Exercise Guilt: How It's Helpful and How It's Harmful

Exercise Guilt: How It's Helpful and How It's Harmful Plus, 6 ways to manage exercise guilt

Read Time • 13 Min
  • Category Mental Health

Details

Have you ever felt guilty when skipping a workout? Or maybe when you do a light yoga session rather than a 15 minute HIIT class? 

If so, you are not alone. Exercise guilt is a common experience shared amongst many people, particularly for those who have made exercise a priority in their life. However, it is important to not confuse guilt with shame in this space, as these are two functionally different emotions that help us to distinguish whether the experience is adaptive or not. This article will cover the difference between guilt and shame, define exercise guilt specifically, provide examples of when it is helpful and harmful, and give some tips for how to view exercise guilt as an advantage. 

Guilt vs. shame

Guilt and shame are both what we call “self-conscious” emotions, meaning they are those that arise due to our perceptions of ourselves and our thoughts about how others perceive us. They are often falsely used interchangeably to describe people’s emotional experiences. However, it is important to be able to distinguish between these two emotions, as they have different implications for our functioning. 

Guilt is a self-conscious emotion that is focused on our negative evaluation of our behavior. Guilt is specific to a particular behavior and related to unstable attributions about ourselves (things that can change, like how much we workout). It is typically viewed as more tolerable of an emotion because it just brings us a source of tension and possibly remorse, depending on the situation. Guilt typically motivates us to do something different, whether that be to change our behaviors or our expectations. 

Shame, on the other hand, is an emotion in which our entire self or being is evaluated negatively. When we feel shame, we tend to think negatively about ourselves as a person. Shame tends to be more global (meaning we see it as about our whole self rather than just a single thing) and we tend to feel there is nothing we can do to change or remedy it. As a result, it is a more painful emotion associated with feeling inferior and powerless. Typically, shame causes people to want to disappear or escape from whatever it is they are feeling ashamed about (Cândea et al., 2018). 

While both guilt and shame play a role in many different mental health concerns, research shows that shame consistently stands out as being a stronger predictor of specific disorders like anxiety or PTSD (Su & Guo, 2018). Differentiating these emotions in this way can help us to see how guilt has adaptive functions that help us to change our behaviors to align with our goals and values whereas shame shuts us down. 

What is exercise guilt?

Exercise guilt is the feeling of guilt that many people experience pertaining to their exercise behaviors. This often arises when people’s intentions or values regarding exercise do not match their actual behaviors. Research shows that guilt arises significantly more when we perceive that we are the cause of missing the exercise session rather than if it is an external factor that caused us to miss a workout (Meade et al., 2020). It is common to feel exercise guilt when one:

Sometimes these feelings actually can be helpful in motivating us to meet our goals, whereas other times they can be overall harmful and negatively impact both our physical and psychological well being. The key is to increase your self-awareness so that you know the difference and seek help as needed. 

How can exercise guilt be helpful?

Sometimes, this guilty feeling is stemming from a true internal signal that you are making decisions that fall outside of your goals. Assuming you have set realistic and appropriate goals for yourself (which is not always clear or the case), this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we do fall behind and make decisions that we know aren’t great for our well-being (either intentionally or unintentionally). In that instance, guilt may be appropriate. 

Though the feeling of guilt is not comfortable, it is tolerable and can actually be adaptive. Because we want to reduce the feeling of guilt, in order to make it “go away,” we either have to change our behavior to fit our values/goals or change the values/goals themselves. As a result, this guilt can actually be a helpful motivator. Reframing your mindset in this direction while also practicing self-compassion when you do feel guilty can help you make the decisions best for yourself. Learn more about self-compassion for negative self-talk here

How can exercise guilt be harmful?

At the same time, there are a lot of societal narratives about health and wellness that contribute to our feelings of guilt about exercising. It is important to take stock of why you feel guilty. For example, it may be getting in your way or even harmful if the exercise guilt: 

  • Is recurrent: If you are experiencing exercise guilt on a regular basis (daily or weekly, for example), then it may be time to re-evaluate how realistic your goals are. Maybe your schedule and/or energy levels don’t permit you to work out five times per week for one hour each, and that’s okay. Feeling guilty for unrealistic goals sets you up for negative mental health outcomes.  
     
  • Is shame in disguise: Sometimes when we think we are feeling guilty, we are actually feeling shame. After all, they are both self-conscious emotions that feel very similar. As mentioned above, shame is a broader concept that is tied to our general worth as a person rather than being indicative of specific behaviors. If you are actually feeling shame, there could be a deeper cause to the shame that needs to be addressed.
     
  • Is due to internalization of diet culture: Diet culture is the general acceptance that our physical appearance and our bodies are the most important factor, sometimes even more than our actual health and well-being. Therefore, messaging that aligns with diet culture tends to be extremist and promotes the idea that we must restrict our food and be doing intense workouts every day to be “worthy.” If this cultural belief is fueling your exercise guilt, then this might contribute to poorer mental and physical health outcomes.
     
