July 27, 2007 -- Brownies and fried chicken may be the last things you'd expect to see on TV at the gym, but look around -- cooking shows are dominating the screens of some fitness fiends.
The old days of exercising to the pulsing bass of music videos on MTV are out and watching celebrity chefs whip up gourmet meals is in. But is working out to cooking shows just the latest craze? Or is something more troubling at the heart of this growing trend?
Diet and exercise go hand in hand with weight loss. Those looking to shed a few pounds tend to increase their exercise and decrease their food intake. So it seems contradictory that dieters would watch more food television programming when attempting to cut back on consumption.
But gymgoers across the country are noticing an increased presence of food programming at workout time, and some say their gym experience just isn't the same without it -- for better or worse.
Food Network is always on the screen when Floridian Faith Hopler works out.
"I work out three times a week and I usually turn on the Food Network," said Hopler.
And she's not alone. After talking with ABC News, Hopler posed the question to readers of her blog, Apartment Therapy: Kitchen, asking, "Do you watch food network at the gym?"
The responses flooded in. Some said they watch food programming at the gym because it's inspirational.
"Sometimes you need to dangle a carrot in front of a bunny to make him run," reads one posting. "It definitely motivates me to run that extra 20 minutes so I can indulge in a double chocolate fudge cake later that night."
Others wrote that cooking shows help them exercise and live better.
"It puts me in a healthful frame of mind, which tends to lead me to better choices for upcoming meals," posted Kelly H.
Even superslim television host Kelly Ripa incorporates cooking shows into her calorie-burning workout routine.
"I put on the Food Network and get on the treadmill!" she tells Us magazine.
If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen -- er, Gym
But not everyone is happy about what's cooking at the gym. Cristina Velez, a 27-year-old attorney, said she can't seem to escape Food Network at the gym, and it's ruining her workout.
"You go there and it's packed, it's on at least one of the big televisions above and if you're in one of the cardio areas, it's unavoidable," complained Velez.
While watching cooking shows motivates some to run faster, bike longer or go the extra mile, for others like Velez, Food Network at the gym is a demon capable of ruining her routine.
"You're at the gym trying to maintain a certain health level, so the last thing you want to be thinking about after you've burned off all your calories and you're trying to maintain your weight is all of the delicious things you can't have," said Velez.
Despite her dislike for food at the gym, Velez admits she tunes into Food Network at home.
"It's funny because I watch Food Network at home, but I can't watch at the gym because when I leave the gym all I want to do is eat," said Velez.
While Velez has her reasons for avoiding the Food Network, those who do watch may have perfectly healthy reasons for tuning into the Food Network, but experts say there may be cause for concern behind other motivations.
Sign of Eating Disorder?
Nutritional experts and therapists say there may be something else encouraging people to turn on Food Network at the gym. An increased interest in food television may be a symptom of a dark and very personal secret -- an eating disorder.
Jodi Rubin is a senior therapist at the Renfrew Center of New York and also sees patients at her private practice in Manhattan. She said increased focus on diet and exercise are a common sign of disordered eating.
"One of the things we see with eating disorders is a preoccupation with food and body image," said Rubin.
Watching cooking shows at the gym may be a part of a larger obsession with food that results from severe self-restriction from food often practiced by those with eating disorders. Food is an innate part of life, said Rubin, and when it is cut, patients tend to fantasize about food in other ways.
"Watching Food Network is just another way they can obsess about their food, just like collecting cookbooks or recipes, or walking in the supermarket and not buying anything," said Rubin.
Now that there is an entire network devoted to food programming, it has become easier for those looking to experience the pleasures of food without actually eating it.
"People get a vivid vicarious pleasure from watching Food Network," said Rubin. "It's people cooking, telling you how food tastes, talking about the flavors and tastes and smells—it's invigorating for everyone to watch."
Rubin has overheard women at the gym quantifying the amount of calories they burned as a way of deciding how much food they can eat that day.
"I'll hear people at the gym say, 'I'm here now so I can go out to dinner later tonight,'" said Rubin, who instantly diagnosed a problem. "They probably restricted during the day, and they're working out a certain number of calories, either way, it's all about food."
The Food Network Factor
But of course not every Food Network gym viewer has an eating disorder. Rubin said the popularity of celebrity chefs and their shows may have something to do with the increase in audiences at the gym.
"There certainly is an increase in popularity, there are all these celebrity chefs and they have all of these reality TV shows," said Rubin.
With an audience of over 90 million households, Food Network has become one of the quickest growing cable networks since it was founded in 1993. It may be the popularity of the network and its increasingly famous chefs that draw in viewers.
Rachel Ray, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Paula Deen are just a handful of the Food Network personalities that are quickly becoming household names. Shows such as "The Next Food Network Star" are adding to the popularity of food TV. The series finale drew the network's largest single audience ever: 3.6 million viewers.
But that statistic still doesn't explain the surge in popularity of Food Network at the gym. It may have something to do with the short durations of the shows, say some viewers.
"I watch Rachel Ray cook a 30-minute meal and I've just finished my 30 minutes of cardio," one responder to Hopler's poll wrote.
Catering to Cooking Shows
If the popularity of food programming continues to soar, gyms across the country may soon be forced to ask themselves -- do we need to have a NO Food Network section of the gym?
To please patrons like Velez, yes. She said even when she tries to avoid it, it's there.
"I wasn't watching TV, it was the women behind me," said Velez.
On the other hand, the idea of a Food TV-only gym isn't too far fetched. There are already numerous specialized gyms across the country. Those for women only, for the spiritual only, and for the overweight only -- think Curves.
And who knows, a new Food Network-only gym may be coming to town. And there may even be a few food-related classes on the menu. Tasty Treadmill Treats anyone?