Please, no food activity labels — the truth about calories and exercise is too dismal

    13 April 2016

    As a non-sporty middle-aged woman who forces myself to go to the gym twice a week, I read last week’s exercise-related news item with a shake of the head and a sigh that: the Royal Society for Public Health is suggesting that food packaging should be labelled with a diagram of a running or walking man, showing how many minutes of exercise you’ll need to do in order to burn off the contents. A packet of crisps, for example, would require 16-minute run or a 31-minute walk. A chicken and bacon sandwich would require a 42-minute run and a one-hour-and-20-minute walk.

    I fear that highlighting these stark facts would be counter-productive. They are simply too dispiriting. Anyone who regularly spends 20 minutes on the Life Fitness cross trainer, watching daytime television while working up a dripping sweat as the minutes crawl by, knows the dismal truth: all this appalling exertion, let alone having to watch Homes Under the Hammer on the screen in front of you, only burns up 120 calories, the amount in one apple plus half a banana, or in a quarter of a Frappuccino.

    I complained about this injustice to a friend of mine recently, when I came off the cross trainer, red-faced and exhausted, and saw her toiling away on the rowing machine. ‘Ysenda,’ she said, ‘it’s not about the calories.’ And I think she must be right. If it were just about the calories, we’d give up. The numbers just don’t add up in our favour.

    So, what must our motivation be, if not the mere burning of calories? Going to the gym is awful in so many ways. It’s awful because the clothes are hideous; because you have to store your handbag in a locker and put a coin into the slot for the key; because it’s the last thing you ever feel like doing; because the programmes on daytime television are so lightweight and low-budget; because the advertisements on Heart Radio are so ghastly and terms and conditions always apply; because gym exercise is actually very boring and it would be far better for your soul if you went for a walk in the woods; because the gym smells of sweat and rubber; because the headphones fall out of your ears; because the person next to you is thinner and you can see she’s doing it at Level 12 whereas you’re only on Level 8.

    But still I persevere and, in a strange way, I’m addicted. ‘WHY do you like it?’ a rather depressed non-gym-going friend asked me recently. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it makes me feel absolutely wonderful, euphoric, for about ten minutes afterwards.’ To which she replied, ‘I was hoping for rather more than ten minutes.’ She’s right. Of course we’d all like to feel euphoric for more than ten minutes. But ten minutes is better than nothing, and if you can at least touch euphoria for that brief period it gives you hope. I feel a million dollars as I walk out, post-shower, back into the real world. Far from being exhausted, I’m energised, full of joie de vivre, and come home to be very nice indeed to the dog and take her for a gentle walk. In the evening, I’m in a much better mood with the family than I would be if I’d just gone for the walk in the woods.

    My doctor tells me that exercise is good for the heart and will slow down the ageing process; and a recent study has shown that doing vigorous exercise knocks a decade off the brain age. Sometimes I’m not sure about this, as gym-going itself is such a mindless business; but I do function better as a writing, thinking, inspired being if I’ve been. Like any normal, non-sporty woman I enjoy a bowl of Kettle Chips with my evening glass of wine. If there were a diagram of an annoying running man and the words ‘16 minutes’ on the packet, I would still eat them and probably give up the gym. So, Royal Society for Public Health, please don’t go for the labelling.