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“I hope you’ve earned that” – the morality of food and exercise

ByKate McIntosh

Mar 1, 2020

Ooh, I hope you’ve earned that”; “How much walking will you have to do to work that off?” – most, if not all, of us know the type of comment.

I know, I know – it’s throwaway, tongue-in-cheek; people just want to make conversation. But comments made without thinking are not comments made in a vacuum.

These remarks reflect an idea, worryingly prevalent in our society, that the consumption of food is something that has to be cancelled out; that the sole purpose of exercise is the unenjoyable penance for something enjoyed earlier, or to be enjoyed later.

We hear a lot about an obesity crisis – is it outlandish to suggest that things could be better if we stopped thinking of food as a reward, and exercise as a punishment? Maybe we could tone down altogether the sense of morality about eating.

By this, I don’t mean ceasing to talk about what diets may be more environmentally sustainable, or whether it is morally acceptable to eat animals.

I mean considering the possibility that eating less sugar, less salt, fewer calories, more wholegrains, more vegetables, insert what you will, does not actually make someone a better person.

As someone whose historical relationship with food and exercise can generously be described as ‘complex’, the type of comment mentioned above possibly grates on me more than most.

And as a long-distance runner who spends a fair amount of time with others who have similar hobbies, I accept that I have been exposed to more than the average amount of chat about exercise, and perhaps about healthy foods and eating habits.

However, I believe that there is a massively unhealthy discussion surrounding food, exercise, and guilt.

I was struck recently by a conversation between two running friends of mine about Parkrun, the weekly timed 5km event which started in 2004 in Bushy Park, London, and has now gone global.

The event is hugely welcoming, and undoubtedly a good chance to meet people, exercise socially, and push yourself if that’s what you want.

One of my friends had missed the previous Parkrun – easily done; it starts at 9:30am on a Saturday, when a lot of people just don’t want to be up (or are nursing a hangover) – and said that he felt so bad about it that he walked up and down his stairs for half an hour.

On hearing this, my other friend replied, “good for you!”, a sentiment with which I have to disagree.

If you decide you want to stay in a warm bed instead of going out into the latest named storm, and then feel like you have to walk up and down stairs for a half hour which probably felt like about a half century, then you are not morally superior to those who have stayed in their pyjamas and watched Netflix all day.

You’ve probably just annoyed your neighbours, because the stairs are wooden and your shoes are loud.

Exercise can be a great thing for those who are able to do it, and I’m not saying that vegetables aren’t tasty. But no one has to earn food, or make up for eating a big meal or a slice of cake. Is being in that mind-set really “healthy”?

We should revolutionise the discussion around food and exercise, praising those with healthy habits, but not condemning those who don’t share our views on these matters.

 Image credit: Piqsels