Did you know that it takes 1 hour of walking to burn off 4 pieces of dark chocolate? Knowing that, would it make you feel guilty for eating it? How do you see chocolate now? A guilty pleasure? A treat that needs to be counter-acted with 1 hour of walking or 25 minutes of running?
In the past week I have seen two examples of this sort of information shared from fitness professionals. I understand why they might see it as an effective piece of information. Attributing a set amount of activity to burn off a particular food creates a sense of doubt when someone goes to eat said food. When the client – or individual attempting to change their diet – is faced with a scenario of eating the chocolate, the new information can now trigger the following thoughts: “Is eating this chocolate really going to be worth having to walk 1 hour for? What if I eat 3 rows? There’s no way I could possibly walk for 3 hours. I’m not eating it. Come on, stay strong.”
Success. The individual has mustered the will-power to say no to the chocolate with their new information. But what if motivation is low? What if stress is high, their will-power is sapped and they give in to eating the chocolate? What thoughts now enter their mind due to this new piece of information? The following is speculative, but I have seen enough to suggest these thoughts aren’t uncommon: “I can’t believe I gave in. If I don’t go burn it off it’s going to turn into fat. Why did I do it? I have no self-discipline”.
This is dangerous territory. Working out in an attempt to burn off a particular snack or meal eaten earlier is a sign of disordered eating. And I would argue that educating people to think like such is fostering a harmful relationship with food. An individual might find it empowering whilst they can stick to their rigid plan. But as soon as a lapse occurs, it’s anything but empowering. It does nothing but create guilt and self-loathing.
Is it even true?
The above argument assumes that the statement is even true in the first place. Does it really take 1 hour of walking to burn off 4 pieces of chocolate? Fat loss isn’t a matter of simply mathematics. Exercising burns energy. This is true. But walking for 1 hour doesn’t simply burn of a particular amount of food you’ve eaten. Countless variables determine how many calories you burn in a day. In fact, physical activity generally doesn’t contribute more than 20% of total daily energy expenditure (which is about the same as what your brain contributes). This doesn’t even take into account the complexity of turning the chocolate into available energy, the effect exercise can have on basal metabolic rate, or the wonderful effects of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC – which isn’t applicable to walking but still worthy of note).
Total daily energy expenditure should be the focus, as should total daily energy intake from food. If that intake is balanced, nutritious, slightly less than expenditure and still contains 4 pieces of chocolate, then fat loss will generally still occur. So how about representing the information as follows: walking for one hour will increase energy expenditure by approximately “x” calories. 4 pieces of chocolate contains “x” calories, of which your particular daily target is “x”. If the chocolate fits, eat the chocolate and don’t be guilty for doing so. An individuals relationship with food will have a huge impact on their adherence to dietary changes. Likewise for exercise; physical activity shouldn’t be framed as a chore to burn calories. It should be seen as a positive activity that improves fitness, health and feelings of wellness.
And if we’re playing the game by the rules of the other fitness professionals who spread the initial message, then how about I propose the following: ‘Sleeping for three hours will burn 4 pieces of dark chocolate’. Could you be bothered to sleep for three hours? Would the guilt still be there? Go ahead and eat the f***cking chocolate….