4. Let yourself simply move on
One of Trotta’s big tips for clients is to avoid “making up” missed workouts. “The pile-up that ensues can be even more depressing than missing one or two workouts,” she says. “An incredibly important part of habit formation is enjoying exercise, and we tend not to enjoy things that we feel we’re failing at.” Instead, she encourages clients to “simply move on to the next one when the time is right.”
Along these lines, aiming for perfection actually isn’t helpful, according to Trotta. “Perfectionism procrastinates, waiting for the ideal time to ‘do it right,’” she says. “Sometimes, workouts are consistently skipped because they are too ambitious for your schedule, lifestyle, or energy.” Habits that are genuinely healthy are flexible, she says, promoting consistency over intensity.
TL;DR: Try to not feel bad about hitting the couch instead of the gym when that’s what you’re feeling. After all, exercise is just one of many ways we take care of our minds and bodies.
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