Burn 1,000 Calories An Hour!

by Charlotte on July 6, 2009 · 38 comments


You’ve seen the workout program ads: in between shots of glistening, contracting abdominals and hyper smiling people who only sweat in socially acceptable places – your amped up cleavage if you are a woman, your shaved pecs if you are a man – comes the promise. What, you ask, can a DVD workout/exercise book/smiling B-list celeb promise me when it comes to cardio other than a perfect body, chiclet teeth and a spray tan so authentic that real sunshine is jealous? Why, the promise of amazing ultra-high superbad caloric burn of course!

I was reminded of this the other day as the Gym Buddies and I were sweating away on the elliptical machines (not our go-to workout but they were refinishing all the floors in the studios so it’s what we were left with) and one of those ubiquitous exercise program infomercials came on. While we were giggling about watching people on TV exercise while actually exercising, large letters flashed up on the screen. “BURN up to 1,000 CALORIES AN HOUR!” flashed over all those heaving chests – the “up to” in conveniently small type of course.

This infomercial – may Billy Mays rest in peace – is not unique. All fitness programs, televised and otherwise, seem to make some kind of caloric promise. But how accurate are these claims? And does knowing the potential calorie burn of a workout help you make a better choice on how to sweat?

Can You Really Burn 1,000 Calories An Hour?
Anecdotal evidence first: According to my overly generous heartrate monitor of which I was once so attached to that I would turn around and go home to get the chest strap if I accidentally forgot it despite the fact that being small chested meant that it looked as if I was wearing some kind of strange back brace, I have burned over 1,000 calories in a single workout. The scene was “Holiday Turbokick” a special brand of torture that Turbo Jennie likes to put us through on occassions like the day before Thanksgiving, where we do 8 “turbos” (a high-intensity inverval lasting between 30 seconds and 2 minutes) interspersed with 4 finales or some such craziness. By the end I am turboing in a puddle of my own filth and can wring out my tank top like a Shamwow. It’s enough to make a girl puke up her turkey before she even eats it, is what I’m saying. But by the time we hit cool down, I had burned just over 1,000 calories.

So it would seem possible – although unlikely (who wants to work out so hard you vomit every day?) – to attain that magic number. Except for two problems. 1) My heart rate monitor isn’t terribly accurate. While I trust it’s ability to read my actual beats per minute, its calorie burn function is apparently calculated based off a 6’6″ male Russian Ice Swimmer. To prove this, I switched heart rate monitors with Gym Buddy Allison, who wears a Polar, and racked up 200-400 less calories per hour than my watch gave me.

2) Even the venerable Polar can’t really tell you your caloric burn as metabolism is so individual as to render any mathematical formula at least slightly inaccurate. The research in this area is more prolific than one might think. Companies that make a living off of guaranteeing a good workout have invested a lot of energy into trying to figure out what number of calories people can expect to expend using their machines or programs. What they have discovered however is that while they can predict how many calories an individual, say Michael Phelps, is burning, those results are very difficult to generalize. In addition to individual metabolisms there are simply too many other variables. Therefore, the honest companies will give you a range of calories. The disingenuous ones will use that sneaky little phrase “up to” and then give you a Michael Phelpsian number.

Why Does it Matter How Many Calories You Burn?
Every fitness expert will tell you that weight loss, gain or maintenance comes down to simple math. It’s all about the calories you take in through food in relation to those you expend through daily life and exercise. This over simplified truism often leads people to think things like, “If the treadmill says I burned 250 calories, then that means I can eat a 200 calorie muffin and still come out losing!” This, in turn, has made calorie burn the gold standard in assessing a fitness program’s worth.

But dig a little deeper and you will realize that not only is calorie burn not the best indicator of a workout’s power, it actually distracts you from other benefits of exercise. For instance, weight lifting typically doesn’t burn comparatively as many calories as cardio for the same amount of time and yet it has many advantages like increased strength, muscle mass and overall functionality. Similarly, HIIT (high intensity interval training) burns a smaller amount of calories during the actual workout but causes a much greater spike in HGH (human growth hormone) than twice the amount of traditional medium-intensity cardio. Lastly cardio exercise is good for many things like increasing your oxygen utilization and building endurance, besides just burning off last night’s dessert.

Is It A Good Thing To Burn 1,000 Calories An Hour?
Ignoring for a moment whether or not it’s even possible to burn that many calories, one must ask if it is even a worthwhile fitness goal to strive to burn a particular high number of calories. To get that kind of calorie burn, one would have to push very hard in a high intensity type of cardio. Much has been said – and ignored – about the dangers of too much aerobic exercise in the highest heart rate zones. It elevates the stress hormone cortisol, causes systemic inflammation, necesitates longer recovery and increases your risk of injury, just to give you the short version.

