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Q: I seem to be able to EITHER eat well OR be more active. How can I get these to work together?

A: A lot of times people have trouble with this because of some crazy stuff your brain does based on some long-held beliefs about food and exercise. Sometimes well-meaning diet advice feeds into this problematic thinking by pointing out, for example, how long you'd have to run to burn off 12 M&M's. This isn't mean-spirited; the point is to get you to think about whether you're willing to run those miles in order to "earn" those M&M's, or to guilt you into working out later to "make up for" the treat. Family and friends sometimes inadvertently (or intentionally) reinforce this message by giving you the side-eye when you make certain food choices or encouraging you to "live a little" at the ice cream shop after a day of hiking.


This gets flipped around in your brain in an unhelpful way a lot of the time though, and you end up seeing food not as nourishment for your body or fuel for your workouts, but as something you either deserve or you don't. And that's not cool.


Your healthy eating makes you feel great and you are getting the workouts in, but after the novelty fades, those skewed beliefs about food start getting in the way. Your brain might start making excuses for you not to work out by saying things like, "Just have a salad for dinner and then you don't have to go for a run", or "you went for a run this morning, so you deserve to cheat a little and have that donut your coworker offered". And before you know it, you're back in the habit of trading workouts for food choices and feeling constantly behind.


So the question is what to do about this.


This is going to be a case of a simple answer that is not at all easy to execute. It's one of those things you're going to have to work at over and over in order to rewire your brain and develop a new way of navigating your way through life. You need to change your attitude toward food and exercise. Food and exercise are what your body needs. Food is not a treat and exercise is not a punishment. They work together to keep you healthy. You need food as nourishment for vitamins and minerals and proteins and fats. You need food as fuel for your workouts so you can go as hard and as long as you want to and be able to recover afterward. Exercise builds strength in your heart and lungs, builds flexibility into your muscles and joints, and keeps you feeling energetic so you can do what you want to in your life.


I've written elsewhere on this site about "good" and "bad" foods and about changing habits and rethinking failure. I encourage you to look at some of those other posts because this is a complicated issue without one clear path to success. Your brain will play all kinds of tricks on you as you push yourself to try new things. Recognizing what's real and what's not, when emotions are helping or hurting you, and how to override impulses that threaten to take you off course is an ongoing challenge, no matter how long you've been at this or how successful you've been in the past.


One more thing; make sure you're recognizing the stepping stone successes along the way. It's not whether you win or lose the day, it's about improving your ability to think flexibly, to see alternative choices, and to be intentional in making the choice that best aligns with your goals and priorities. Tune into these and you'll start to see how many times throughout the day that you really are moving forward.