Guilt and Exercise- What’s Healthy?

by Angela (Oh She Glows) on May 25, 2009

Many of you suggested that the next hot topic be about the guilt felt when missing a workout.


Some of your questions were:

– If I am healthy and trying not to obsess about what I eat and my weight, why do I still feel guilty when missing a workout?

– How do I stop the guilt when I decide to take a day off?

– I am injured right now and I can’t exercise, how do I get rid of these guilty feelings?

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Of course, I always turn to empirical research to find out what answers various researchers have come up with!

Jonathan Mond, senior research officer in the department of psychological medicine at Canberra Hospital in Australia, conducted a study on exercise guilt on 230 women ages 18-45. The survey sought to examine the relationship between exercise and eating disorders. It also sought answers as to when exercise is bad for your health.

This is what he found:

  • 70% of women were regular exercisers (10% exercised 10 hours per week or more)
  • 12% exercised 1 hour a day
  • The women who felt guilty after they missed a regular workout were also most likely to rate highly on measures for eating disorders
  • 20% of Women who said that a very or extremely important reason for exercise was to "improve their body shape or tone" or to "improve their appearance or attractiveness" were also vulnerable to an eating disorder
  • These women were also likely to have an unhealthy focus on appearance, restricting their intake, and to have dysfunctional attitudes to eating and weight. They were most likely to be rated as having a poor quality of life.

The goals below were not found to increase one’s risk for eating disorders:

  • Goal of improved health (30%)
  • Goal of improved fitness (22%)
  • Weight loss (17%)
  • For enjoyment (5%) WOW so low, eh???

Other feelings associated with missing exercise were the following:

  • More than 11 per cent of women reported feeling upset most or every time they were unable to exercise
  • 14 per cent always tried to make up for missed exercise by putting in more time.

But these feelings – as distinct from guilt – were not associated with eating disorders.


So what does this research mean?

It appears that if your goals are primarily concerned about your appearance and body shape and you are experiencing lots of guilt over skipping a workout, you are at the highest risk for developing disordered eating or exercise habits.

If on the other hand, your exercise goals are centered around improving your health and endurance and you only experience a small amount of guilt after missing a workout, you are at much less risk for developing future problems.

I have also read other research that shows that when you put your focus on health over your body, you will enjoy the exercise more and do it more for pleasure!

Today’s questions:

  • Do you have a lot of exercise guilt? When do you have the most guilt?
  • When you miss a day of planned exercise how does it affect your entire day?
  • What did you think about this research study? What surprised you or didn’t surprise you?

Later today I will be writing Part 2 of Exercise and Guilt! I will be talking about my own experience and what works for me!

Hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day!


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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Katherine May 25, 2009 at 9:44 am

Great topic! I absolutely feel guilty when I miss a workout and I’m trying to refocus my goals on training for a new race and being as fit and healthy as I can be for my training. It’s a daily challenge though and missing a workout can still derail my whole day – including my food choices later on. I look forward to reading about your experiences! Have a great morning!


Jenny May 25, 2009 at 10:01 am

As a psych major, I’m a sucker for all of that empirical information. It’s striking, yet sadly, not suprising. One of the biggest problems that plagues us today is that we associate healthy eating and exercise habits with more than just “health”. Many of us judge ourselves based on our success or failure, and that’s wrong. But it’s a hard cycle to stop, and I think blogs like yours are doing a wonderful job of dispelling these false associations!!

Thank you Angela!


ari May 25, 2009 at 10:06 am

i defffffinitely experience exercise guilt. sometimes it’s not that bad, like if i have exercised for 10 days straight or something, then i can take a day off without feeling TOO bad about it. i try to justify it by telling myself that my body needs a break, but i still feel as though i should keep truckin along. the worst, though, is after i indulge. for example, i graduated high school on saturday and to celebrate we went out to the cheesecake factory and i had a whole piece of cheesecake WITH ice cream! it tasted amazing, but when i had to work for 5 hours on sunday and didn’t get to go to the gym, i felt terrible guilt. like i ate wayyy too many calories the night before and if i didn’t burn them off by running 5 miles i was going to gain weight and not be happy. anyway, i love this topic because this is something i struggle with often and i can’t wait to read part 2!


Amanda May 25, 2009 at 10:07 am

I don’t feel guilty about missing a workout. Life happens, I know its not feasible for me make every single one of my planned workout days. I know my body needs a rest every few days, especially after an intense workout. Also I’ve found that I lose more weight after a rest day. It’s almost like my body is thanking me for resting.


Kiersten May 25, 2009 at 10:16 am

I usually feel guilty when I miss an exercise. I voted 8 on your poll, although there are some days that it’s a 10. I will skip exercising for a day when I can tell my body needs to recover. Even if I had an intense workout the day before and my body is sore, I will still feel guilty about not exercising that day. I feel like I am lazy on the days I don’t workout, and I let it bother me all day.


Mara @ What's For Dinner? May 25, 2009 at 10:20 am

As usual, I love this post :) I do generally feel pretty guilty if i miss a planned workout, and feel “useless” like a lump… I’m working on that!


