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Exercise in Peace

Coming to the end of a challenging spin class, our instructor walked us through the readouts on the gym's new bike consoles.

"Now look down at the most important number on your console: the calories."

I disagree.

As a fitness professional, I think the most important number on the bike console is the watts, how much power generated during the workout, followed second by miles, how much (albeit fake) distance traversed. Calories? Eh.

The calories listed on any workout machine are grossly inaccurate. The instructor completely missed the boat on this one, stating that the caloric reading was accurate, independent of height and weight and other individual variables. Not so. Calories burned during a workout are a reflection of the energy used by the heart and muscles, and each person uses a different amount of energy to complete a workout. If you're less fit, you'll burn more calories at the same level of work than your marathoner friend. Your heart rate can typically predict caloric output, but unless you're wearing a heart rate monitor, this measure on cardio machines is inaccurate, too.

The instructor then went through a crowd-rousing competition. "Who burned more than 400 calories? 500? 600? 700?" Participants cheered out in celebration of their (inaccurate) caloric burn.

As a psychologist, I think there is no number tied to a successful workout. My biggest gripe with this ending to a positive and inspiring class is that, even if the readout were 100% accurate, it doesn't matter how many calories you burned. Spinning classes, like any workout, are about increasing fitness, strength, endurance, and power. It's a time to challenge yourself and clear your head. It's a celebration of being healthy and alive.

When you start measuring calories, you miss the point. For some, this turns into a compulsive relationship with exercise, where movement becomes penance for intake. Workouts become painful, instead of challenging, punishing instead of inspiring. For the class participants who struggle with an eating disorder or body image concerns (and yes, they are taking these classes), comments about calories can be difficult to hear and can even trigger disordered behavior.

Join me in challenging the fitness industry's focus on exercise as compensation for meals. Choose a goal for your workouts that is independent of calories burned (think goals related to speed, distance, experiencing feel-good chemicals, just getting out the door). Explain to your trainers and group fitness instructors why a focus on calories is tangential at best and harmful for many.

Exercise in peace.