Many people who change their eating and exercise habits to improve their health find that the people around them are not as supportive as they hoped. Some find that a partner brings junk food into the house, even after being asked not to, or coworkers insist that “one donut won’t hurt anything.”

How we respond to approaches like this depends on many things — how well we know and like the person, how much time we have, our mood. There is a dim sense in our society that everyone “should” eat better and move more, but that involves learning new information and new skills, and making new (maybe tough) choices throughout the day. That’s pretty daunting — and if these are new choices for you, too, it can be emotional to feel challenged about them.

Challenges to Your Values

“I don’t know how you find the time to work out. I’m always so busy!”
“You’re so obsessed! Don’t you have a life?”
“I could never do THAT. That sounds so boring!”
“You really take this whole fitness thing seriously, don’t you?”

Fitness enthusiasts love to say “it’s about making time,” but this is one of the few values challenges with some real substance to it. For most people, making time for exercise would mean giving up something else they care about. That’s a sad prospect, one people easily get stuck on because of the reputation of exercise and healthy eating as painful chores.

If you want to respond directly to the time challenge, consider talking about the way regular exercise or healthy eating can change, effectively, how much time you have. A person in better shape gets more restful sleep, and often enjoys a better daytime energy level and more efficiency — especially when rest is paired with healthier eating and fewer empty calories. More restful sleep can even lead to fewer hours in bed, because of needing less “catchup” and finding it easier to get going. This could be called “making time,” but it’s not the brute-force “just do it” kind — it’s a genuine gain in efficiency. I sometimes tell people “the time I spend exercising is a deposit that I get back.”

Other comments in this vein are plainly critical — even insulting. You are under no obligation to address comments like “that sounds so boring!” directly. You can always shrug and deflect. (I am tempted to say “I too have contempt for something you enjoy.”)

Comments about “obsession” or taking things “[too] seriously” are essentially bullying tactics — critical comments meant to elicit a bid for approval. It can be very hard to shrug these off, because people often make them in order to make you feel defensive. Don’t let them get away with it. Simple, closed-ended answers (“Yep” or “I guess not”) will probably shut this down, but if you want to engage, it may help to stick with positive expressions of your commitment — “Well, we all need exercise in our lives, so I figure it’s worth doing in a way I actually enjoy.”

Judgments about Your Appearance

“You look great but the muscular look is just not for me.”
“If you keep losing weight, you’re not going to have any booty left.”

There is no really good response to kind of remark other than “OK.” It can be tempting to counter the “muscular” comments (among women) with claims that women can’t build muscle as easily, but comments like this don’t have anything to do with a specific look — everyone has a slightly different idea of what “crosses the line.” Similarly, everyone has a different idea of what’s the “best” body shape. Bottom line, if a person straight up jumps on your looks, they won’t let facts get in their way, and you shouldn’t let that person get in yours.

“You look healthy now but don’t get skinnier.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so into this. You don’t need to lose weight.”

Sometimes our friends or family members say this kind of thing to undermine us, but this kind of remark can also come from a loving place, well meaning but low on information, and may be an opportunity to teach and share. Consider responses like “I’ve been enjoying hitting my athletic goals and making new ones — and don’t worry, I definitely can’t keep that up unless I’m eating the right food, and plenty of it.”

In Conclusion

If your first reaction is annoyance, take a breath. Some people are annoying, but sometimes they’ve stumbled onto an area we’re still working on, and we don’t quite know what to say. You might even hear something you used to say yourself, and the temptation could be strong to give them the answer you’d give the old you. But it’s possible they are asking for a completely different reason.

You don’t have an obligation to educate everyone who criticizes you, but these comment often come from people who are fairly close to us — family members, coworkers, friends. It may help to keep in mind that when we make a big change in our lifestyle on our own — especially one with as much baggage as eating better and exercising more — people around us may feel rejected. Think of ways you can prepare yourself to reach out to the people you don’t want to reject and, hey, go ahead and present a nice, stony face to someone who’s trying to get under your skin.

These statements are selected from “10 Backhanded Compliments People Give You When You’re Into Fitness.” As you can see, my approach is different, but I found this to be a good roundup of “comments from the peanut gallery.”

Illustration by Dadu Shin for the Boston Globe — used for a review of the book Games Primates Play, by Dario Maestripieri.


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