Susan May 25, 2009 at 10:45 am

I used to feel really guilty about not working out, but somewhere along the way, I lost the guilt. Now I know if I miss a workout for work or whatever, I can just sub it out for a rest day or just take an extra rest day that week, no biggie. If I don’t exercise because I’m too tired, then I figure my body needs the rest and it would be better not to workout anyways. I still struggle a little with trying to find the difference between being tired and feeling lazy, but I think most days I can tell when I should just not push my body through another workout.

I am however discovering a whole new kind of guilt associated with outdoor exercise! If it’s sunny and 20C out I feel really guilty for taking a scheduled rest day. I feel like I should be taking advantage of the weather with a run or bike ride! Especially when I often have to ditch outdoor workouts because of crappy weather. So I’m just trying to play along with mother nature and go with the flow. It’s a work in progress!

Sorry for babbling :P Great topic!


Leah @ Simply fabulous now May 25, 2009 at 11:06 am

I try not to feel guilty when I miss a work out but I do tend to feel some guilt when i’m not busy AND I miss a work out. I feel fine when I have a ton of stuff to do and just can’t seem to fit it in but if I am just lounging around the house then I think to myself “why didn’t I just work out?”

It’s something I’m working on.


Suzanne May 25, 2009 at 11:16 am

Thanks so much for posting some reliable studies on here! I am loving your blog more and more everyday! :-)

I have to say I def feel guilty when I don’t workout but not extreme guilt. I feel much worse when I don’t eat well.

Thanks again for the post!


Alice May 25, 2009 at 11:31 am

Oh, I think a tiny bit of guilt, just that oh you lazy old girl get up and go do your thing, kind of guilt is good. I think if I had zero guilt I wouldn’t exercise as much. I walk 5 to 10k daily or almost daily. I have back problems (sciatic from arthritis). So I could walk 10k today and have a hard time with the trip from bed to the living room the next day. The big thing is that walking helps build the muscle in the lower back hip area and legs which keeps it all at bay. My problems start with fear some days; will my leg trip out and leave me a heap by the road so I can’t make it home? How embarrassing would that be! I have broken legs and arms and strained sprained everything from different activities, bicycling, running, soccer, on and on and the only thing I have ever had fear about was this back problem, it has been debilitating so I need some guilt to get past my fear some days. Now with that all said I will not push myself to go walk when I’m sore. Last week I had from Sunday to Sunday a very mixed up week. I did 12k of walking Sunday, 4k on Monday temperatures took a shift and I was creaking everywhere so nothing wed, Thursday I did 5k nothing Friday or Saturday Sunday I did 6k. At 5k I haven’t even started to feel any muscle workout so the short walks are good for days that I feel stiff. On really bad days I may only do 1.5k then on some days nothing but moan and groan and live with it. I think some healthy guilt that is only a motivator is good to keep us going. I have seen the stressed out guilty people that are losing it over not being able to get out and do their exercise that day and it can be really bad. I feel for them because they are making their life miserable. I won’t go to gyms because of this. I guess most of you have come across this in gyms. The popping out of their sock types that are flying from machine to machine and if their next machine is busy they are starting to loose their cool as they won’t get that work out today. I have always wondered if they are type A personalities or if there is deeper issues.


shelly May 25, 2009 at 11:36 am

I don’t feel guilty, necessarily, but I do feel afraid that I’m going to lose my good habits. When I moved in with my boyfriend last year, then promptly went on vacation, I stopped working out for a couple of months because of all the change. It was SO hard to get back into my routine and it wasn’t until I had to buckle down and lose some weight that I got serious about working out again. I know that I underwent a fairly long time of zero exercise, but I still tend to worry that I’ll fall into my bad habit of coming home and crashing if I don’t work out pretty regularly.
On the other hand, I’ve had a pretty chaotic spring between social engagements that I couldn’t miss and getting sick twice in 3 weeks- I’ve had no choice but to work out less often than I would like. I think I’ve handled it very well because I am still dedicated to working out. I’ve just worked out on my regular schedule as often as I could, and supplemented my workouts by either getting up early to get in a two mile run (which doesn’t happen that often anymore, but worked when I was training for my 10K) or doing a 20 minute yoga routine at home. Sometimes I don’t have an hour to head to the gym, but I generally have 20 minutes to do yoga from my computer. :)
And when I’m sick, some very gentle yoga is all I can handle anyway.
The other emotion I feel when it comes to not being able to work out is frustration. At this point, exercise is something I look forward to so I get a little cranky when I can’t do it. I guess I’m an endorphin junkie, haha!
That study was very interesting!
I am surprised that the women who said they exercised for weight loss weren’t also at a risk for disordered eating.


Moran (The Running Addict) May 25, 2009 at 11:40 am

I don’t like admitting this, but I do probably suffer from exercise guilt. I don’t like not exercising! It makes me feel useless in some way…I actually think at times I am obsessed with running but at the end of the day I do it for myself, because I need that MORAN time .
Oh well, I could probably go on about this forever !


