This morning on Instagram I shared a photo of my workout statistics as an experiment. The photo was a screenshot of the data collected by my WHOOP band and included: Calories burned, Average workout HR, Max HR, and Workout Duration. I indicated on the post that the only stats I cared about were the HR values, as these are true measures of fitness and health that I can use to track my individual performance. Unfortunately, I received more messages in the first 20 minutes of posting the image than any other image I’ve shared on my IG story to date. Here is a summary of some of the comments:
“Why don’t the calories matter”
“If you don’t care about the calorie count, how do you determine your macros?”
“Calories are important to roughly determine what your caloric intake should be”—> Please note that I agree with this comment in the case of athletes and those burning very high numbers of calories each day. More on this below.
Comments such as these shed light on a very serious issue that I believe is getting out of hand- people are moving, training, and working out solely to achieve a certain number on a calorie counter or a specified number of steps. No attention is paid to proper movement patterns, strength development, building the mind-body connection, decreasing body fat naturally, maintaining ambulation throughout life, increasing and/or maintaining bone density or optimizing one’s mental health, just to name a few. Physical activity, fitness and movement is a pillar of optimal health and longevity. Yes, physical activity burns calories (some forms more than others) and that is certainly an added benefit to your health, but when a specific calorie number becomes the sole focus and reason for your workout, it’s gone entirely too far.
I am not shaming wearable technology, in fact, I use data from WHOOP to track my sleep patterns, HR variability, and my HR trends across different workouts. This allows me to determine my body’s state of recovery and work to improve my overall fitness level and performance. I have workout buddies who video all of their workouts to examine movement patterns and use the footage to identify their weaknesses. Again, this data and information is helpful for athletes and fitness enthusiasts looking to improve their fitness, function, and ultimately their health.
With this said, I ask the question, what does “calories burned” do for you? Does it help you move better? No. Does it increase the efficiency and productivity of your heart and blood vessels? No. Does it provide you with real time data that relates to your performance, recovery or health? This is where things get a bit complicated and my answer would be “sort of”. Really the only situation in which I find any value at all in calorie counts is in the case of athletes or those that need to gauge caloric need. For example, if you are a marathon runner or high level athlete burning insane numbers of calories daily, you will need to account for that in your meals in order to maintain optimal health and biological function. This relates to one’s health, so it is a useful tool that when applied properly can improve performance and longevity.
However, looking at the general fitness population paints a much different picture-Individuals checking their wearables while running, spinning with their app’s open on their phones and worse, young people stressing so much about their daily calorie burn that they refuse to eat until the number is reached. The accumulated stress this causes is not healthy, it’s terrifying and most likely contributing to worse health through chronic stress. Perfectly good people are obsessing over the calorie number and refusing to stop until they achieve their “goal”. To this, I beg you to set new goals. Be thankful that you can move and work to improve how you do so. If you want to improve your fitness, work your ass off in the gym, on the bike, or on the road.
If aesthetics is what you’re after, work on improving your diet in conjunction with optimizing your exercise routine. Trust me, implementing some more HIIT training or heavy resistance training will prove much more beneficial than burning an additionally 12 calories on the treadmill. Yes, use the calorie number as a general guide, but don’t obsess over it and use the value to guide your workouts. Perhaps most importantly, make an effort to enjoy every last minute you have being able to move, lift, run, jump, swim, or whatever other type of training you engage in. Lastly, I want to make it clear that I am not completely against using the calorie value as a means for estimating caloric (albeit usually quite inaccurately) need but I am certainly against the neuroticism that often comes with it as an unintended consequence.