  • Is not your own: Related to the social comparison note above, sometimes we feel guilty when we don’t do as much as other people. First of all, we aren’t anyone else. We can’t be anyone else. If your guilt stems from social comparison, it probably doesn’t belong to you. Therefore, be sure to do some self-reflection and determine what goals are best for you and you alone.
     
  • Stems from factors out of your control: When the guilt is coming from not being able to exercise for legitimate reasons that you have little-to-no control over (like an injury or illness, for example), it is not helpful to your mental or physical health. This is a great time to focus on building up other coping mechanisms that can help you get through the difficult time (related: Recognizing Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms in Your Life). 

If any of these factors are the case for you, this could be a great time to reach out to professionals who can support you in managing this guilt. Depending on the situation, this could be a personal trainer, dietitian, mental health professional, or even a primary care physician.

Tips for managing exercise guilt

Regardless of the situation and whether the guilt is helpful or not, there may be some things you can do in your daily life that will help to reduce the likelihood that exercise guilt will arise in the first place.

  • Continually re-evaluate your goals: It is important to regularly check in on your fitness goals. Make sure that the goals you have set are realistic and work for you at any given time. It is easy when we are not really setting or being intentional about our workout goals to fall into a space where we constantly feel like we aren’t doing enough. For example, when I am traveling or have an unusual schedule for one week, I might think about what I have time for during that period. Going into that period with a different expectation for my fitness helps me to feel less guilty when I don’t get in as many traditional “workouts” as I typically would. However, this is not limited to exceptions to our typical schedule; it is normal to go through seasons of life in which we move more or less, and that also calls for a re-evaluation of our goals to prevent this exercise guilt. Consider a weekly or bi-weekly re-evaluation of goals. Even if you keep it the same, at least you are being intentional about it!
  • Change your mindset about movement: Often, we think a “workout” has to look a particular way, and when they don’t, we perceive ourselves as inactive. People often feel they have to follow (and finish) an intense Fitness Blender video, participate in a workout class, or lift weights at the gym. However, our levels of daily activity are just as relevant, and our mindset alone can impact the physiological benefits we get from that type of activity. In fact, one research study found that people who viewed themselves as not being active were 71% more likely to die in their 21 year follow-up period than those who perceived themselves as active — even when they actually had similar activity levels, health behaviors, and sociodemographic variables. In other words, simply changing your mindset to view your everyday activity as beneficial toward your health can change your physical health (Zahrt & Crum, 2017).
     
  • Move every day: Related to changing your mindset, rather than thinking of certain forms of exercise as the only “valid” forms of exercise (like HIIT or strength training), take into consideration and value your overall activity levels. When you can shift your thought process to valuing the 5-minute walk to and from your car, walking around the house to clean, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, you are likely to feel less guilty when you miss a workout here and there. In fact, I have found that when I work on making this my mindset, I intentionally look for ways to fit more movement into my days. Rather than watching a Youtube video with the 10 extra minutes of lunch, I will go outside and walk or follow a short yoga video.
     
  • Build rest into goals: While getting movement into our daily life is important, so is building rest into our goals/life. Prioritizing and recognizing the importance of rest in our lives means that we are less likely to feel guilty when we do miss a workout. It becomes easier to view a missed workout as an opportunity to rest our bodies rather than a missed opportunity for exercise.
     
  • Don’t rely on motivation: Motivation can often feel like a catch 22. We need some level of motivation to be able to do things, and at the same time we often have to start doing things in order to feel motivated. Even when we have set a particular fitness-related goal, if we rely solely on feeling motivated to do that exercise in the first place, we are not as likely to do it. So, this means implementing strategies to hold yourself accountable even in times when you don’t feel motivated. Some things that have worked for me and people I work with include:
    • Committing to 5-10 minutes (we can do anything for that long) and giving yourself permission to stop if still not feeling it. This is often enough to get and keep us going.
    • Schedule exercise or time for movement so you are less likely to push it off.
    • Find accountability partners (the Fitness Blender Community is a great place for that!).
       
  • Increase tolerance of negative emotion: Negative emotions — like guilt — are a normal part of life. To experience life as a human, we will inevitably experience a full range of emotions, both positive and negative. Therefore, rather than trying to push away our emotions or avoid them altogether, it is helpful to recognize ways to honor and cope with those emotions as they occur. 

What is your experience with exercise guilt and how have you coped with it throughout your life? We would love to hear from you in the comments!

References

Cândea, D., & Szentagotai-Tătar, A. (2018). Shame-proneness, guilt-proneness and anxiety symptoms: A meta-analysis. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 58, 78-106. 

Meade, L. B., Semenchuk, B. N., & Strachan, S. M. (2020). Is there positive in the negative? Understanding the role of guilt and shame in physical activity self-regulation. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18(4), 502-518. 

Xu, Z., & Guo, H. (2018). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of guilt on health-related attitudes and intentions. Health Communication, 33(5), 519-525. 

Zahrt, O. H., & Crum, A. J. (2017). Perceived physical activity and mortality: Evidence from three nationally representative US samples. Health Psychology, 36(11), 1017.