Reward and Punishment

This week has been hard. My job can be pretty stressful at times, and this week – Friday in particular – was really tough.

By the end of Friday I wanted a glass of wine (and wine isn’t usually my go-to drink of choice) so badly that it made me grumpy. Of course the result of the week and that day in particular being stressful contributed to that grumpiness, but the fact I wasn’t able to relieve that stress and grump with a class of wine made it worse.

I am pleased that at no point did I seriously consider just giving in and having a booze – that wasn’t an option and never even entered my mind – but I was keenly aware of how much I wanted one, how I felt I deserved one, and how I ‘knew’ that nothing else would achieve the same result.

I asked on my facebook: “Work day from HELL. What can I do after work that will achieve the same result as a large glass of wine without being alcoholic or fattening?”

Some of the answers (I suspect some may be more serious than others)

  • Go to the Gym
  • Listen to loud music
  • Crystal Meth
  • Valium
  • Spliff
  • Drive really fast
  • Karaoke
  • Trampolining
  • Cocaine
  • Just have a bloody drink woman

I think you will notice a theme to the list without my assistance. I realised as the evening wore on that the things I most wanted to do in the absence of a large glass of wine was


In short, my brain appears to be wired to find relaxation/pleasure/reward in drinking, eating carbs, eating sugar and spending money on pretty-but-pointless things. If I am going to survive this year without growing much fatter, poorer or running out of space to keep shoes I’ll never wear then I am going to have to find alternative coping mechanisms – because while Friday was a considerably more stressful day at work than usual there will be many more over the coming year which will need to be Coped With.

There were a number of people that suggested gym classes – and it appears my gym does offer an interesting sounding class on a Friday evening. I shall experiment with this and report back. It is going to be difficult though  because unlike wine, carbs, sugar and shoes my brain’s reward centre does not see gym classes or exercise as any sort of reward; in fact it’s quite the opposite. I have to FORCE myself to the gym. Once I am there, and once the class kicks in, I generally do enjoy it, get those little wooshy work out endorphins and feel all smug and relieved afterwards. But those don’t last until my next workout session and I have to go through it all over again, cajoling and bribing myself to go to the gym, trying to remind myself that I’ll enjoy it once I am there (or if not I’ll be glad afterwards that I did it). It’s a battle to  get my brain to accept that working out is Good Thing.

I don’t have to dig too deeply to work out why I have such a strong aversion to exercise.

The whole experience of PE, from having to be in public in gym knickers to being shouted at in front of the class for coming last in Cross Country, is one of the single most dreadful experiences in my whole life, and has genuinely affected me well into adulthood.

If you were sporty at school or good at games, you may not understand. But for those of us who were not terribly good at any of it, PE was HELL.

The assumption is that those of us who aren’t fast runners, or that can’t hit a hockey ball in a straight line, or can’t jump a long way into a sandpit are just NOT TRYING. It’s not that we aren’t any good at it, or have poor co-ordination, or painful feet, or any other reason. No. We’re just NOT TRYING.

And, as a result, PE for those of us who clearly AREN’T TRYING was a regular session of ritualised embarrassment, ridicule and punishment. The girls who were good at tennis, or hockey, or lacrosse, or cross-country, or track-and-field; they got encouragement and support. Those of us that weren’t could never please. Our individual improvement didn’t matter, that we’d maybe run 5 minutes faster in cross country this week that last week. It didn’t matter because we weren’t good at it. SO there was no point trying to improve yourself, because you’d never be as good as the golden sporty ones.

The emphasis was very much on the school winning against other schools, or Your class win against Other class, or if you went somewhere really posh, that your house won against the other houses. If you couldn’t help your fellow students win things against The Other Ones, then you were useless.

There was no education about how your muscles worked. About how important it is to keep hydrated as you exercise. How exercise affects your health and well being. There was no encouragement to the non-sporty (NOT TRYING!) ones to exercise for the sake of fitness itself. There was in fact no encouragement to exercise for the sake of fitness itself at all. As a result, the sporty ones got fitter because they liked to, and the non sporty ones got the impression that exercise FUCKING SUCKS.

Is it any wonder, really, that so many of us leave school firmly associating exercise with pain, humiliation and just general awfulness? Is it any wonder that so many of us even now have a MASSIVE mental block about going to the gym?

I really enjoy the gym classes I go to, I know I do, I feel great during them, after them, and I sleep better, feel better and am much fitter. But making myself go is such a massive effort of will, because I have it deeply ingrained deeply into my very soul that I HATE PE, and PE = EXERCISE and therefore I HATE EXERCISE.

Alcohol, chocolate and shopping are a different kettle of fish though. All the marketing aimed at us tells us that these will make us better and happier INSTANTLY,   but I’m a fairly intelligent marketing-cynical woman and I don’t think it’s the marketing that makes my brain and body yearn for high fat high sugar high spend mental rewards. While I know where my deep seated fear/hatred of working out comes from, I don’t know how it came to the point where my whole being demands these unhealthy and unwise rewards for getting through a difficult day. Was is something from my childhood, whereby pudding was only allowed if I ate the vegetables? I do know I was a very picky eater. Where chocolate was only allowed if I’d been good? I don’t remember sweets being used as rewards so much as a child, but I do remember gifts being used as bribes. I remember Mum promising me a new Garfield toy if I was good at a family gathering once. I remember for university essays I would buy a massive bag of mini eggs and allow myself one for every 200 words. Do we all have this unhealthy reward reaction, or is it just some of us who learn that booze/sugar/shoes are the reward for life, rather than *life* being the reward for life? This all needs exploring in more depth and perhaps this time off the alcohol will help give me the time and the clarity of thought to really unpick it.

