Coming to the end of a challenging spin class, our instructor walked us through the readouts on the gym's new bike consoles.
"Now look down at the most important number on your console: the calories."
As a fitness professional, I think the most important number on the bike console is the watts, how much power generated during the workout, followed second by miles, how much (albeit fake) distance traversed. Calories? Eh.
The calories listed on any workout machine are grossly inaccurate. The instructor completely missed the boat on this one, stating that the caloric reading was accurate, independent of height and weight and other individual variables. Not so. Calories burned during a workout are a reflection of the energy used by the heart and muscles, and each person uses a different amount of energy to complete a workout. If you're less fit, you'll burn more calories at the same level of work than your marathoner friend. Your heart rate can typically predict caloric output, but unless you're wearing a heart rate monitor, this measure on cardio machines is inaccurate, too.
The instructor then went through a crowd-rousing competition. "Who burned more than 400 calories? 500? 600? 700?" Participants cheered out in celebration of their (inaccurate) caloric burn.
As a psychologist, I think there is no number tied to a successful workout. My biggest gripe with this ending to a positive and inspiring class is that, even if the readout were 100% accurate, it doesn't matter how many calories you burned. Spinning classes, like any workout, are about increasing fitness, strength, endurance, and power. It's a time to challenge yourself and clear your head. It's a celebration of being healthy and alive.
When you start measuring calories, you miss the point. For some, this turns into a compulsive relationship with exercise, where movement becomes penance for intake. Workouts become painful, instead of challenging, punishing instead of inspiring. For the class participants who struggle with an eating disorder or body image concerns (and yes, they are taking these classes), comments about calories can be difficult to hear and can even trigger disordered behavior.
Join me in challenging the fitness industry's focus on exercise as compensation for meals. Choose a goal for your workouts that is independent of calories burned (think goals related to speed, distance, experiencing feel-good chemicals, just getting out the door). Explain to your trainers and group fitness instructors why a focus on calories is tangential at best and harmful for many.
I just returned from the International Conference on Eating Disorders and was thrilled to connect with like-minded colleagues and learn the latest on eating-disorder and body-image research.
The keynote speaker was Frank Bruni, current Op-Ed columnist and past restaurant critic for the New York Times. Bruni, a heavy child, spoke about his history with dieting, weight stigma, and ultimately, an eating disorder, as he began purging as a way to compensate for eating off-diet foods. Here are a few things Bruni found useful in his recovery:
1) Recognizing that he's not built to be a skinny man and accepting that he has a larger appetite than others
2) Becoming obsessed with food quality rather than quantity - thus his parlay into food criticism
3) Refusing to cast eating behavior as a measure of willpower or character
4) Getting bothered by how much time he was spending on food obsession and how ultimately boring an endeavor this was
Here's a picture of the Academy's social media committee and frequent tweeters, who passed along tons of good content throughout the event:
If you want to read ALL our tweets (it's as if you were there!), check out #ICED2014 on Twubs.
My favorite event was a plenary entitled, "Adolescents and the Media: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly."
So, long story short, the media doesn't cause eating disorders, but the 10-plus hours a day (reported by Mediatrician, Dr. Michael Rich) of media that teens are currently consuming certainly don't help. Eating disorders are complicated illnesses with various causal factors. Sociocultural influences can trigger eating disorders in those biologically/genetically susceptible, as well as disordered thought patterns and behaviors in the general population (which, as research shows, can sometimes morph into clinical pathology). We saw several examples of this in our plenary.
Kristina Saffran, a 21-year-old Harvard student wowed a roomful of 1000+ professionals with her inspiring talk about recovery and the birth of her nonprofit. Saffran is co-founder of Project Heal, an organization designed to increase awareness about eating disorders, as well as access to treatment - the foundation offers scholarships to those who don't have the means to finance treatment themselves. Part of Saffran's motivation to create Project Heal occurred out of her use of social media in her own recovery - what she found as she attempted to connect with others recovering online was a host of triggering images, updates, and comments. Saffran wanted to establish a space that was more recovery-oriented for those leaving treatment and needing ongoing, positive support.
