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As I dipped a Mickey Mouse-shaped waffle in syrup for breakfast on my first full day in Walt Disney World, I heard a woman say to her friend, “That looks so good, but I’m trying to eat healthy on vacation.”
I didn’t say anything to her (I mean, I don’t know her), but I bit back my own deep sigh.
You might think that as a person who writes about running, I would endorse healthy eating while on vacation. But I hate this thinking — ditto any story about how many calories an exercise will burn in order to “earn” a holiday food. It’s making exercise a punishment for indulging in something special. I don’t get to eat Mickey Mouse waffles every day, so I’m going to eat them when I can, and not feel guilty about it. The same for pumpkin pie I have once a year, and Valentine’s Day chocolate.
If you’re already tallying how much you’ll have to run to combat a special food, that takes both the fun out of the rare treat you’re enjoying, and out of the exercise done to so-called make up for it. (When Runner’s World put one such post on Instagram this holiday season, which was itself an ad for NordicTrack — which has a vested interest in making you feel bad enough about eating to buy a workout machine — they got ripped for it, and rightfully so.)
By now, most New Year’s resolutions have crumbled, and one reason that can happen is people make them without the right motivation. If running is something you’re doing as punishment for eating, why would you want to keep doing that to yourself?
In 2015, Claire Zulkey wrote an eye-opening piece for Elle about how she was ordered by a therapist to take a break from exercising as part of treatment for a binge eating disorder. The goal was to break the connection between food and working out, and to treat both things like parts of her life, without the amount of one being related to the amount of the other. It worked.
“I realized at some point that I am an exercise person now. I pack workout clothes for vacations and use them,” she wrote. “But I could only get here by divorcing exercise from food. I will work out whether the previous night’s dinner consisted of a salad or three slices of pizza and some Oreos.”
We run for a lot of reasons, and yes, losing weight and staying in shape is a big one for most people — myself included. But there has to be something more to it than that, or running as penance can become part of a cycle of disordered eating. That’s not good for you, your running or your happiness. And life is just too short to not eat Mickey Mouse waffles for the rare times you’re in Disney World, no matter if you ran seven miles that morning (as I did when I overhead that conversation) or zero miles, as I did on the last day of my trip when I still got the same breakfast — and a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar before I caught my flight home.
I am back now, running in the same cold I’d left behind for a few days to hang out with Donald Duck. I don’t regret the waffles.
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Jen A. Miller is the author of “Running: A Love Story.”