Diet mindset and exercise: Are you mixing the two?

Are you approaching movement as a diet tool?

Diet mindset can be all pervading, and it’s no wonder considering all the cultural messages we’re exposed to daily that reinforce it. It sucks the enjoyment out of food, social events, and can also negatively impact our relationship with physical activity. So how do you know if you’re approaching movement with a diet mindset? Here I illustrate some examples of diet mindset exercise. See if it looks familiar…

What diet mindset exercise looks like: 

Your main purpose for exercising is controlling or changing your weight or body shape

Think about why you choose to move your body. Is it a tool to change how your body looks? Some people will be baffled when they read this. You might be thinking, “Umm yeah, why else do people exercise really?” Physical activity has so many wonderful benefits for our mental and physical health, however these are often overshadowed by the perpetual focus on weight and appearance.

Your other main purpose for exercising is burning off calories

Whether it’s exercising to burn calories you’ve already eaten, or to pre-empt an upcoming meal or social occasion, diet mindset exercise is about the idea of ‘balancing out’ or compensating for eating. We do not need to earn our food - we need food simply because we are alive. When we embrace intuitive eating and let go of labelling foods ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we can also let go of trying to compensate for so called ‘bad’ foods with exercise.

You measure your exercise

Do you measure your activity with a calorie count on your wearable fitness tracker, an app, or on cardio machine screens? Counting the calories you eat is a diet. Similarly counting the calories you burn when moving is also a diet. If we place a calorie burning emphasis on exercise, we are much more likely to exercise longer, harder, and more often than what is safe or healthy for our body.

You plan your exercise in detail and feel anxious if you don’t stick to the plan

Do you fastidiously plan out your week of exercise so that you can ‘keep on track’ and then feel anxious if something pops up and you can’t stick to the plan? Do you worry that your weight or appearance will change if you don’t complete the plan? Just like eating to a plan is a diet, moving your body to a strict plan is a diet too. Sure having a schedule can help us to organise time for movement in our busy lives, but someone without a diet mindset adapts and reschedules without worry about weight or appearance. Whilst a diet mindset exerciser would feel anxious and/or guilty, a person with an intuitive approach to movement might feel disappointed to miss out on doing something they love.

You feel guilty about rest days

Do you feel guilty when you take a rest day? Do you think you should be exercising? Diet mindset is all about should and have to. Take a moment to think about why you think you should be moving your body and not resting? Rest is an essential part of mental and physical wellbeing, so why do you feel guilty? Usually the answer has to do with weight or body shape.

You choose the type of activity according to how many calories it burns

Have you found yourself doing certain activities that you don’t particularly enjoy? Have you regularly chosen activities you dislike over ones you like? It’s common for diet mindset to influence us to choose hard, fast, sweaty activities that we believe ‘count’, whilst we’d rather be doing something else like gardening, walking, swimming, or dancing in our lounge room. When we realise that all movement counts towards our wellbeing, a vast array of movement options open up to us and the enjoyment factor rises.

You tend to exercise when you’re ill, injured and significantly fatigued

Rather than listening to and trusting your body when you feel signs of illness or injury, diet mindset encourages us to continue to exercise. In fact, exercise and burning calories is seen as more important than rehabilitating our injury, or recovering from our virus. If we’re exercising for health and wellbeing, then this doesn’t make sense at all! If we’re exercising as a means of manipulating our body size, then we stop being able to listen properly and truly care for our body.

Diet mindset exercise is problematic:

When we approach physical activity with a diet mindset we lose the ability to listen to our body and trust the internal cues. The risk of overtraining and injury is high, enjoyment is usually low or absent, and the long term sustainability of consistent physical activity is unlikely. There is another way. Intuitive movement ditches the diet mindset and instead focuses on moving our body for enjoyment and feeling good whilst trusting our body to tell us what, when, and how much we need. It looks and feels vastly different.

If you would like to explore intuitive movement and improve your relationship with physical activity, I’d love to work with you.


by Jodie Arnot

Jodie is a registered counsellor with a Masters in Counselling from Monash University, and 20 years experience as a fitness professional. She provides counselling via telephone, Skype, and in person, and is passionate about helping women to improve their relationship with their body.


Intuitive MovementJodie Arnot