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CindySays: Reconsider your 'reward' system

By Cindy Boggs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dear Cindy,

I am an active woman, dedicated to staying healthy, and understand that what I eat is a big part of my health. I'd love your opinion on a friendly dispute between my husband and me. I believe we're all entitled to sweet treats and comfort foods if we exercise. My husband, an avid runner, has never had a strong interest in these foods or desserts and says I must stay away from comfort foods and sweets. Where do you stand on this? -- Thanks, Sheila

Dear Sheila,

You and your husband are on opposite ends of the spectrum and, as with most things, the best answer lies near the middle.

The idea that we deserve to eat whatever we want because we exercise is common -- many people look forward to indulging after a good sweat. Enter entitlement.

Then there are those who aren't tempted by indulgent foods and sweets, therefore finding it much easier to stick to a strict diet. Enter discipline.

Oddly enough, your opposing beliefs are actually fueled by the fact that you both pursue regular physical activity.

Why work hard if there is no reward?

I exercise, so I deserve it. I hear you, and it raises this question: Why does anyone build their life around activity? The answer is fairly easy: to live happy and healthy. The healthy part is self-explanatory, but the happy part encompasses a much broader array of answers. For you, happy means having the green light to say yes to the dessert or a side of gooey carbs. Understand, however, that if you're not careful, this philosophy can sabotage your quest for health.

Built-in loopholes

It would be difficult to say goodbye to desserts and foods forever, but consider the following:

Many people make exercise a priority with a built-in loophole. Rewards are given as a result of exercise. For instance, someone who walks two miles rewards themselves with a nice slice of cheesecake. Another who takes a fitness class goes to lunch and enjoys pie and ice cream after a salad. Still another plays tennis for an hour and sees fit to tip back margaritas and scarf down a pile of tostado chips loaded with cheese and sour cream. They "deserve it" and, in fact, feel they have earned it. In other words, they view the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle as something of a hardship and, therefore, feel entitled to some sort of payback.

I'll have the cheese fries

The problem with this rationale is that these entitlements, if continually exercised, become habitual. Seeking restitution for every healthy lifestyle choice made will ultimately sabotage the desired progress. Feeling entitled to a treat each time we sweat would be like skipping brushing your teeth after a good dental checkup, deciding not to buckle up because you've never had an accident, or spending $100 impulsively because you saved 5 cents a gallon on gas.

Never crossing the line

Declining every empty calorie -- appetizers, desserts, celebratory beverages -- is impossible for most mere mortals, but some are able to do it. They're disciplined and are not about to give in to any temptation; they feel if they do, they will lose control. This is probably how your husband is able to steer clear from the feel-good foods.

What's interesting is what makes each of you happy. And this is the real point I want to make. Staying away from the temptation makes your husband happy, just as rewarding yourself with a piece of chocolate cake makes you happy.

Body keeps track of cheating

So where do I stand? It all comes down to how often we feel entitled. Rewarding every good habit with a bad one will always leave us with a deficit on the good-habit side. It's OK to opt for an occasional dessert. But remember, there are only so many pieces of pie you can work off. Think of it this way: A good choice is worth 1 point, and a bad choice is 5 points. This way you can feel good with your occasional rewards just as your husband feels good about his decision to just say no.

One step further would be to reimagine your reward system. How about rewarding good habits with -- of all things -- good habits! Think about it. After a workout, reward yourself with a relaxing massage or a soothing soak in a tub. After your yoga class, consider a protein drink with fresh fruit.

Bottom line is, I believe you are entitled to a few indulgences for your healthy choices. Try thinking of them as allowances instead of rights. And remember, healthy habits such as exercise, good food and relaxation are your friends, not your enemies. Embrace them and let them motivate you into adopting even more life-enriching behaviors.

Cindy Boggs, wellness presenter and author, is an ACE-certified instructor/trainer. Send your questions about fitness, training or health to cindysays@aol.com. Look for her award-winning fitness advice book, "CindySays ... You Can Find Health in Your Hectic World" on her website, www.cindysays.com.


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