Should we feel obligated to exercise? Should we feel obligated to pursue health?


Obligation - an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound (according to Oxford Dictionary).

A few years ago during my Masters program in exercise physiology, I had a professor once say that they thought it was a good thing for people to feel obligated to engage in exercise. I am pretty sure the reasoning for this opinion was because of this professor believed that 1) everyone should be engaging in exercise/physically active because 2) physical activity plays a significant role in health status and 3) that everyone should be striving for “good” health. That statement didn’t sit well with me then and it definitely doesn’t sit well with me now. Do we really need to feel an obligation to exercise? Or be physically active? Or even to pursue “good” health?

“...You never have to prove your health or pursue health behaviors to be a worthwhile human existing in the world.”

- Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, LD

While my hope is that this professor’s views have evolved, unfortunately, this is the message and idea predominantly promoted by the health, nutrition, wellness and fitness industries still today. There is this idea that everyone should pursue “good” health and this pursuit of “good” health involves exercise. Now, I am not here saying there is anything wrong with engaging in physical activity or exercise (though there are instances where exercise can be more harmful than helpful, such as when using exercise to compensate for food consumption or when the type or amount of exercise is being used to determine a person’s worthiness). But rather, what I am saying is that we, as human beings, are not obligated to pursue exercise, physical activity or even “good” health.

More so, not all humans have the ability to choose to pursue health because of reasons out of their control (this is not a new fact, there is a lot of research on this. A place to start would be learning about the ‘social determinants of health’). Those who think that health is an obligation and that everyone has access to pursue it are usually those who are very ignorant of the privileges in their life. Many do not have access to those things that would promote “good” health in their lives (like access to healthcare, access to a wide variety of foods, etc), and to say that someone is obligated to pursue something they do not even have access to is an injustice.

If you are having a hard time breaking free from feeling obligated to exercise or pursue health and are looking for guidance and support, I would be honored to work with you! You deserve compassionate and ethical healthcare. Click here to learn more!