As for the fear of working out, this is something I managed to lose while I was playing roller derby and learning that my body was a tool and a weapon, and was powerful in its own right, and I learned to love my body and what it could do. Over the months after the injury and retirement I have lost that along the way and need to rediscover it. I know where the work-out fear comes from though, and I know how to beat it. I do think however that a link between the rising obesity of young people in this country has something to do with PE in schools and the sorts of experiences I had.

Perhaps a  solution to the so called ‘obesity crisis’ is to shift the emphasis on PE in schools away from ‘winning’ and overall achievement to a greater emphasis on personal fitness, on how your muscles work, on how to keep fit, and most importantly, that exercise can be fun, and that it can make you feel really good, and that it is a means to its own reward – not because you can allow yourself some cake afterwards. Working out IS the cake. As it were. 

I have struggled for most of my life with my weight and fitness. If anyone at school had said to me ‘it’s really not whether you win, or how fast you run. It’s about getting your body moving so that it gets stronger, and you feel better’ I think it would have made a HUGE difference.

If I was queen of the universe, PE would become ‘Health and Fitness’ and would consist of a much wider breadth of sports covered, it would focus on individual improvement over school attainment, and would teach children how important exercise is, and that exercise is fun.

And I’d make gym knickers and communal changing rooms illegal.



  1. Totally with you on the whole PE thing. Like you now i really enjoy the gym when I’m there but have this awful battle with myself to actually get there. PE at school was my nightmare. Not just the gym knickers (good god they were truly hideous!) but the ridicule for being slow/uncoordinated etc, coming last or just not being able. I was able I know that now, but at my own ability not at the sporty superstars ability we were always compared to. Loving your blog Emmie x

  2. The food and toys as a reward thing is huge & probably more prevalent than you might remember. You mention being allowed pudding “if you eat your greens” – that’s a food-reward and eating issues double-whammy. All in the very best of intentions. For me, shopping creates satisfaction because I grew up poor, knowing I couldn’t have things, or that I had to share nice things. We got better off (marginally) as I got older so my siblings didn’t get so much of the “you must share” or “we can’t afford it”. Subsequently I buy things because I’m a grown up who can afford to buy what I want.

    The PE thing I totally agree with. I have a friend who is a teacher & she takes lessons in Pilates & yoga as well as taking her students kayaking. Although this is in a fairly well-to-do school in Dublin which only really emphasises how opportunities like this are often restricted to those who can afford it.

    An example for me is that i found recently that I actually enjoy skiing. Which is very physical and in no way open to people from poorer families.

    Money is so often part of the problem.

  3. I love that someone else out there had a similar gym experience, and shares the exact same feelings I have regarding exercise. It must have become such a strong negative association in our formative years to affect us decades later. I couldn’t run fast, was horribly uncoordinated, and generally suffered through every bit of those classes. Most embarrassing was my lack of flexibility. Not only could I not touch my toes despite all the mandatory stretching, but one year the teacher announced loudly to the class that I was less flexible than the year before and that was impossible if I had done any stretching at all! I could feel my face redden, partially from embarrassment and partially from anger as I was properly stretching every day as best I could and could not make my hamstrings any longer than they were. If only yoga had been offered at my school, or swimming (finally something I excelled at.)

    Actually, the most embarrassing gym class moment was during a game of kickball (like baseball without the danger of bats and hard balls) where each base had a different skill test, such as jump rope 10 times on first to progress to second base. I kicked the ball and ran to first base and picked up the jump rope. At first, I tried to ignore the shoelace that had come untied, but with each jump I landed on it and began tripping myself. So in front of all the yelling teammates, I had to bend down and tie my shoe as fast as I could under pressure. Then I continued to slowly jump rope, a skill I had never learned as a child because it seemed useless at the time, and after a good 15 minutes of being screamed at for my lack of ability and general uselessness, the teacher finally declared our team had lost. I was relieved it was over and mortified as I could see the looks of blame from my teammates.

    I wish you were queen of the universe and could change schools here in the U.S. as well, because I can clearly see why obesity is an issue here. It’s all lack of education about our bodies, how they work, and what they need to stay healthy. So few of us view food as a fuel for our bodies, and the majority of us eat things solely because they taste good. (I suspect cardboard loaded with fat, salt, and sugar would taste good too.)

    I have struggled with exercise and weight exactly like you. Even when I think I have overcome the mental block, I wind up sick or knocked out of the routine and find it nearly impossible to get back to it. I hope you have now fully healed and back to finding exercise fun again. I’m not quite there yet, but it helps to know that I’m not the only one fighting to overcome a deep hatred of exercise (and love of carbs, sugar, and shopping.) I know you wrote this over a year ago, but I am so glad to have stumbled across your blog and have read this post. Thank you.

    1. I actually cancelled my gym membership because it turned out swimming in ponds and cycling to places and cutting down on sugar did more for me than all that gym going ever did – and swimming in ponds and cycling everywhere doesn’t feel like exercise 😀

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