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Guilt is a funny thing...well, maybe only if you have a really oddball sense of humor. It comes in all shapes and sizes and it can strike anyone - men and women, exercisers and non-exercisers or athletes and couch potatoes. We feel guilty for skipping a workout, or for not working as hard as we planned. We may even feel guilty for exercising when we could've been doing something else, like paying the bills or cleaning out the closet.

Whatever form this guilt takes, it reminds me of the grapevine growing in our backyard. It grows fast and silent, creeping along and slowly strangling every plant in its path. Guilt has the same effect, draining us of precious energy we could be using for more productive things.

Guilt can be motivating at times, perhaps giving you that extra push you need to do your workout. The problem is, using guilt to motivate yourself on a regular basis can actually backfire. I saw this happen with a client who took a break from training. I emailed her from time to time to check in and she didn't respond. My own overdeveloped sense of guilt made me wonder if I'd done something to offend her, but it turns out, it was her own guilt that kept her away. In fact, she felt so bad that she avoided not just me, but anything that reminded her of the workouts she was missing.

Getting rid of guilt isn't easy, but it helps to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Did I really do something wrong? - This seems silly, but we often feel guilty for imaginary mistakes. For example, if you feel guilty because you took a day off when you really needed it, that guilt is probably misplaced. Think about what you did, or didn't do, and imagine what you would say to someone else in that situation...then say that to yourself (unless it's something mean like, "Gee, lazy much?")
  • What can I do about it? - If you feel you did make a mistake, creating an action plan will help you feel more in control and give you some direction so you can let the guilt go and get on with your life. For example, if you missed your morning workout for the third day in a row, make a plan for getting some exercise in before the day is done - Walk the stairs for two 10-minute sessions and/or walk around the parking lot for 10 minutes before you leave work. Any activity is better than nothing, even if it isn't the original workout you had planned.
  • Is this really helping me? - Is feeling bad really doing anything for you? Once you get past the initial feeling and make a plan to do something about it, that guilt becomes pretty useless. Answering this question may help you let go of your guilt and move on.

What about you? Do you ever get struck by exercise guilt and, if so, is it real or imagined? How do you deal with it? Leave a comment and tell us your experiences with exercise guilt.

September 20, 2010 at 9:40 am
(1) Kira says:

This is a great article! Guilt (or lack of exercise guilt) is such a stumbling block! The questions you suggest help so much! I’d love to post a link to this from my site ClubFit.

September 20, 2010 at 3:37 pm
(2) Randy says:

This article came in very well planned I’m right in the middle of a guilt trip presently. I did go to Walmart today and parked as far away from the store as possible and purposedly walked in. I have not been idle by no means however I’m not working out as I once did. This all seemed to start after my pedometer broke 2 weeks ago. I finally said to myself enough already get a new pedometer so now I hope I’m back on track. I know I haven’t gained more than .2 pounds

September 20, 2010 at 7:03 pm
(3) conniesgirl says:

Yes,this article came at just the right time.I haven’t gone to the gym for a week(went back today)–because I was mad at my pt for not leaving me a list of new exercises and equipment pices to use!Then,I didn’t feel like walking,and delayed exercising until it was too late at night to do it.
Finally,I realized that I was actually in pain from NOT doing my usual routine!I’ll probably be a little sore tomorrow from today’s overdue workout/walk/exercise,but I welcome that instead of the way my body felt when I did nothing for a week!And that guilt one feels when not doing these things–we’re actually our own worst enemies!I finally made myself stop the excuses,wipe off the guilt trip,and walk to the gym–oh how much better I feel!

September 20, 2010 at 7:16 pm
(4) Rebecca says:

This article has helped me beyond anyone could ever undeerstand,i sused to go to the gym twice a week and did a total of 6 hours and it made me happy and ive recently moved country,house and job to a totaly diferent place and was finding it all so hard and felt like a failure i felt guilt so thank you for this article it has inspired me !!

September 20, 2010 at 9:36 pm
(5) Cyn Schoen says:

Wouldn’t it be nice if guilt itself were some kind of exercise in and of itself…too much wishful thinking, I know. It’s true that guilt can be such a stumbling block, or just make procrastination seem righteous, when it’s not.

I am in the midst of a major exercise stall right now because of a weird schedule for the next few weeks, but, as a friend says to me, you can always do SOMETHING. Just because I can’t get to the gym for my daily 45-60 minute workout doesn’t mean I can’t do a much shorter 15-20 minute walk.

OK, got the thinking going in the right direction – now it’s time for the body to move!


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