Anne Becker, an anthropologist and psychologist who conducted the classic Fiji study, also spoke at this event. The Fiji study demonstrated the significant influence of media access on disordered eating and body-image disturbances. In a three-year period during which Fijian subjects first got access to television, the island nation witnessed rapid decreases in body image measures among teens, and researchers also documented a substantial increase in purging to manage weight among these same girls.
Phillippa Diedrichs, a health psychology researcher, spoke about some increasing efforts toward diversity in modeling/advertising (which still have ways to go), and discussed research around Photo-shopping/retouching on body image. My favorite point from her? We can "become the media" through our informed and relentless use of social media.
So, let's use this as a call to action and just as Saffran has done, and as I've attempted to do with this blog, find a way to use media actively and responsibly. We can counter the hoards of pernicious content available today by offering healthy, positive alternatives. Be active on social media to change the climate. We need your help.
A recent study suggested that high levels of Facebook use are associated with an increased risk for eating disorders. The study, out of Florida State University, was published in a recent issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders. Why is it that spending more time on Facebook could increase disordered eating? Check out some of my theories here. Can you think of any others? Still, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Facebook, and other forms of social media, can be used for good, too. Body image/eating disorder warrior Claire Mysko makes the case for social media as a advocacy tool in a response article here. As Mysko writes: "Social media can stoke body dissatisfaction and reinforce disordered eating. It can also empower individuals to use their voices and resist mainstream media messages about beauty and thinness. Let's keep working to understand the nuances of those risks and leverage the benefits to build a movement of change." So, as with most other concepts, Facebook is neither all good nor all bad when it comes to eating disorders. If you find that your Facebook use is resulting in destructive thoughts and behaviors, it might be time to scale back your use. You might also choose to like some body positive sites to counteract the hoards of other posts and advertisements celebrating restrictive eating, overexercising, and the thin ideal that make their way across your feed each day.
You might think that in writing this blog, I think that only women are afflicted with eating disorders. Not so.
The reality is that men, too, suffer from eating disorder and body image problems, and they seem to be closing the gap in the gender discrepancy we previously knew - or thought we knew.
A number of people and organizations are getting loud about the problem in eating disorders in men. One is Sam Thomas, the founder of director of Men Get Eating Disorders Too, a UK-based charity designed to raise awareness and provide support to men with eating disorders.
Recently, Thomas wrote an article* dedicated to Jeremy Gillitzer, whom he credits as helping him inspire him to found his organization. In the article, Thomas mentions that Gillitzer lost his life to his eating disorder (in 2010 at age 38).
Reading this article struck me like a ton of bricks. I remember Jeremy posting in these circles back in my early blogging days. I remember reading his story and seeing his pictures and, to be one hundred percent honest, thinking to myself, "This guy is going to die." And sadly, he did. I disclose this with a sense of helplessness and regret that none of us were able to bolster Jeremy in fighting this disease.
So, be clear, as Thomas says, men get eating disorders, too. They may not get treatment as frequently or quickly as women because of the shame associated with having a traditionally "female" disorder and because they fly under the radar of professionals and the world around them, but it is imperative that we support and take action on behalf of all of our brothers in need.
*Note: There is a picture of Jeremy at the bottom of the article (in his illness) that may be triggering and/or difficult to view.
On a beach walk one morning, two groups of children caught my eye. The first was a group of boys, with a fairly large age range, maybe 6-16. They were little surfers, hitting the morning Pacific waves with spirited tries.
Next I came across a smaller group of tween girls participating in a makeshift photo shoot. Clad in cute tops and short shorts, hair and make-up done, they jumped in the air and splashed in the surf, flirting with the photographer, while the sand-mounted camera flickered away.
Encountering these two groups of kids cemented for me how differently we socialize our children to be in this world. We tell our sons to be active and have fun, our daughters to look flirty and be cute. Boys are taught to do; girls are taught to be. And it's not surprising that so many girls grow up to have body image and self-esteem concerns, as we all but coach them to equate their identity with their appearance.
But each one of us can do something about this now. If you have a daughter or niece or favorite little girl in your life, teach her to surf. Teach her to climb trees, sing loud, ride bikes, chase the moon, and get dirty on a Sunday afternoon. Teach her that she's capable of doing and learning and being a presence, rather than just an image, in this world. She might cast a glance at a camera every once in a while, but she'll be too busy to look for long.