Just 12 hours after the last Halloween trick-or-treater left and my sugared-up kids were tucked into bed, I started my typical Monday morning fitness class. But mid-plank, the instructor’s comment caught me off guard, and didn’t sit well with me the rest of the day.
“Let’s work off all that Halloween candy!” she shouted into her mic.
The nonchalant phrase of “let’s work off ___,” while surely intended as a lighthearted joke, is seriously problematic, according to experts. The idea that you need to out-exercise food or earn any treats isn’t just prevalent during Halloween ― it’s also extremely common to hear during the holiday season.
Here’s why this mentality needs to stop, and how you can feel good in your body instead:
It discredits the more important benefits of exercise
I definitely wasn’t at the gym that morning to burn off Sugar Daddys and Dots. I was there to strengthen my postpartum abs, to visit my friends and to move my body so it felt limber and strong.
Emmie Keefe, a Boston-based nutritionist, said whenever instructors focus on this calorie-based “motivation,” it backfires.
“We should never exercise for the sake of burning calories. ... We should exercise for cardiovascular health, for mental health, for emotional health. It gives structure to your day. You can create social relationships through classes together,” she explained. “There are so many reasons to exercise. Burning calories shouldn’t be one of them.”
Recent research shows that focusing on regular exercise improves your longevity ― even more than focusing on weight loss. Exercise also alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression, enhances creativity, and helps you sleep better. Meanwhile, looking at exercise as punishment rather than a beneficial activity makes you less likely to engage in the healthy behavior.
Keefe added that the “mental gymnastics” of trying to count calories in and out with food and exercise isn’t always realistic or helpful. Instead, regular exercise can help you feel more motivated in other areas of your life and that you’ve started the day off in a productive way.
“What that walk and that workout class is not going to do is burn off what you ate right before,” she said. “That way of thinking is big, big trouble.”
“There are so many reasons to exercise. Burning calories shouldn’t be one of them.”
It promotes harmful eating mindsets
How do you feel when you are about to dig into a pumpkin pie you only encounter once or twice per year? Hopefully simply excited, and not anything else. According to Alyssa Royse, owner of Rocket Community Fitness in Seattle, the mindset that you have to deserve that pie or undo the damage is “really dangerous.”
“It links us to this idea that we have to earn the right to eat and have to earn the right to have pleasure. Both of those things are innate in simply having a body ... by virtue of being alive, you are allowed [both],” she said.
“When we moralize food, we trigger all sorts of dangerous thoughts and behavior patterns in people,” she continued. This includes eating disorders, which can lead to major long-term health complications like heart damage, hair growth issues, brain damage, lethargy and more.
Instead of creating these negative connections, trainers in her gym don’t mention food. If the holidays do come up, they try to focus on positive aspects like, “go have fun and enjoy the bounty, go feel the joy ... that’s the primary purpose of your body ― to experience joy,” Royse said.
Royse added that people already have these damaging thoughts on their own around the holidays, as a result of years of toxic messaging in media where people are pushed to be thinner. She encourages her clients to challenge these connections they and others have made, and move instead toward body and food neutrality.
“Food doesn’t need to be an emotional or moral experience. You are allowed to just have it,” she said.
Keefe also noted that shaming yourself for what you ate can have an additional physical consequences. As a result of the stress hormones you release through that thought pattern, you can experience stomach pains and digestive problems (along with so many other issues like headaches, heart palpitations and more).
“You’re really making yourself suffer twice,” she said. Instead, she emphasizes enjoying it and moving on.
“Food doesn’t need to be an emotional or moral experience. You are allowed to just have it.”
Listening to your body instead
Both experts believe it’s necessary to tune in to your body instead of letting outside forces influence how you feel, especially when it comes to the holidays. This process, also known as mindful eating, is where you pay close attention to your food ― mentally noticing how it tastes and how enjoyable it feels to eat it. It also has you listen to your natural hunger and fullness cues. Food is not something you’ve “earned” and there is absolutely no expectation that you need to “work it off.”
Royse said she specifically tries to drink more water (one glass per holiday cocktail) and take more walks, not as a penalty but as a way to counteract any physical discomfort she might be feeling.
Keefe enjoys whatever holiday foods she wants, while also prioritizing nutrition. She chooses fruits and vegetables when she can, noting that the holidays don’t necessarily mean you have to only eat rich foods or only stick to the veggie tray. She has also seen clients make themselves sick trying to preemptively offset the holidays’ physical impact.
“They exhaust themselves with exercise in anticipation or in reaction to how they’ve eaten during the holidays. Their overall health declines ... their bodies are under enormous stress,” she said. “Treat your body kindly.”
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.