Exercise as Punishment: How’s That Working For You?

closeup of a woman's waist as she wraps a tape measure around it

When I was a kid, I loved to ride my bike, run, tumble, swim, dance, play games in the yard, swing, climb on a swing set, and generally be in constant motion. Exercise was movement and it was joyful, exciting, and a reward for hard work done at school and throughout the week. When, then, did exercise become punishment for eating too much, having some down time, enjoying family and friends? When did the concept of exercising to chastise ourselves become our adult reality and how is that working for all of us?

I’m not sure when it was that I realized I had made exercise a miserable “have to” versus a joyful opportunity, but I do know that it sucked the motivation and joy right out of me. “I have to go workout.” “I ate so much last night that I have to do double time on the treadmill.” “I’m not letting myself get off of that elliptical until I burn all of the calories off from this weekend.” And on and on the misery goes. I don’t belong to a gym anymore, but I do remember seeing lots of unhappy faces going through the motion of exercise. There was little joy in that gym, except for the periodic Zumba class or a pick-up basketball game.

How do we really expect ourselves to stay active, to enjoy the beauty of our own bodies, and continue to physically evolve if we see exercise as a way to punish ourselves? When we make exercise a negative “have to,” we put it in the category of things that don’t bring us joy and energy. Isn’t that the exact opposite of how exercise made us happy as kids?

How can we enjoy the beauty of our bodies, if we see #exercise as a way to punish ourselves? #bodypositive Click To Tweet

Our bodies are so truly incredible and worthy of our love and affection. They are not for shameful belittlement and punishing workouts. This doesn’t mean exercise can’t be demanding, because there is great joy in pushing ourselves physically. However, if we exercise as punishment, we will miss the joy of growth and change that comes with physical challenges.

Turning Exercise Into A Joyful Reward

So how do we make this mental shift away from exercise as punishment? It starts with our mind versus our body. We start by changing what we are saying to ourselves about exercise. What if we saw exercise as a “want to” versus a “have to”? How different would we show up for workouts? What if we actually picked exercise that makes our heart sing and brings the playfulness back into our own physicality? What if we banned exercise as punishment and rather made it a reward for a life well-lived and a body deserving of our love and attention?

Listen carefully to what you are saying to yourself about exercise and catch the criticisms and “have to’s.” Change the tape in your head to, “I can’t wait to workout, to feel the excitement in my body, and to feel good as I take care of myself.” Let’s ban the, “I HAVE to work off that cheeseburger I ate” mentality in that it doesn’t benefit us or our bodies. Find exercise that you love and then love exercising! Punishment isn’t the way to a healthy mind or a healthy body.


Lisa Kaplin Psy. D. CPC

Lisa Kaplin Psy. D. PCC

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by Dr. Lisa Kaplin
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About Lisa Kaplin, Psy. D, PCC

headshot of Lisa KaplinCertified Life Coach and Psychologist at Smart Women Inspired Lives.

I’m the proud owner of Smart Women Inspired Lives, where I help overwhelmed and exhausted women move from the feeling of being “stuck” into a life filled with calm, confidence, and joy. In addition to the posts and articles I write, I offer individual and group life coaching sessions, classes and speaking engagement opportunities.


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