- Fitness Tips -

STRONG BODY, STRONG MIND: Out With Earn-and-Burn

Our fitness editor challenges the mindset of exercise as a way to “burn off” your last meal.

Woman running

This is Experience Life’s annual food issue, filled to the brim with beautiful images, recipes, and ideas regarding what to eat next. As we put the finishing touches on the issue, I can’t help but wonder how many of you, dear readers, are turning to the fitness section for guidance on “earning” these meals, or “burning” them off.

I wonder this because, for many years, it’s exactly what I did. Every meal began with a count: of calories, of Weight Watchers points, of macronutrients down to the gram.

Every meal also began with a plan: when and how I would work out to offset each number.

You see, I was convinced I either had to “earn” my food, perhaps with a preemptive workout before I ate, or “burn off” my consumption after the fact. Some days involved a combination of the two. I bookended many special occasions with workouts, only to make up an excuse for why I wasn’t eating anyway. (Often, it was easier not to eat at events, or to eat only what I prepared myself.)

I did this for weight loss — a goal I had conflated with good health. My very survival, I believed, depended on erasing what I ate through exercise.

Back then, I would not have opened the food issue of a magazine like this one without looking for workouts to offset calories and carbs. I would have been frustrated by the lack of nutritional information. (To learn why we don’t include calorie counts, visit “Beyond Calorie Counting”.)

More than likely, I would have taken the magazine with me to the gym and stared, with longing and shame, at the food photos while sweating on the treadmill. Even in my imagination, earn-and-burn.

Cut-to-the-Chase Point No. 1: The workouts in this issue are not designed with earn-and-burn in mind. None of our workouts ever is or ever will be.

Cut-to-the-Chase Point No. 2: I don’t do that disordered earn-and-burn math anymore, though I still struggle with the voice that says I should.

It was a hard truth for me to swallow, but it’s true nonetheless: Exercise does not exist to negate what we put in our mouths.

Companies have made billions of dollars by proliferating two problematic beliefs. One, that exercise is valuable only insofar as it can “undo” eating and reshape the body. And two, that larger bodies are unhealthy bodies. The combined result is a loss of joy and purpose around eating and moving, as well as a stigma against living life as a “fat” person.

It has taken a conscious effort to face my own fat phobia and ableism, and to call myself out for finding motivation in fear and shame. A large part of that work has involved separating eating and moving as distinct aspects of my life.

Just as important, I began to surround myself — in person and online — with voices that helped me expand my understanding of not only health, fitness, and beauty but also what it means to act with humanity toward ourselves and others.

I am still learning, making mistakes, and reexamining my beliefs around food, exercise, weight, and more on a daily basis. But I feel confident about two things: I don’t need exercise to justify what I eat, nor do I need to rely on food choices to justify my existence.

I once wielded food and exercise as weapons in my quest to be healthy, to be thin, to be good. I took up those weapons against myself — and also against others in judgments I didn’t know I was making. Earn-and-burn is a violent approach that pillages body, mind, and society for a “greater good” that moralizes health, size, and ability (or, put another way, that demonizes bodies with health challenges, and fat bodies, and bodies with disabilities).

Today, I eat for many reasons and move for many reasons. For fuel, for energy, for recovery. For physical and mental health, and for cognitive function. For fun! For the simple joy of eating, and for the delight of moving.

Even, dare I say, for no good reason at all.

This originally appeared as “Out With Earn-and-Burn” in the May 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

is an Experience Life senior editor and Alpha Strong coach at Life Time.

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