The problem of calorie counters in fitness trackers

IIf you’re using a fitness tracker — or even just an exercise device at home or at the gym — what is the most noticeable metric on the screen? In most cases, it will likely be an estimate of the calories you burned. In fact, on most devices, you can’t disable calorie counting even if you want to.

However, these estimates are known to be inaccurate: One study from Stanford University School of Medicine We compared seven different wrist fitness trackers and found that bone An accurate estimate of energy expenditure (in other words, calories burned) was reduced by 27 percent. The least accurate was a staggering 93 percent. The researchers concluded that none of the devices provided estimates of energy expenditure “within an acceptable error range”.

This wouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows the truth about calorie counts. Food labels that tell you how many calories are in packaged foods? These are also seriously unreliable, as they depend on averages Don’t take into account how our bodies digest different foods. However, they are closer than calorie burn estimates: Food and Drug Administration only Inaccuracy is allowed up to 20 percent.

If these numbers are essentially meaningless, how did we come to accept them as a standard? And why do they seem to have this power over every new piece of convenient technology that is launched?

How calorie counting captured our brains

Calorie counting dates back to the 19th century, which is very strange. Calories Found as a measure of energy Since the 1820s, it was not originally used to measure anything in the human body. This was until 1896, when researcher Wilbur O. Atwater Put a graduate student inside a calorimeter, a device designed to measure the energy generated by explosives and engines. The machine measured everything the student ate and its energy output, showing that human bodies absorb and excrete energy like machines or bombs (yikes).

However, counting calories for weight loss did not become popular until two decades later. It happened in 1918, when doctor and newspaper columnist Lulu Hunt Peters put together a book called Diet and health: with the calorie key.

It goes without saying that our understanding of the human body has advanced a lot since 1918. We know, for example, that the nutritional value of food goes beyond simply estimating the number of calories you eat. may be suck it up. And the many health benefits of exercise aren’t just reflected in one number.

“People need to understand that these calorie counters are built on algorithms, and that your body is not an algorithm,” says Keri O’Grady, National Health Liaison Officer with National Eating Disorders Association. Different bodies absorb and burn calories differently (and they obviously need more than just calories). “The more we buy these numbers, the more we’ll stop listening to our bodies.”

“Calories are built on algorithms, and your body is not an algorithm.” – Keri O’Grady

For her, it’s personal. “I lived through this,” she says. “I almost died of anorexia in my early twenties. I can’t use a tracker because it’s too exciting for me.”

This is not strange. Experts usually suggest that anyone with a history of eating disorders, orthotics, or obsessive habits about exercise and nutrition steer clear of fitness trackers. Even those without such a history may find that tracers make healthy habits less fulfilling. “Measuring it all takes away so much joy about movement and food,” says a personal trainer. Lauren Buck. “It makes exercise and eating as medical as it is to work.”

Some of us can look at the calorie count and ignore it, but many people are affected more than they realize. “I think the hardest part about breaking up with calorie counting is that a lot of us who have some experience with this might be able to stop tracking, but calorie data lives rent-free in our brains,” Jesse HagertyRDN, Intuitive Eating Consultant and Personal Trainer. For example, if you feel like you’re not allowed to “indulge” in certain foods on the days you haven’t exercised, you may not have done the exact math, but you’re still thinking about nutrition and exercise in a way in the form of calorie counting.

And that idea you have of how many calories you need in a day? This may be a mistake, he says Rina ElizarDPT, physical therapist, athletic performance coach, and competitive weightlifter. “In almost all areas, the athletes I work with have this delusion about how many calories they are exhaling, and they are usually undereating,” she says.

double-edged sword

Wearables and connected devices can help some people stay consistent with their exercise routine and remind them of their goals. Some of the data that trackers collect can be useful. For example, heart rate information can help highlight exercise intensity and monitor safety for some people with chronic health conditions. Other metrics, such as heart rate variability, can do just that give you useful information About how well you manage physical and mental stress.

But calorie spread depends on fitness trackers diet culture It’s hard to escape. “What’s helpful and not helpful depends a lot on the person,” Buck says. “You should be able to choose what you want to track. It should not be assumed that people have a weight loss goal associated with fitness endeavors.” With some systems, you can work your way out of your calorie count by not entering your weight; Others will continue to display a (fake) number of calories by sub-classifying your “average” weight automatically.

Simply counting calories isn’t a good way to know what your body needs, says Haggerty, and can cause you to restrict what you eat in a way that quickly becomes unhealthy. She says the only situation where calorie tracking might be helpful is for people who struggle to eat enough to keep up with their training, a common problem among endurance athletes. “However, there are ways to do this that don’t require tracking,” she says. If you’re having trouble figuring out what or how much you need to eat, Hagerti suggests working with a counter diet or… Health in every sizeNutritionist. A good rule of thumb for people who train hard, she says, is to aim for three meals and three snacks each day, and eat within an hour of your workout.

So why do digital devices still contain calories?

Most of the digital fitness companies contacted regarding this story did not want to comment on the record, although some confirmed that they see consumer demand for calorie burn estimates. “They are everywhere because people want them,” O’Grady says. If the market didn’t ask for them, they wouldn’t be there. Although many people know these numbers are inaccurate, they would be upset if they were removed. That’s what these tech companies rely on. They want you to have something to do with that number.”

Diet culture is so deeply ingrained in so many of us that we can’t mentally separate calories and exercise—even when we know better.

So, does that mean you need to disconnect from your fitness tracker? If you find that you pay more attention to the numbers on the screen than to what your body actually feels, maybe. “You can largely measure how well your nutrition is based on how you feel in the gym,” Elizar says. If you are tired during each exercise, this is a sign that something needs to change, and it is very likely that you need to eat more. Trust this feel of your body on any tracker.

And even if you’re intent on keeping track of your workouts, don’t underestimate the benefits of going analog. You can always use an old-school pedometer to count your steps, or grab a stopwatch to time your periods, for example. “I think just writing down the details of your exercise is great,” Buck says. Then you can track your progress from week to week. This week I probably did 3 sets of 10 squats with a weight of 25 pounds, and next week I did 3 sets of 10 with a 30-pound weight. This is great progress.”

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