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Exercise guilt: why do we feel guilty for productive self-care?

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So many women feel guilty for taking time to look after themselves – but exercise is a crucial part of our health and productivity, says Strong Women’s writer Chloe Gray. 

The other day, I set my alarm for my usual early morning gym call. Only, instead of going to train, I cleaned my flat, bashed through a load of life admin that I’d been putting off, showered – taking time to use the nice shampoos I don’t often have time to properly lather into my hair – and started work early.

“If I did this every morning,” I thought to myself, “I could be one of the most organised people I know.”

That’s when the guilt started. The guilt that I’d been wasting all of these mornings exercising when I could have been sorting my life out. That I spent the most productive hours of my day – because I am a lark who functions better first thing – doing something that is a luxury to most people. 

I’m not alone in that guilt. In fact, the way I feel probably pales in comparison to those who have actual responsibilities beyond the expectation to pay rent and turn up to work by 9am. A 2019 study by This Girl Can found that while 77% of new mums want to do more exercise, for example, 61% would feel bad about spending that time by themselves.

Why do we feel like this when we know about the benefits of exercise? Perhaps it’s because we are so frequently told that working out is a vanity project – its only sole purpose is to change the way we look. But that’s untrue: it is crucial for our health and life span, and thanks to its mental health benefits, exercise can make us the best version of ourselves. 

A woman wiping her forehead with a towel
Why do we feel guilty for exercising?

While I don’t agree with the constant pressures of self-optimisation and beliefs that we must always be trying to improve ourselves, I do know that exercise is productive. By spending that time in the morning showing up for myself, I’m benefiting the rest of the day: turning up to work feeling focused, being a more positive friend and a less stressful housemate. 

I may have spent a morning focusing solely on ‘me’, but that time allows me to give myself fully to my job and friends later in the day – and I’d bargain that that’s the case for other women too. That’s what I have to remind myself when the guilt creeps in for prioritising my self-care.

4 things to remember when exercise guilt creeps in

The oxygen mask principle

OK, I know it’s a cliche – but it’s only overused because it’s true. You have to fit your oxygen mask before you can fix anyone else’s, and that’s true for your mental and physical health. How can you be the organised/caring/selfless person you want to be if you’re anxious or stressed? Finding time to fit in your mental health habits is the only way to do that.

Your exercise-life balance

In the 16-ish hours you’re awake, spending one hour doing something for you is a tiny proportion of your day. In fact, that’s just over 6% of your day spent on yourself. And while I don’t think you should do a workout every single day, I do think you should be able to dedicate 6% of your time to something that’s just for you: a walk, a dance around your bedroom, or a sweaty class.

Exercise is productive

Let’s just run through why that is: it floods your body with endorphins, it enhances concentration and it reduces stress. Those things make your day’s additional tasks way easier. But it also gives me a sense of achievement – it often starts a trickle of list ticking. And if it doesn’t, then at least I can finish the day knowing that I’ve done one great thing.

You are allowed nice things

But not everything has to be about progress. We are allowed to just spend our time doing something that makes us feel great. Not every waking hour has to be spent sending emails or achieving. Sure, getting to the gym comes with its own set of performance expectations, but more importantly, it’s a chance to get out of my mind and into my body. 

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).