‘Turkey burns’ demonize Thanksgiving calories and perpetuate toxic diet culture. Experts say steer clear.

How the fitness industry perpetuates toxic diet culture with Thanksgiving
Here’s how the fitness industry perpetuates toxic diet culture with Thanksgiving "turkey burn" classes. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Jay Sprogell)

Kerry O'Grady is 12 years into recovery from an eating disorder that nearly left her dead in her 20s. Now, she's working to combat toxic messaging throughout the fitness industry — like the infamous "turkey burn" classes marketed around Thanksgiving.

"Anytime that I see triggering language, it brings me right back to when I was 72 pounds," she tells Yahoo Life. "I hear that eating is no longer something that keeps me alive and gives me energy — but instead, it is a transaction and it's a negotiation that I have to make."

This time of year particularly, people are bombarded with messages about giving thanks while sitting around the table with family and friends for a feast, only to be reminded by marketing emails from their local gyms, boutique fitness studios or even town leadership to participate in a holiday-focused workout class or turkey trot — with the goal of burning those extra calories.

"For years, we’ve bought into the fact that Thanksgiving is an overindulgence holiday," O'Grady says, "so the wellness space takes advantage of that by saying whatever food you eat that day, that extra food needs to be burned off. It’s a calorie-in versus calorie-out situation."

Any class categorized as a “turkey burn,” according to fitness professional Kendra Thomas, "will be longer and potentially more challenging" than the typical programming at a specific studio or gym. "It has come to be expected that a holiday centered around eating, such as Thanksgiving, warrants a more intense workout," 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 critical of the language that makes them believe that.

"’Overindulgence’ is a very bad word, because obviously, medically, one day of overeating isn't going to do anything for your harmony and your body or your metabolism cycle," she says. "That’s just not gonna happen."

History of the mindset

The idea that calories need to be earned is a concept that O’Grady says can be traced back to ancient Greece, where food was weaponized and seen as a way to demonstrate self-control. To this day, our culture continues the rhetoric and characterizes celebratory occasions like Thanksgiving by the intake of food, she says.

It’s not far-fetched, then, to view even the seemingly wholesome tradition of the turkey trot as a way to keep people entrenched in diet culture on one of the biggest feasting days of the year. In 2021, Geoffrey Falkner, spokesperson for the historic Buffalo Turkey Trot, told Runner's World that the run, in addition to being about fun, is “also a way for people to do something healthy for themselves.” And, as that story noted: “While we don’t believe you need to ‘earn your meal,’ or 'run off your pie,’ we do believe in balance, and turkey trots are the calorie-burning yin to Thanksgiving dinner’s caloric yang.”

How various fitness-centers ran with that idea — and others decided not to

While the turkey trot has qualified Thanksgiving as the most popular day of the year to race, according to Running USA, fitness spaces across the nation have followed suit, encouraging clients to come work out around the holiday — oftentimes marketing these classes as "turkey burns" to encourage people to either earn or burn the calories that they'll consume or already consumed during their holiday meal.

Boutique fitness studio SLT, which combines cardio, strength and pilates moves, uses this very logic to describe the mission of its turkey burn classes, offered in the days following Thanksgiving. "It's a cliché we all know, that we tend to eat and drink a bit more on and around Thanksgiving when we are festive with family and friends. And the idea of the turkey burn is that before or after your holiday meal, you work out a little bit harder and then you have less of the holiday guilt," Amanda Freeman, SLT's founder and CEO, tells Yahoo Life. "We are merely offering our clients 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 offers live and on-demand cycling, rowing and running classes, provide similarly specialized offerings that encourage clients to burn extra calories around the holiday. According to Peloton's chief content officer Jen Cotter, the brand's turkey burn classes are historically their most attended.

"Turkey burn is our longest-standing tradition and has been a record-breaking live class year after year," Cotter tells Yahoo Life, noting that head instructor Robin Arzón has taught a live turkey burn ride on Thanksgiving Day every year since 2014, "so we continue to produce these classes each Thanksgiving Day because we know our members love it."

O'Grady says that this merely demonstrates consumer power, whose willingness to participate turns to demand, which cements the trend.

“It took time and it took results for fitness studio owners and wellness spaces and gyms to be like, wait a minute, somebody's onto something. Somebody used turkey burn, it worked really well," O'Grady explains. "If the consumer buys in to turkey trot or turkey burn, then others are going to want in on that dollar, too, and it's the consumer that's enabling the industry to continue using these terms.”

Naturally, it reflects what people have been programmed to care about most through the prevalence of diet culture. "[The fitness industry] would have never been able to capitalize on this if our culture didn't already obsess over appearances and value being thin," psychiatrist Dr. Yalda Safai tells Yahoo Life.

But by thinking critically about this, consumers can also, ultimately, put a stop to it.

"Consumers need to understand that they are empowered to make different choices, and they don't have to put up with turkey burn. They don't have to put up with language that is detrimental if they are educated with how much of an impact these type of things make, because usually, it's not conscious, what they're doing to you,” O’Grady says. “I don't have to sign up for Peloton’s turkey burn. I don't have to, I can make different choices and choose to put my money elsewhere to other titled things.”

Meanwhile, some fitness spaces are providing alternatives and making conscious efforts to steer clear of the label — and concept.

"Rumble classes are designed to efficiently train our clients’ bodies and minds. That’s 365 days a year, not just before holidays, not just as a New Year’s resolution and certainly not as a means to 'earn' your food," Noah Neiman, co-founder of Rumble Boxing, which combines cardio, strength and boxing, tells Yahoo Life. "The concept of exercising being about earning or burning calories is completely archaic and actually extremely problematic. Exercise is about strengthening your body. It’s about making your body more resilient to the stressors of life. Psychologically connecting exercise with calorie burning creates not only a warped relationship with exercise, but with food as well."

Fitness professional Thomas, a head trainer at Mind Body Project — a boutique studio that combines meditation and strength training to enhance mental and physical health — says she too aims to change the narrative when it comes to the perceived association of fitness and food. "The ability to move our bodies and having extra time and space to clear our minds is a gift, not the number of calories we have burned," she explains to Yahoo Life. "Being physically active offers more than a calorie burn. It energizes us, keeps us physically and mentally healthier and promises a potentially longer, better life."

While Thomas says that the shift away from placing food and fitness parallel to each other has been "slow," she's among those using their platforms to encourage people to think differently about movement and detach it from their eating.

Liz Lindenmeier, who founded Lit&Lean — a program that she calls a "nightlife inspired sculpt workout" — contributed 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 how food and holidays can be very triggering for those who are recovering from EDs or still dealing/developing them,” she wrote. “Please avoid negative comments around others or even thoughts towards yourself. For years, I hated this holiday because I was terrified to sit around a table and eat food in front of people while simultaneously counting calories in my head and then figuring out how to exit the table as quickly as possible.”

Some are more vulnerable than others

Although not everybody is struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder, O'Grady maintains that almost all people could fall prey to the industry's toxic marketing. "Most of the population has some problem with body dysmorphia, orthorexia or eating disorder, or, I would say, have an undiagnosed eating disorder and look at aspirational body types, and think that that's normal," she says. "When you're reading these things, and you start looking at advertisements and PR campaigns that are all about turkey burn or your ‘summer body,’ you start really looking at yourself critically. How can you not?"

Safai echoes that sentiment by assuring that "words matter, and have an ability to subconsciously impact our behavior," whether you believe your relationship with fitness and food to be faulty or not.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't participate in a workout around the holiday season — but to think critically about how that workout will make you feel and what impact it will have on your experience around the Thanksgiving table, experts stress.

As registered dietician Dalina 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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