Stop seeing exercise as calories burned

Chances are you’ve seen something like this in a magazine. You need to do x number/minutes of [insert exercise] to burn off that chocolate bar/burger/cocktail. The preoccupation with weight loss, even in people of a healthy weight, in today’s world, has led to nutrition and exercise being reduced to a simple sum: calories in vs calories out. And it’s endemic. I hear so many people talking about how many calories they’ve burned on the cross trainer or in spin class (which is probably way off beam in any case, unless they’ve been wearing a heart rate monitor).

Seeing exercise in this way is problematic on a number of levels. First of all, the benefits of exercise extend way beyond how much energy it utilises. Just by doing exercise at all, you’ll be extending your life and improving your health. But if you’re choosing lengthy cardio sessions to burn as many calories as possible, then you’re missing out on the many benefits of resistance training, which, as it happens, will be way more effective in achieving the physique you want in any case.

Of course, cardiovascular exercise has benefits. Improving your aerobic fitness is an important part of keeping healthy, and, yes, it can help you to manage your weight. But unless you’re training for an endurance event, there’s no need to be notching up sessions of more than 30 minutes, or for those sessions to be super-intense. Free up some time to do strength and flexibility training so that you can reap the benefits across the exercise spectrum.

This way of thinking also leads to a distorted view of food and eating. It starts from the premise that calories are the enemy, and if you consume them you must nullify them and bring the balance sheet back to 0. It implies that you either have to earn the right to eat by exercising, or that eating must be punished, or balanced out, by burning off the calories. The fact of the matter is that we actually need food to live, we need calories to live. There’s no need to atone for a snack.

Food and exercise should both be enjoyable, not guilt-ridden and punitive. Reducing exercise to calories burned takes the pleasure out of it and negates to acknowledge its far reaching benefits.