Exercise is often used as a way to compensate for food, but how effective is that for your health in the long run? Let’s explore why this mindset does more harm than good.


Exercise is an important component of the health and wellness equation. Unfortunately, it also tends to be viewed as either:

1. Solely a weight management tool; or

2. A way to “earn” food, specifically indulgent food and alcohol.

This perspective can be a disservice to all of exercise’s amazing benefits, as it tends to be an ineffective strategy for reaching health goals.

In fact, the second point is where we can get in the most trouble.

Have you ever been in a group fitness class where the instructor keeps yelling out: “You gotta earn that wine later” or “Work hard now so you can enjoy that Halloween candy”?

While these instructors don’t mean any harm and are simply trying to be motivating, this simply isn’t how our biology works.

Our energy needs vary from day-to-day and there is absolutely room for the fun stuff, within reason. Plus, elevating treats on a pedestal makes them more alluring and scandalous than they need to be.

In fact, you don’t need to exercise to earn your food; here’s why this exercise mindset can be problematic.

1. It becomes tempting to restrict on your sedentary days.

We all have days that are lower in movement than others, such as when we’re not feeling well, are on vacation, or are stuck inside because of a snowstorm. Rest days are also an important part of muscle recovery and actually help us perform better overall.

Regardless, we still need a substantial amount of food to fuel our organs and body systems properly, especially if we’ve been working out hard in the days previous.

2. You’ll start to associate workouts with indulgent food or alcohol.

This mindset can lead to overeating, often followed by that vicious cycle of overeating and restricting. Using exercise as a tool to overeat and drink doesn’t teach you how to become a competent eater, it reinforces the idea that “calories in = calories out, so we’re good” when there’s more to it.

For example, you may skip meals all day while drinking a lot of wine to fit within your energy needs, but the lack of a variety of nutrients wouldn’t be doing any favors for your health.

3. It creates a negative association with exercise.

If you view exercise and movement as something you have to do to compensate for a fun meal out with friends the night before, you probably won’t find it to be enjoyable. Remember, enjoyable movement usually results in consistent movement.

If you have a love-hate relationship with exercise, what can you do to make it more positive? Try different activities until you find something you actually enjoy.

There are so many different options these days, surely there is something for everyone. If motivation hinders you, make it social and connect with friends. If getting out of the house is a barrier for you, find something you can do at home. If time is an issue, try starting with just 15 minutes. Depending on what your current routine looks like, making exercise less structured might be a good thing too.

Try making a list of all of the reasons why you enjoy said workout. This can look like the following:

  • It gives me a chance to take time for myself.
  • It wakes me up and gets me laser-focused first thing in the morning.
  • It’s gives me confidence that I can do challenging things and push through uncomfortable moments to achieve something great.
  • I leave feeling strong and powerful.
  • I leave feeling energized and ready to conquer the day.
  • I love the sense of community at the studio.

Lastly, be more cognizant of the language you use around movement.  If you start talking about exercise and movement in a positive way instead of “I need to work off all of that pizza and beer” way, you’ll notice a difference in how consistent you are fairly quickly.

Be kind to yourself, and the rest will follow.A


Leanne Ray, MS, RDN is a Denver-based Registered Dietitian empowering women to sustain healthy lifestyles that are practical and realistic. By helping others find happiness and joy through delicious foods that don’t involve guilt or stress, she shares how healthy eating can involve satisfaction instead of boring, low-calorie diets. Visit her site to read more from Leanne.