Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Reward / Punishment Cycle I

I was listening to a radio broadcast recently and they talked to an obese person about being obese. I have to admit that a good part of me was just like "okay, so start exercises and don't eat so many cookies." But it's not that easy for people - food has an emotional connection. So does exercise. And it often has a reward / punishment dimension, too.

Food as a reward. If there is one thing I learned from TV commercials, it's that food is a reward. It's an indulgence. You deserve it - worked hard? You deserve a beer. Cleaned the house? You deserve a candy bar. Packed the kids lunch? You deserve a sugar-filled yogurt. Did a man's job of yard work? You deserved two men's worth of fries.

That doesn't even start in on exercise. We know from commercials that you can't even warmup safely or effectively without 2.5 servings (aka 20 oz) of sports drink! If you finish the workout, you need to down another serving, and/or a protein shake or protein bar, and then it's off home for the indulgent food of your choice to reward your good behavior.

You'll see this with parents and kids, too - "if you behave I'll give you a cookie" or "okay, I'll buy you that fruit snack to keep you quiet" (not actually "fruit" either, let's face it).

Conversely, food is also a punishment. There are two big variations to this:

Healthy food is a punishment. After all, if the selling point is "it's good for you" then you must not be able to sell it on its merits, like "it's delicious" or "you'll like eating it." The meme of "healthy food tastes bad, this doesn't taste bad, so it can't be healthy" is an instant classic in TV commercials. Basically every yogurt ad does this.

Food is a way to punish yourself. For people with eating problems, you see this one - I bought this bag of cookies, and I shouldn't have, so I'll just eat all of them now and start back over tomorrow. Nevermind the weight you pack on from those cookies will be there tomorrow and set you further back. Nevermind it's just making yourself feel bad (physically, mentally, and emotionally) for making a poor choice. It's a sunk cost - the $5 for those cookies are gone, and putting those hundreds if not thousands of calories into your body won't make up for that. But it's often "it's too late now, so I'm going to make myself finish these" instead of "why the heck can't I just throw these out?"

Diets are a form of food-as-punishment coupled with food-as-reward. You deny yourself the foods you like (punishment!) and force yourself to eat foods you don't that are healthy (punishment!) and then when you reach your goal you can eat whatever you like again (reward!). Not healthy.

We need to get off the food-as-punishment/food-as-reward cycle.

I'm not saying this is easy, but perhaps like the G.I. Joes said, knowing is half the battle: you have to get off this cycle. Food is neither an automatic reward for good behavior nor is it a useful means of punishment. It's just food. If you've got an issue with binge-finishing those cookies you know shouldn't have gotten in the first place, think about this. Remind yourself that food isn't a mechanism for punishing yourself. Don't use food to reward your good behaviors - good behaviors and the healthy life they promote is the reward. Not the ability to have an extra slice of cake because you did spin class today.

Exercise gets the same treatment, really - and I'll examine that more tomorrow.

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