January part one

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to see January in a brand new way. I spend the entire month not sure whether to laugh, cry or punch everyone I see in the face (sorry, guys!) And the reason for this is something that enriches my life massively – training and nutrition.

I’m not the kind of person you expect to see complaining about new people at the gym. Nothing makes me happier than seeing people find a sport they love, learn something about their eating habits that improves their health and ability to move, or tries something new and difficult. I grin like an idiot every time I see someone skating for the first time. When I see a noob attempting their first ever vault at parkour I want to stop everything, hug them and throw them a party. I do a happy little dance inside every time a woman who’s been told that weights are just for guys picks up a barbell. If I could high-five every runner I see on the street, my palms would be even more raw than they are already (barbells are hard, guys). So why am I bitching about the month where people make an effort en masse? It should be exactly what I want.

But it’s not. It’s more like witnessing an entire herd of innocent, wobbly-legged fawns make their way into sunlight for the first time only to be gunned down by hunters who are such douchebags they probably don’t even put their rubbish in the bin afterwards. And those hunters are the fitness industry.

The fitness industry is honestly pretty terrible year-round, and a great example of this is Zumba.

First off, I do not believe in telling people that they should not be doing activities I do not personally find useful. Unless you are playing volleyball with the kettlebells or using the squat rack for your planks, then you do you. I’m not anyone’s boss, and everybody everywhere should be free to enjoy whatever movement activities they want without people on the sidelines telling them they won’t get anything out of it. Do you enjoy Zumba? Good. You do that thing and don’t let anyone tell you to quit, least of all me.

However, let’s take a look at the marketing. Zumba.com tells me that it is “a total workout, combining all elements of fitness – cardio, muscle conditioning, balance and flexibility, boosted energy and a serious dose of awesome each time you leave class.” A cursory google search strongly implies that you’re going to burn 500 to 1,000 calories during a one-hour class, with emphasis on the 1,000.

Leaving aside the issue of exercise being about burning calories because this is a post all of its own (I eat calories deliberately for exercise, I don’t exercise to burn calories), let’s consider that in the context of my own overall energy use in any given day. My caloric burn if I am sedentary and maintaining weight is around 1500 calories – this isn’t high, but I’m pretty small at 55-56kg. My burn if I am training at my preferred level, which is pretty much daily with occasional days off, but also multiple sessions on other days, averages at around 2,200. I figured this out with a combination of nerdy spreadsheets, advice from Emmet and self-monitoring, which is a lot more investigation than most people feel the need to do – and even with that much observation, I would be completely unable to tell you what my burn is for any of my activities. I can tell you how many sets and reps of what weight I did on last Tuesday’s squats and bench press. I can tell you how many laps I did in that part of last Sunday’s derby training. I can tell you how far I ran in how much time, how much I ate and with what macros on any given day, and approximately how often I need to refeed while attempting to maintain with a daily base of 1900 kcal (it’s twice weekly if I’m training a lot, FYI).

You can’t get much more obsessive and nerdy about this stuff than I am. And yet I can’t tell you how many calories I am burning if you have me do an hour of zumba. There are so many variables – my size and current weight, whether I am using calories to recover from what I did yesterday, how intensely I am following along (and this is pretty damn subjective) and what exactly the movements are in that given session. If I take the lowest “average” burn Google casually suggests, I’d be burning 500 – that’s an entire third of my basic sedentary energy burn. Very, very unlikely – but a great selling point if you want to sell weight loss to people. Hmm.

Now onto the “complete workout” claim. Zumba is dancersize. It’s actually a lot of fun, and I would definitely agree that it is cardio – dancersize is very like aerobics, after all. “Muscle conditioning?” Not so much. You are not providing any resistance whatsoever, unless you add tiny wrist weights. This would give you some initial muscle gains, assuming you are brand new to conditioning, but you would plateau extremely quickly.

Balance and flexibility? If you have not trained balance at all and are very new to movement, then trying to keep up, stand on one leg when necessary and so on will help you with that. You will not continue to progress beyond that, however. Improving your balance is hard work. Balance is pretty important in both parkour and skating, and it’s something I’ve had to work very hard on, being dyspraxic. The most improvement I have seen personally is when I’m regularly attending the Chainstore balance and accuracy class – this is an entire hour devoted every week to improving your balance skills.

Anyone can improve their balance, with focused training and work. They can’t do it with an hour of musical aerobics, and anyone selling a class on that basis is ignorant at best and a liar at worst.

As for flexibility, I have no idea how Zumba could possibly increase that. This is not helped by the fact that there is no methodology provided for this claim, and no evidence – what’s the average increase in hip range of motion in people doing one Zumba class a week for an entire year?

If you are selling an exercise based on a claimed result, you need to be able to back that up. You don’t get to perform medical procedures on people to create a physical change without explaining exactly how that works and the chances of success. You shouldn’t get to make spurious claims that you can improve someone’s balance without some evidence behind that.

Zumba is fun. Zumba is moving around in a way people enjoy, and I am willing to believe it can improve your cardio fitness, confidence and coordination particularly if you are not currently exercising a lot, or do little cardio. Zumba is absolutely not, however, the all-in-one, weird trick that will turn you into a super fit person with visible abs, amazing balance and flexibility and sleek, “toned” muscle (don’t even get me started on that). You enjoy Zumba? I’m happy for you. Carry on. The guys making money from making these claims to you? Yeah, we need to talk.

Next up: how January is like a giant 24/7 Zumba advert, and what that does to people.