The punishment paradigm


How often do you think of movement as punishment, as in “I ate these cookies, I guess I have to go run a couple of miles/do xx sit-ups/etc”? If you’re like the average person, it’s probably fairly often. Exercise gets cast as a tool of punishment and work, for complicated reasons associated with how we value our bodies. I’m amazed at the fact that we’re still thinking like this in 2021.

Some of these reasons are cultural: we don’t think of non-work activities as necessary or useful, because we come from a culture that overvalues working, and undervalues health. We don’t tend to take time out for our physical or mental health until we’re teetering on the brink of collapse. And if you’re from a particularly tough-minded part of the country, you’re even supposed to be able to psych yourself back from s state of collapse by pulling up your magical bootstraps. But there’s no benefit to attaching ourselves to these beliefs anymore – they come from a time when we understood much less about how the human brain works. We also used to (and sometimes still do) dismiss individuals who suffer from PTSD as weak, lazy, or liars — which is shameful in my opinion, because now we actually know better. Among the many incredible advances science has given us in the last several decades years is the fMRI machine (which can show brain function), and what we have been learning about brain function should make us much more eager to drop old patterns of thinking that are rooted in blame and guilt, and replace them with new patterns that work WITH our brains. Because those old ways don’t work. And they never did.

But back to exercise – exercise carries this idea of requiring adherence and discomfort because subjecting yourself to pain was considered ‘character-building’, and it removes the chance that people might think you’re doing something frivolous, .i.e.,’having fun’. This has had the effect in society of convincing people that they should 1. NOT be having fun, or 2. that they need to recast themselves as masochists who enjoy being in pain. We demand that exercise be unpleasant because we’re not comfortable with doing things that are purely good for us. It’s wild, but it’s true. It becomes even more problematic because if we see exercise as work, then we expect that “work” should have an end product. We decided, a long time ago, that the end product was weight loss*. So, exercise becomes a factory job where you toil in pain to produce weight loss. And you do that because there’s something intrinsically wrong with having extra weight, right? or why would you be working so hard to lose it? And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of getting people to exercise. Exercise is NOT a job where you produce weight loss while being in pain, bored, and wishing for the sweet release of reaching whatever level of weight loss will earn you your freedom. It sounds freaking TERRIBLE. And it is. It’s stupid and terrible, and inaccurate.

As I’ve discussed in other posts, exercise does not affect weight loss very much, due to the Constrained Energy model. Weight loss is much more closely tied to calorie levels & to some extent, what kinds of calories are consumed. We could talk about this for a very long time, but let’s leave it at this: Exercise is medicine. It does positive things for your body, because your body is meant to be doing some form of movement, quite often. Nowhere does pain come into it. Or suffering. So for this week, how about detaching yourself from our society’s demand for the drudgery called exercise, and start thinking positive thoughts about things that move your body that you actually like? I promise you, you’ll make a lot more progress with whatever it is you’d like your body to be doing.


(*but for some groups, it’s an unreasonable amount of muscle growth, often along with weight loss)