Calories Burned is Not a Training Measure

After finishing their work with me on an off-season strength training program, three of my kids decided to try out the various cardio machines at the gym.  For them, it was big fun propelling themselves quickly through space on an elliptical and discovering that they could play solitaire on the screen of the treadmill while walking or running … or skipping.  They were having a blast and were asking to come back again the next day.

After a few minutes, they excitedly reported back to me about their progress on the machines: “Mom!  I’ve burned 50 calories!”  Little internal groan and a feeling of deflation on my part.  I knew they were proud of their efforts and I wanted them to be, but seriously?  12 year old kids talking calories burned?  “OK, … ” I said, nodding, “but I don’t care about the calories.  How fast are you going?  How much distance have you covered?  How much fun are you having?”

I talk to my kids about moving more weight and doing more reps and sets, about gaining strength.  I talk to them about moving more quickly, setting a faster pace, and going a further distance.  I talk to them about giving a solid effort and becoming a little more capable each time they work.  I talk to them about training.

But that’s not what a big piece of our exercise culture is teaching them.  The most easily accessible feedback for them from the machines was a calorie measure, a measure of what they had lost through exercise, not what they had gained through training.  Yes, weight management and creating a calorie deficit is an important piece for many people, but it should not be the centerpiece.  By establishing a focus on training gains, rather than calorie losses, we recalibrate the exercise experience and our relationship with food.  Doing so encourages long-term participation in a process and fosters a greater sense of confidence, accomplishment, and joy.  We owe it to our kids to help them reframe exercise as training and to think of nutritious food as more than just calories that need burning.  We owe it to ourselves too.

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