In addition, an often overlooked fact by dieters and diet purveyors alike is that the more you exercise, the hungrier you get. From my personal experience the more calories I burn, the more my body wants to replace them – and fast. What’s the quickest source of glycogen for our depleted muscular system? Sugar. I have found that after a long training run, it’s almost impossible for me to stay away from the Jelly Bellies and other simple carbs for the rest of the day. However, when I strength train and/or keep my training volume low my sugar cravings diminish significantly (unless I’m PMSing but that’s a different story entirely). Research backs me up by showing that dieters who create a calorie deficit purely from exercise don’t lose weight – because their bodies eat to adjust. So, what’s the point in burning (up to) 1,000 calories if my body is immediately going to want to replace (at least) 1,000 calories with whatever food is easiest for me to scarf down?

Conclusions
Calorie burn doesn’t matter. First, chances are that unless you are an Olympic swimmer, you’re not burning what they say you are burning. Second, it’s probably not giving you the result you are looking for. If you are exercising for weight loss, then you aren’t doing yourself any favors by torching excessive calories and signalling your body to go into eat mode. And if you’re exercising for fun and/or weight maintenance then calorie burn is just another number.

All of which is not to say that exercise – even an occasional session of long, intense cardio – shouldn’t be done. Ask any triathlete, marathon runner or Iron(wo)man if their race was worth it and most of them will give you an enthusiastic yes. But it isn’t because they burned 3,000 calories, it’s because they were having fun and it gave them a sense of accomplishment. Does it mean that I don’t get a great workout from Holiday Turbokick if I don’t burn quadruple-digit calories? No! I’m still increasing my endurance and having a lot of fun to boot. My point: When we are evaluating the merit of a particular fitness program, there are a lot of better factors to consider than supposed maximum calorie burn.

But enough about what I think! What do you think about the calorie-burn claims of fitness programs/machines/gurus? Anyone else ever get obsessed with their heart rate monitors? Anyone have a particular fitness infomercial that they just can’t stop watching??

Possibly the best workout video I have ever seen. “Eurotrain!!!” is going to be my new motto.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Merry July 6, 2009 at 3:21 am

Love the video :)

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Miz July 6, 2009 at 10:06 am

And the more you exercise the hungrier you are seems to be reason #1 why many of my clients (and sister) who were training for marathons gained weight as they trained (havent run one. no personal experience).

your post made me think of a woman I used to see at the gym BACK IN THE DAY doing the stairmaster for hours on end, arms straight (propping herself so she wasnt using the machine properly/working that hard) until she'd hit the planned amount of calories for that day.

this was 1994.

Im surprised they still put calorie counts on the equipment.

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Crabby McSlacker July 6, 2009 at 11:28 am

It cracks me up that people take the calorie counts on machines seriously–they always seem very inflated to me!

I do tend to track calorie burn in a very general way–I like to eat and have discovered I gain weight if I don't expend an average of about 400-500 a day with some sort of exercise. But only some of that is cardio; the rest is non-intense, pleasant walking. And I make a very ballpark estimate based on "miles" per day, which I figure based on actual miles, or on the time I spend at various intensity levels. I know how many miles per hour I run, for example, so if I do 30 minutes of elliptical at "run" type intensity, I credit myself the number of miles I would have run.

And I totally cheat–I figure 100 calories per mile, even though I know that's the number for a heavier person. But I've been doing it that way for so many years, I figure I'll keep my silly illusions about the total rather than revise downward and be more accurate.

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Tricia July 6, 2009 at 12:03 pm

I look at the Calorie count, but only as a "I'll be replacing this in my recovery meal" indicator. And that works for me.

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Gemfit July 6, 2009 at 12:40 pm

I can't believe how many people pay attention to the calorie counts on the machines. I glance at them for an indication sometimes, but my RPE and heart rate is more important to me. There are days when my asthma scarred lungs mean that my RPE is much higher than usual and I know my body is working super hard, even though the calorie count may be low.

I wish more people would stop and ask themselves how calorie counts could be even slightly realistic when most of the machines ask only the most basic "questions" to determine it.

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RickyRae July 6, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Eurotrain Rawks!!!!! Come on ride the train! Choo choo! Hey, ride it!!! ;)

And, oh, for the love of exercise infomercials… I am strangely addicted. Mostly because they are so freakin' funny!

Maximum calorie expenditure on a regular basis is not achievable for ANYONE. Even world class athletes have 'down time' in their training cycles to recoup. Going at 100% all the time is impossible.

For most of us, slow and steady is the best way to reach our goals. It sure is easier and healthier to stick with…

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Fit Mama July 6, 2009 at 2:14 pm

I wear my HRM for all workouts. Mostly to keep track of my workouts. I do use a Polar that allows me to input weight and height, and usually burn about 400 calories during an hour of cardio and strength.

