In a city with an ever-increasing concern for health and fitness, there is ample opportunity to target the “pro-health” consumer market. And in New York, a city where keeping up with the latest trends is a must, not only are diet and exercise products gaining momentum, but fitness events, clubs, and races are as well. Because the competition is so stiff, creators of such events have had to get, well, creative.
Consider, for example, the NYC Pizza Run, an annual event in which participants run for 2.25 miles while stopping to eat pizza at designated points throughout the course. This run operates on the notion that one will burn what one eats along the way. Then there's Buns n' Biscuits, a “boot camp” fitness class that happens every Saturday along the Hudson River. As the name implies, it's a two-part activity. Participants first work out, then binge on a brunch of pancakes and French toast.
New York is not an outlier in this trend of pairing exercise with food. In Chicago, the Hot Chocolate 15K encourages runners to gorge themselves on hot chocolate, chocolate fondue, and other chocolate treats upon the completion of the race. But are these races truly fulfilling their purpose of promoting a healthy lifestyle?
It is true that these activities might be effective in fundraising, and are undoubtedly fun. But there may be some negative side effects of these events; many argue that they are not physically or psychologically healthy. Though they seemingly advocate the idea of having a “balanced” life in which exercise and eating go hand in hand, there is some obvious irony in the idea of a workout coupled with a meal bereft of any health benefits.
I ran into a group of yoga instructors who happened to be discussing their experience at Buns n' Biscuits earlier in the morning. Janett Lee, a Bikram yoga instructor in SoHo, expressed ambivalence: “Sure it was fun, and I did definitely enjoy the strawberry French toast ... but I'm not sure if the whole idea about working out to cancel out what you ate is a good thing.” What's more, “I think that the Pizza Run is just gross.” In addition to being slightly nauseating, it's “not healthy. Eating during a workout prevents more freshly oxygenated blood to flow into your muscles.”
Lee's co-worker, Eric Greene, a yoga/health instructor, added, “Personally, I don't think [these activities] support the idea of a balanced life. You shouldn't work out so that you can eat. You should be working out for your health and to feel good about your body.” He agrees with Lee that eating during workouts can have adverse effects: “It will probably make most oxygen be used as energy in your digestive system and not for your muscles, where you want the most oxygen. And do not eat high-sugar or high-fat foods after working out if you want to be leading the well-being life at all.” Greene sees these workouts as out of line with the general formula for good health. “If you're really hungry but want to get lean, it's simple: Eat healthy and don't snack late at night!”
As Lee and Greene kindly hinted, there is an all-too popular attitude that one can indulge in anything one wants as long as he or she exercises and burns the calories off. For instance, Emily Moss, a regular attendee at Buns n' Biscuits, justified her indulging in delicious treats in an interview with the New York Post: “I typically go to brunch anyway, so why not get in a workout?” However, the workouts do not necessarily “undo” the food.
These food-themed races or workouts, in fact, often result in a net gain of calories. In the NYC Cupcake Run, a 3.1-mile race in which runners consume three cupcakes, the calories consumed add up to 720, while the average calories burned only amount to 330, according to an article in the New York Post. If you consume the French toast brunch option at Buns n' Biscuits, your net gain will be approximately 240 calories. While these races encourage participants with the slogan “burn it to earn it,” it seems that's not entirely possible. Regulars to Buns n' Biscuits with an average metabolism, unfortunately, can expect to gain pounds.
Most aren't regulars, though, and we know a few extra calories here and there won't do much of anything to our resilient human bodies. But another issue lies in these events' possible psychological effect. By providing treats upon completion of a workout (or part of a workout), they establish food as a reward and motivator. Although in the short term this reward system might fuel more people to work out, its continued application could be detrimental. According to the Journal of Neuroscience, “There is a very strong relationship between food and your brain, and when it goes wrong, the results can be devastating.” The journal discusses a few of these consequences: “Anorexia, where there is distorted body perception, huge fear of weight gain, food restriction so severe it can kill [and] on the opposite end, binge eating, uncontrollable eating that people are unable to stop, despite health consequences and social stigma.”
In order to get more specific information on this theory, I talked to Rachel Kim, a Columbia College student and supporting member of Choosing Healthy and Active Lifestyles for Kids, an organization formed by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Ambulatory Care Network and Columbia University Medical Center's child and adolescent health division. Kim maintains that the use of food as a reward is not the key to a healthy, balanced lifestyle, explaining, “In these events, the food becomes the reward, and the type of food they offer isn't even healthy. They are sweets and unhealthy carbs.” In turn, “When you use this type of food as rewards, or even as penalties you often open the gateway to overeating high-sugar, fattening foods.” Kim explains that “establishing this reward system with food can obstruct our ability to control our appetites, and thus can incite us to eat even when we are not hungry just to feel the satisfaction from rewarding oneself. And this applies to not only kids, but also adults!” This food-reward system can lead to several health problems in the long run, including diabetes, obesity, anorexia and other eating disorders.
If the food-reward system inherent in the food-exercise events causes physical and psychological problems, a deep irony is evident: These events that seem at first glance to promote a balanced lifestyle could, in fact, lead to just the opposite.
Ronald McDonald House Charities, a charity that especially focuses on diabetes research, is the go-to charity for the Hot Chocolate 15K run in Chicago, which donates all of its revenues to funding research and care programs for patients with diabetes. Again, the irony here is painfully obvious—not only in that McDonald's is funding diabetes research, but also in that the actual race itself does not exactly promote a healthy lifestyle. Yes, these programs and races are effective in raising funds and awareness for numerous charity organizations. However, they do not succeed in promoting a vigorous lifestyle, or in preventing the very problems they look to solve.
Despite the fun and short-termed exercise motivation these events provide, the food-centered exercise programs also prove perilous to our health. Of course, the emergence of these events is also in part due to the current consumer culture that is very attracted to body image and food. But we should not need regular rewards in order to motivate us to work out, nor should we live by the motto “burn to earn.” So what does this trend say about our relationship with food and exercise?
At best, these are simply quirky events, each of which could become yet another eclectic New York trademark, and there's nothing wrong with participating in them once in a while. Yet what is important for our relationship with food and exercise is understanding that they do go hand in hand—but not quite like this. Rather than cancel out one another, they can and should work together to improve health—a fact of which many of us seem painfully unaware. If that weren't the case, Columbia would be selling Koronet pizza in Dodge gym—for the cost of a few laps around the track, of course.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a quote to Jason Feirman. This article has also been updated to reflect that calorie counts for the NYC Cupcake Run are according to the New York Post. The Eye regrets the error.