Diana (Soap & Chocolate) May 25, 2009 at 11:52 am

Ugh, the guilt is such a plague, as regards both exercise and eating. I definitely experience my fair share, but I can feel myself improving. I think this is a great follow up topic to your post about comparing ourselves to other women. Body image is such a hot yet sensitive topic, I’m hoping to touch on it more frequently on my own blog, but I love reading and sharing other bloggers’ writing on the subject, so thanks for doing this! If we all did even a little on our own blog to counteract the deluge of body-negativity out there in the media, maybe we can save a few girls from going down truly dangerous paths. That’s my hope!


Katrina (gluten free gidget) May 25, 2009 at 12:09 pm

I flat out REFUSE to feel guilty for not “exercising”. I am a very active person as it is. I rarely sit down throughout the day. I try to walk everywhere possible. I eat very healthily. Plus, I’m a bitty little thing to begin with! I am lucky too because my husband is constantly complimenting my body now that I’ve gained a bit of weight. I guess I just figure there are enough things in this life to worry/feel guilty about. I will not let exercise, something that should be enjoyed, be one of them! (So there! humph!- a la Miss Piggy)


Katharina May 25, 2009 at 4:12 pm

1. I had been training for a half-marathon, but I wasn’t taking my intake vs. exercise into serious consideration. In short, I ended up screwing myself over. I didn’t get sick, but I did lose a lot of unwanted weight. I’ve stopped running, and any other form of cardio since October and seeing a nutritionist. I’ve recently taken up weight training to help gain muscle mass. However, there may be some medical issues that have been making it hard for me to gain. I kind of went off on a tangent. Anyway, at first I was experiencing a bit of exercise guilt, but I understood why I had to stop. Now, I just feel a bit sad when I see someone running and having fun because I want to do that so badly! It makes me sad but then it also motivates me to do what I have to do (and then some) to get back to where I was before.
2. When I miss a day of planned exercise…. well I don’t have planned days, but it does bother me a little. For instance, when I’m visiting my parents and I miss my favorite yoga class I get bummed because I love that class! But it doesn’t ruin my day.


Katharina May 25, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Oh when I said “unwanted weight” I meant unintentional weight. Oops!


Lara May 25, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I love to exercise and they way it makes my mind and body feel but I no longer feel guilty at all when I miss a day. One day in the big picture makes no difference. Also, I think realizing that what you eat is 99.9% of the diet/weight equation took a big chunk of guilt away from me (I used to feel guilty about missing workouts big time) Disengaging that exercise-weight connection was huge for me. Reframing exercise as something good for health (as opposed to for weight loss) has made a huge difference for me in how I approach it and how I feel if i have to miss a day.


N.D. May 25, 2009 at 9:46 pm

This was interesting to read. I definitely feel guilty if I don’t do some kind of exercise everyday. I think it is because I know I need to move to keep my body in shape, but one day shouldn’t kill me!


Miriam October 27, 2009 at 9:49 am

I am going to the gym 4 times a week, always and since a LONGG time. And I always feel guilty when I miss a workout. However, since there is more probability that I miss a session during the weekend I am trying to go mostly during the week, so it won’t matter if I miss on the weekend. It means that I always start my week by going to the gym everyday : Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I allow myself to skip one day during the week if I feel tired and fed up. If I have an appointment or that I want to hang out with my friends, I go to the gym before or after. If I did my four days on the row, then I don’t have to go to the gym during the week end (this doesn’t mean that I have to slack off and been a lazy ass!). If I only have time to go 3 times one week, I won’t drastically cut my portions or feel ashamed of myself… this can happen! And it’s alright! It won’t even show in the long term run! I think that the most important is that you do your best, you listen to your body (if your physically and emotionally tired, don’t go, sport shouldn’t be a chore!) and don’t try to make time when there isn’t (cutting on your sleep or relaxing time is not the best thing you can do to your body : you do the best with the time that you have). Also, you should always be planing your workouts sessions in advance based on your week schedule, every week, at the beginning of it, and allow you some floating days.


Melika July 27, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Wow… I found this website while feeling “guilty” for not working out today. I am an avid marathoner, kettle-beller, workout freak and today I felt really bad and fat for not working out today. For me, its more about the feeling I get after I sweat it out. Letting go of everything and focusing on me. I also love to cook and eat food from all over the world. I always stay away from the white stuff, sugary items etc; but yet STILL guilt plagues me if I give my body a rest. Its a vicious cycle!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Lets love ourselves more to rest – one day wont make a huge difference people!!!!! ( I need to practice what I preach!!!)


Jennifer April 29, 2015 at 1:31 am

Boy does this post resonate with me!!? Having dealt with an eating disorder for 15 years, I considered exercise as something I HAD to do (ie. If I didn’t exercise, I experienced extreme guilt and self-loathing which only exacerbated disordered eating).
I am at a stage with my recovery where I am taking on exercise again to improve my health and well-being and am finding the mindset of guilt for missed exercise an interesting challenge at times. I try to remind myself that rest days and/or missed exercise days can be “mental health” days or “self-care” days where I nuture and attend to my body, soul and mind wholeheartedly.
Thank you for such an engaging and thoughtful post! :D


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