And I totally know the "eat to replace" problem. I will go a strict low-carb diet for two weeks to drop a few lbs, then go back to eating normally and exercising to maintain. It's the only thing that works for me.

I love infomercials. I really find them motivating. I love Beachbody, which is probably why I like watching their infomercials :) I think the most cals I ever burned in an hour was maybe 500 (using Jari Love's Ripped 1000 – supposed to burn 1000). But I also find that working out in the AM means I burn less than I would in the PM. Plus I work harder in the PM. I just prefer to feel strong from working out, the numbers don't mean much, but pictures showing results are always nice!

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Meg July 6, 2009 at 2:25 pm

I'll admit to having fallen prey to the "burn more calories" salesmanship in the past, and I can say without a doubt that the harder I work the hungrier I get. After a kickboxing workout it takes every ounce of willpower in my body not to eat everything that passes in front of my face.

I've actually just decided to start training for a 5k, so it's now about distance and time than calories burned, although since I'm still in weight loss mode, calories burned remains important.

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Dr. J July 6, 2009 at 2:36 pm

No question I've had some serious calorie burning days!

I never look at the numbers on workout machines. Full length mirror, occasional weight on scale, how clothes feel, I guess those are the main measurements for me.

Hope y'all had a good Fourth!!

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Chelsea July 6, 2009 at 4:27 pm

I love the P-90X infomercials. I remember watching one mesmerized at 4:30am, drinking coffee and waiting to run a 1/2 marathon.

Also, the calorie thing. I bet a big, muscular guy could burn 1000 calories in an hour doing spinning or running, but I doubt I'll ever come even close. I don't look at the calorie burn because I know how bad we are at estimating how much we both eat and expend.

For me it's much more reliable to go by hard/long workout = more calories, easy/short workout = fewer calories.

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Chelsea July 6, 2009 at 4:28 pm

However, I will say my husband's aunt just lost 50 lbs and every day she got on the elliptical and did it until it said she'd burned 500 caloires, so it works for some people.

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Amanda August 21, 2013 at 4:26 pm

I completely agree. Everyone is talking like you don’t burn calories on a machine. I know it isn’t completely accurate but it is a ballpark.

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Suganthi July 6, 2009 at 5:30 pm

I betcha I burned 1000 calories laughing now..GREAT clip.

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Trish July 6, 2009 at 5:44 pm

I ignore the calorie counts – I know they aren't correct.

And if I want to lose weight, I worry more about what I am or am not eating – not what the treadmill tells me I am burning.

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Sagan July 6, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Precisely the reason why I don't try to track my calories burned. There are better ways to measure it- by how much you're sweating or if you're getting stronger or faster etc.

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Jody - Fit at 51 July 6, 2009 at 6:48 pm

This is so true!!! "weight lifting typically doesn't burn comparatively as many calories as cardio for the same amount of time and yet it has many advantages like increased strength, muscle mass and overall functionality. Similarly, HIIT (high intensity interval training) burns a smaller amount of calories during the actual workout but causes a much greater spike in HGH (human growth hormone) than twice the amount of traditional medium-intensity cardio. Lastly cardio exercise is good for many things like increasing your oxygen utilization and building endurance, besides just burning off last night's dessert." I really don't pay too much attention to what the machines say in terms of how many calories I burned as I know they are off anyway plus it is more about overall fitness & feeling better about ourselves.

Saying that, I do know approximately how many calories I take in but not specific since I go by how foods effect my bod, how my clothes fit etc. BUT I do the scale thing, I admit it! The older I get, the more all this means since the bod changes.

I admit to doing more so I can eat more. I just do not want to eat 1200-1400 calories a day which is what I would have to do if I did less… I guess still getting over the old days when I starved myself when I was losing weight the wrong way!

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bjbella5 July 6, 2009 at 6:58 pm

I do not like doing cardio, so I have to find ways to trick myself into making it a game and keep it interesting. So I challenge myself to reach a calorie goal every 10 minutes during my 30 minute workout. I look at it as more of a personal score, like in a video game. Then everyday I try to beat my previous score. It gets my competitive edge up and works for keeping me motivated.

I had wondered about the more exercise = increased hunger. Good to keep in mind when my brain starts demanding a post-workout sugar fix.

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Quix July 6, 2009 at 7:23 pm

I love numbers and math and it used to help me be able to balance out my eating so I could lose weight (although my formula is so off right now it's not working…grrr)

DDR says I burn about 1200 calories an hour (it does ask my weight, but nothing else). I totally don't believe it, but it would be nice. For an hour of medium intensity running, I burn about 750 calories according to most calorie count sites. I'll never know for sure how many I REALLY burn, but I know that if the calorie count says what it was or more than average, I've gotten a good workout (or at least as good of a workout as before).

