Once upon a time, there was a vapid cookie-cutter gym, the kind I hate, featuring long rows of matching equipment. Within the far-flung line of bikes was a barely noticeable exception among its cohorts. This subtle outlier was the same make and model as its neighboring teammates, but something was a little off. It wasn’t broken or damaged; it was fully operational, but for some reason it had a different feel. It was conspicuously easier to use than its fellow bikes down the line. Level 3 on this bike was an easier workout than Level 3 on the other bikes, and so on and so forth.
Just like a highly addictive drug, one workout on this bike, and you were hooked. People would wait in line for this one bike, and, on occasion, there would be some pushing and shoving for the privilege of riding it. Some would even wait for this bike to open up when there were other bikes available to use. The workout may not have been the best, but it really boosted your self-esteem as you deluded yourself into thinking you were working at Level 7.
This begs the question: If Level 5 on the credible bike is too tough, why not drop down a level? And if Level 5 on the scam bike is too easy, why not go up a level? The old adage perception is reality does not apply to exercise. Perceived exertion is less valuable than actual exertion, and erroneous machine-displayed exertion is total crap.
And so why do we do it? Why do we cheat, and why do we choose to believe things that we know are not true?
I’m no stranger to foolish and irrational behavior. I, like so many other simpleminded unpunctual types, tried setting my clock ahead of the actual time. This, of course, never works. It just invites a little extra math into your life, and there’s nothing like having to figure out the real time when you’re running late. I eventually came to my senses and once again used timepieces in a proper manner. I was late, but rational.
We seem to be fixated on numbers in many areas of our lives. Everybody is looking for specific guidelines, round numbers, black and white details, and courses of action. The Ten Commandments are a tough act to follow, and they set a tricky precedent. Had Moses presented the people with the ten loose suggestions, we’d probably be a little bit less reliant on precise quantitative specifications. “I need to lose ten pounds,” not nine or eleven; ten is the magic number for ideal beauty and optimal fitness.
The caloric-expenditure display on exercise equipment is the scourge of the modern-day fitness center. Even the illustrious Peloton had a minor scandal on its hands a few years ago when the brand’s riders noticed that they began unexpectedly burning fewer calories during a typical workout. One day out of nowhere, the monitor’s readout shaved a pretty good chunk of calories from the usual tally for many people. Technically speaking, they burned the same number of calories as always during comparable rides, but the backlit electronic display showed otherwise.
Despair was afoot, and much discouragement was validated as throngs of spin devotees commiserated on the group page, wondering how similar work bouts could result in such a devaluation of calories burned, just like that. Apparently, Peloton’s regulatory commission had updated the way the company calculated calories burned by newly taking into account age, weight, height, gender, and heart rate, and for lots of people, their new measurements were less generous. Many of the up-in-arms sweaty loyalists never got the memo.
To Peloton’s credit, the company presumably corrected a miscalculation. Most companies would probably over-inflate caloric expenditure to appease their customers rather than go in the other direction and risk alienating their users with the harsh truth.
At worst, those calorie gauges are deceptive chicanery, and at best, they’re approximations based on averages. They could come from research lab calorimetry or from less reliable data points. The bottom line is that these numbers are nothing to live or die by. Elite-level athletes are tested under very exacting conditions, and these measurables are very important to assess status and/or capacity. But recreational exercise enthusiasts don’t usually have the same benefit of reliable metrics, so the numbers are more to establish general baselines.
You don’t need a high-precision scale as long as you can tell if you’re losing or gaining weight. If you have a good workout, don’t let some abstract stats convince you otherwise.
Numbers can be useful to track progress and regulate a workout’s parameters, but don’t be a slave to the numbers, especially those that aren’t necessarily reliable. We tend to chase numbers; sometimes they’re sensible goals, and other times they’re arbitrary values pulled out of thin air with no rhyme or reason. Obsessive-compulsive number watching has a way of having us lose sight of the initial purpose of the task at hand. Being overly concerned with numbers promotes cheating, as we so often see in the person not going low enough in the squat, arching the back during a heavy bench attempt, or swinging arms during dumbbell curls.
I once met with a prospective client who prided himself on doing his age in pushups on his birthday each year. If you counted the ones done properly, he would be only seven years old. My coach used to always tell me, “I’d rather see you miss a lift, doing it the right way than make it without proper technique.” That doesn’t apply to Olympic trials, but it’s spot-on for everyday training and general fitness. It’s better to walk four quality miles than to limp your way to five.
There’s nothing wrong with setting the goal of 10,000 steps a day; just realize that your body doesn’t know the difference between that and 9,999. These suggested benchmarks are often put out there in the spirit of general guidelines and ranges that presume an element of percent error, not to be carved in stone.
Let’s be honest with others and especially ourselves when noting our exercise accomplishments. My old lifting buddy Polonius put it best: “To thine own self be true.”
Certified strength and conditioning coach Norman Meltzer, the owner/operator of MW Strength and Conditioning in New Bedford, was known during his competitive weight-lifting career as “the Muscleless Wonder” for his lean, mean physique lacking in the traditional bulk associated with strength training. Meltzer’s experience and knowledge have helped pro, college, and high school athletes and teams, and even regular people improve their strength and performance.
Schvitz’n with Norm
By Norm Meltzer