Kerry O’Grady has spent 12 years recovering from an eating disorder that nearly killed her when she was 20. Now she’s working to combat toxic messages across the fitness industry, such as the infamous “turkey burn” classes marketed around Thanksgiving.
“Every time I see language, it takes me back to when I was 72 pounds,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I’m hearing that food is no longer something that keeps me alive and gives me energy — instead, it’s a transaction and it’s a negotiation I have to make.”
This time of year in particular, people are bombarded with messages of thanks as they gather with family and friends for a feast, only to be reminded by marketing emails from their local gyms, boutique fitness studios or even city government to participate in a vacation-oriented exercise class or turkey trot – with the goal of burning those extra calories.
“For years we’ve recognized that Thanksgiving is a holiday to indulge in,” says O’Grady, “so the wellness space takes advantage of that by saying whatever food you’re eating that day, that extra food needs to be burned off. It’s a calorie-dense in versus calorie-out situation.”
Any class categorized as a “turkey fire,” according to fitness pro Kendra Thomas, “will be longer and potentially more challenging” than typical programming at a specific studio or gym. “It’s expected that a food-centric holiday, such as Thanksgiving, will warrant more intense exercise,” she says.
O’Grady, a professor at Georgetown University, a publicist by trade and a wellness liaison and faculty director for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), notes that consumers need to be more discerning about the language that leads them to believe that.
“‘Over-indulgence’ is a really bad word because it’s clear medically speaking that one day of overeating won’t do anything for your harmony and your body or your metabolic cycle,” she says. “That’s just not going to happen.”
History of Mindset
The idea that calories need to be earned is a concept that goes back to ancient Greece, according to O’Grady, where food was weaponized and seen as a way to demonstrate self-control. To this day, our culture continues the rhetoric and characterizes festive occasions like Thanksgiving through the ingestion of food, she says.
It’s not far-fetched, then, to see even the seemingly healthy turkey trot tradition as a way to get people to stick to diet culture on one of the biggest holidays of the year. In 2021, Geoffrey Falkner, spokesperson for the historic Buffalo Turkey Trot, told me Runner’s World that the run is not just about fun, but is also “a way for people to do something healthy for themselves”. And, as that story noted, “While we don’t believe you should ‘earn your meal’ or ‘run off your pie,’ we do believe in balance, and turkey trotters are the calorie-burning yin to Thanksgiving dinner calories. Yang.”
How several fitness centers ran with that idea – and others decided against it
While the turkey trot has qualified Thanksgiving as the most popular day of the year for racing, according to Running USA, gyms across the country have followed suit, encouraging customers to come and work out around the holiday – these classes are often marketed. marketed as “turkey burns”. to encourage people to earn or burn the calories they will consume or have already consumed during their holiday meal.
Boutique fitness studio SLT, which combines cardio, strength, and Pilates moves, uses this logic to describe the mission of its turkey-burning classes, which are offered in the days following Thanksgiving. “It’s a cliché we all know that we tend to eat and drink a little more on and around Thanksgiving when we’re celebrating with family and friends. And the idea of the turkey burn is that before or after your holiday meal, you train a little harder and you’ll have less holiday guilt,” Amanda Freeman, founder and CEO of SLT, tells Yahoo Life. “We’re just offering our customers a way to stay healthy through this time.”
Plenty of other small gyms, gym chains including Anytime Fitness and YMCA, and studios like Peloton, which offer live and on-demand cycling, rowing, and running classes, offer similar specialized offerings that encourage customers to burn extra calories around the holidays. According to Peloton’s chief content officer Jen Cotter, the brand’s turkey roast classes are historically the most attended.
“Turkey roasting is our longest-standing tradition and has been a record-breaking live class year after year,” Cotter tells Yahoo Life, noting that Chief Instructor Robin Arzón has conducted a live turkey roasting ride every year on Thanksgiving Day since 2014, “so we continue to teach these classes every Thanksgiving Day because we know our members love them.”
O’Grady says this just demonstrates consumer power, whose willingness to participate turns into demand, confirming the trend.
“It took time and it took results for owners of fitness studios and wellness areas and gyms to think, wait a minute, someone is onto something. Someone used turkey roast, it worked really well,” explains O’Grady. to keep using these terms.”
Of course, it reflects what people have been programmed to care about most through the prevalence of diet culture. “[The fitness industry] would never have benefited from this if our culture wasn’t already obsessed with looks and being thin,” says psychiatrist Dr. Yalda Safai v Yahoo Life.
But by thinking critically about this, the consumer can ultimately put a stop to it.
“Consumers need to understand that they are empowered to make different choices, and they don’t have to deal with burning turkey. They don’t have to accept language that is harmful when they are educated about the impact these things make, because it usually doesn’t aware, what they’re doing to you,” says O’Grady. “I don’t have to sign up for Peloton’s turkey burn. I don’t have to, I can make other choices and choose to put my money elsewhere for other titles.”
Meanwhile, some gyms offer alternatives and make conscious efforts to avoid the label – and the concept.
“Rumble classes are designed to efficiently train the body and mind of our clients. That’s 365 days a year, not just for the holidays, not just as a New Year’s resolution and certainly not as a means of eating your to ‘earn,'” Noah Neiman, co-founder of Rumble Boxing, which combines cardio, strength and boxing, tells Yahoo Life. “The concept that exercise is about earning or burning calories is utterly archaic and actually extremely problematic. Exercise is about strengthening your body. It’s about making your body more resilient to life’s stressors. Connecting exercise psychologically burning calories creates a warped relationship not only with exercise, but also with eating.”
Fitness professional Thomas, a head trainer at Mind Body Project — a boutique studio that combines meditation and strength training to improve mental and physical health — says she, too, wants to change the narrative when it comes to the perceived association of fitness and food. “The ability to move our bodies and have extra time and space to clear our minds is a gift, not the number of calories we’ve burned,” she explains to Yahoo Life. “Being physically active offers more than a calorie burn. It gives us energy, keeps us physically and mentally healthier and promises a potentially longer, better life.”
While Thomas says the shift away from juxtaposing food and fitness has been “slow,” she’s one of those using their platforms to encourage people to think differently about exercise and disconnect it from their food.
Liz Lindenmeier, who founded Lit&Lean — a program she calls a “nightlife-inspired sculpting workout” — added to this conversation with an Instagram post last Thanksgiving when she encouraged her community to be happy and thankful without guilt. shame or self-criticism.
“We don’t talk enough in the fitness industry about how food and vacations can be very triggering for those recovering from or still treating/developing ED,” she wrote. “Please avoid negative comments about others or even thoughts about yourself. For years I hated this holiday because I was terrified of sitting around a table and eating food in front of people, all the while counting calories in my head and then out trying to figure out how to get off the table as quickly as possible.
Some are more vulnerable than others
While not everyone struggles with or recovers from an eating disorder, O’Grady claims that nearly all people can fall prey to the industry’s toxic marketing. “Most of the population has a problem with body dysmorphia, orthorexia, or eating disorder, or, I would say, an undiagnosed eating disorder and look at aspirational body types, and think that’s normal,” she says. “When you read these things, and you start looking at ads and PR campaigns that are all about turkey roast or your ‘summer body,’ you really start looking at yourself critically. How can you not?”
Safai echoes that sentiment by assuring that “words matter and have the ability to subconsciously influence our behavior,” whether you believe your relationship with fitness and food is faulty or not.
None of this is to say you shouldn’t participate in a workout around the holiday season — but think critically about how that workout will make you feel and what impact it will have on your experience around the Thanksgiving table, experts point out. .
As Soto says, “Do what’s best for your mental health that day.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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