Most gyms promote some kind of a "no excuses" logic. Even when you genuinely enjoy exercise, messages suggesting missing even one workout means you're lazy or bad can tank an otherwise great week of gym-going. You're definitely not alone in feeling guilty for not exercising.
Working out "needs to come from a place of self-love, or you'll find yourself reaching your goals and realizing nothing really changed," says Dr. Megan Roche, MD, a researcher, professional runner, and running coach. But that place of self-love is hard to find. Over a quarter of women runners under the age of 35 in the United States say that guilt impacts their exercise habits, according to a recent online survey of over 25,000 users of Strava, a social networking app for runners and cyclers. Think about not just the last time you slept through your yoga class, but put off your after-work swim in favor of networking drinks, or skipped your long run because it was raining. These external motivators shouldn't have the power to sway how you feel about working out, but so often do.
I've often had personal training clients try to train when they're feeling sick, extremely depressed, or just plain need a break, all because they would feel guilty if they don't. Of course, working out consistently is a proven mood booster —I know my depression goes wild when I miss even a day of training — but sometimes it's tempting to make things even worse on yourself with negative self-talk. I'm so stupid for not training today or I'm just making excuses are super common things to tell ourselves. They're also completely untrue.
Even when you love training, and perhaps especially when you're training intensely for a competition or race, your body needs to take breaks from the gym, and so does your mind. Intense workouts are stressful to your central nervous system, and even though it's often a positive form of stress, you still need to recover from it. Taking rest days, and even rest weeks, can help your brain and body both recharge so you can come back refreshed and so you can avoid burnout. Because when you've burnt yourself out with exercise, you really won't be able to do much of anything you want to do.
Roche suggests focusing on what you love about your workout, rather than punishing yourself when you need to skip it. "The first step is to avoid feeling guilty about feeling guilty," Roche says. "It's key to accept the emotions you feel as valid, turning toward them with love." That way, you can try to be more gentle with yourself about what you really need — whether that's a boxing class or an extra hour of sleep —moving forward.
Sometimes, repeating that logic (if I rest now, I won't be burnt out later) can help people talk themselves away from guilt. Other times, all the logic in the world doesn't help, and you might need to get affirmations from friends or family. It's also important to really try to understand where your guilt is coming from and what it has to do with the reason you're training. Are you afraid of someone else judging you, or are you judging yourself?
"Our bodies let us do amazing things, but almost no one feels 100% secure in their skin all the time," Roche says. It's natural to need to work through these difficult thought cycles.
Another trick of the trade? Find a workout routine that you actually enjoy, rather than forcing yourself to do one you think is good for you. Don't like running? Maybe try weight training. Like lifting weights but hate counting reps? Try timed circuit training or kettlebell work. Not a fan of gyms? Hit up the park and breathe in some outdoors. If your workouts are something you look forward to, the disappointment you feel when you miss a workout can transform into Aw man, I'm sad I'm not getting to do this thing I like, rather than Oh man, I'm so stupid for not doing this thing I hate. "Stick to a routine because it provides daily purpose, structure, fun," Roche says, not because you feel like you have to.
It's OK to miss a workout, or several, for any reason. Your needs and wants are valid, even if they mean skipping a bit of exercise. "Don't work out because you need to fundamentally change something about yourself," Roche says. "Because you don't. You're amazing just the way you are."
Dr. Megan Roche, MD, researcher, professional runner, and running coach