How Many Calories Do You Burn with Exercise? And Why it is a Waste of Time to Think About it.

IMG_7743That’s my bike. My husband was away for a week, and with nothing much to do after work, I decided to take advantage of a half day, warm weather, and Fall in New England. I planned to take a spin on my bike on a great bike trail near where we live in Connecticut. I packed my camera and a water bottle, threw my bike in the back of my Subaru, drove a few towns over, parked, and started my adventure. Because it was a weekday and early afternoon, I was alone on the trail. The trail winds through several rural towns with corn fields and rolling hills with trees bursting with color everywhere I looked. I was beside myself with joy. I was out there for 2 hours, but had stopped a dozen times to snap pictures. One of a duck on a pond where the reflection of him and the trees around looked like a mirror. Another of hay rolled up alongside a field where a farmer was working. It all was absolutely magnificent.

Back in the day, I used to bike very differently. I use to wear those black padded shorts and have bike shoes (I still have them) that clipped onto the pedals so that you could be more efficient and pull your pedal up as well as push down (easier to cover more miles that way). I would do a route during the week that was 20 or 30 miles, with weekend rides that were 50 to 100 miles. It was actually pretty fun, and very meditative.

But now, things have changed. My husband loves the bike trails, and loves to be active, but the first time I biked with him, we stopped many times for tag sales, ice cream, wine tasting, you name it. With those bike shoes clipped onto the pedal, I almost killed myself! I finally put on regular pedals and wear sneakers. I transitioned into a typical biker who just has fun. I love it, too.

To me, except for that extreme road biking where destinations far away were the goal, I have always looked at exercise in a different way than the “diet mentality” would have you look at it. Actually, even with the biking, I really enjoyed myself. It was fun. There was never any connection to eating (although, when I ran out of energy, I often stopped for ice cream, which is a great and fast way to refuel when you are on the road like that).

Today, what I see is treadmills and stationary bicycles in gyms that tell you how many calories you are burning (FYI-do you really think a machine can predict that? Even if it knows your sex and weight, it does not know your dieting history, or your muscle mass, which greatly affects your metabolism). I hear people talk about how they can eat something because they are going to “burn it up” at the gym. At work, when I look for nutrition education materials, I cringe. Just today, I was looking for a colorful and simple handout to teach about healthy drinks for a class I was teaching this morning, and what I found was a handout on the sugar content of certain drinks (ok to educate yourself). BUT it then spelled out how many minutes of walking it would take to burn up the calories! Seriously? I did not use it.

Did you know that exercising after eating with the specific goal to burn the calories is sometimes referred to as “purging with exercise’? It is not psychologically healthy. It is a disordered way of looking at what should be something you do because it is good for your body and also enjoyable.

Are you someone who looks at calories and then tries to figure out what you have to do to burn it up? That is so NOT FUN and also not helpful when it comes to the real reasons we exercise.

First of all, I want to ditch the word “exercise” because people have negative feelings toward that word (I know because I have asked every person who has attended any weight management class I have ever taught). When I ask what the first thing they think when they hear the word “exercise” people say: pain, tired, boring, hate it…..So instead, I like “physical activity”. Or PA for short. PA can be anything and that is why I like it. It can be walking with a friend, it can be going out dancing. It can be hoola hooping. It can be cleaning all day long or mowing the lawn or moving furniture.

We all need PA on a regular basis because that is what our bodies like and need to not only feel good but also to work better. When we move daily we sleep better, we are better able to regulate our appetites (our chemical messengers work better), we release endorphins so our mood is better, and it is easier to deal with stress. We get stronger so that if we fall down, it is easier to get up (or we can help move things, like furniture).  We are more likely to have a normal blood pressure, our “good” cholesterol (HDL-high density lipoprotein) is more likely to be high (which is what we want since HDL is protective). We get skills (such as being good at volleyball or basketball, or being the best dancer, or the best hoola-hooper like I am) and being good at something is very good for your self-esteem.

So, yes, being active is very important for our health, how we feel about ourselves, and our energy level. But, there is absolutely no benefit to knowing how many calories you burn. In fact, if that is what you are focusing on, your are likely to be miserable and eventually hate physical activity. I have found that people who do this (focus on burning calories to lose weight) tend to give up. They tend to stop “exercising” at the same time they “blow their diet”. So if you link physical activity with calories or dieting, you will miss out on all the fun things in life that keep both your mind and body healthy.

Do you think you can let go for even one day of thinking about moving as a way to burn calories? You don’t have to make an “all-or-nothing” decision. Instead, why not experiment with looking at moving in a fun way (something you enjoy) instead of a way to burn calories or lose weight, even for one day (maybe a Saturday when you might have more time?). See how you feel. Then the next time you go to a gym, or look at some device that tells you how many calories you are burning, just say “You don’t know me!” And go enjoy a fun day of moving….IMG_7748 IMG_7738 IMG_7707

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