And yesyesyes on the eating back calories – during training for the half I would find myself willed by an unnaturally strong force of nature and in front of my freezer mowing down chocolate chips. I haven't had any in 2.5 weeks – which is incidentally how long it has been since the race! I have had a few sweet treats/deserts, but not the "I need sugar nownownow" sessions like that.

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Mackenzie July 6, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Most of the issues people have raised discuss over-zealous reports of burnage and how that relates to people overeating after or "netting." My problem is proof that metabolism is a tricky thing indeed, because I eat more than what I say I burn, and continue to lose slowly and/or maintain on this program. I do get a yearly physical, so we may fairly discount medical reasons for doing so fairly safely. I find it not only bizarre, but a bit troubling, because I want to make sure I stay at the same weight at the minimum, gaining a few L-Bs ideally. I do eat very "clean," and sometimes its hard to eat enough of the clean foods to reach a certain calorie goal and not feel ridiculously stuffed. Thoughts?

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azusmom July 6, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Oh man, that video is HILARIOUS!!!!! (I love that actor who plays the trainer, too bad I always forget his name! Of course, I can barely remember my own name…)
I went on one of those calorie-counting websites to see how many I burn during Bikram yoga. It said 1,250. I'm not sure I believe that. And the more I thought about it, I realized it didn't matter. I do hot yoga because I enjoy it, I feel great afterwards, and it has good health benefits.
I've also learned not to use exercise as an excuse to either eat more or "work off" what I've already eaten. That way madness lies.

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VaMomof2 July 6, 2009 at 9:45 pm

I must admit that I have been there, done that and have the dusty body bugg to prove it. I bought a bugg in February but found that I was caring more about its cal count than how I felt after a workout (and was running more and lifting less). I also got frustrated because I think it inflated my expenditure so I would maintain or gain when it said I should have been losing – just too much to handle – driving me to sugar (brownies for me, not jelly beans). Sometimes, I think the readouts are low – I actually cried after wearing it to Bikram (which they say you shouldn’t do) and having it tell me that I burned only ½ the cals that most people attribute to 90 minutes of sweaty yoga). Anyway, after several months of rest, I think I am ready to try my bugg again but will never wear it 24/7 the way I was.

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Susan July 7, 2009 at 1:09 am

I like working out with DVDs, and used to wear my heartrate monitor to track my "calories burned" for each DVD. Then I realised I was spending a lot of time constantly checking the HRM, rather than focusing on my workout. Now, I only use it to keep myself motivated during my spinning sessions.

I think the "calories burned" figure for my HRM is pretty accurate. But the sad thing is that, as you become fitter, you burn less calories.

So yeah, an HRM is just a tool. But I also judge the quality of my workouts through other measures – like fun, improved form, faster recovery, etc.

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Turbo Jennie July 7, 2009 at 1:45 am

I'm not convinced you tempted anyone to attend my Holiday Turbo Burn!!

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Heather McD (Heather Eats Almond Butter) July 7, 2009 at 3:06 am

It's splashed all over the Internet that you will burn 900+ calories in Bikram yoga class…there is no way – I wouldn't even burn that much running for an hour. I think most estimates for all exercises are way off.

Also, I agree with Miz – whenever I'm exercising hard and burning more calories, I eat more. I'd rather take it easy and not have that monstrous appetite.

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Anonymous July 7, 2009 at 4:25 am

oh yeah, and what is your method in finding all the hilarious videos you do? seriously?! how do you sift through all the media crap to find us these gems?

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Hanlie July 7, 2009 at 11:58 am

I laughed so hard I cried with that video! I think I'll skip the Eurotraining!

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HeatherKBan July 7, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Thanks for the great post. I have recently become slightly obsessed with the calorie readout on my HRM. (I never pay attention to the machines readout) I have come to the mindset that if I don't burn x amount of calories, the workout was worthless. I went on vacation over the weekend and deliberately left my chest strap home. I felt kind of lost while I was working out not being able to see how many calories I was burning, but it forced me to be more conscious of what I put in my mouth.
The calorie readout motivates me to go a little longer or a little harder. It is discouraging though when you start burning fewer calories – like getting a paycut even though you're doing the same job! I often choose cardio over say P90x b/c I don't burn squat according to my Polar doing P90X, which is ridiculous b/c I know strength is important and I feel great afterwards. Thanks for the information- hopefully I can get over the whole calories burned thing.

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PJNOIR July 7, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Taubes was ridiculed when he said that exercise does not help you loss weight. And he is correct. Hungry will always replace the meager amount the last hour on the treadmill burned.

BUT calorie burn is important in a cardio workout and yes you can burn 500-1000 calories a workout and even keep your Mitochondria action burning calories long into rest. This is the key to weight control and your metabolism.

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SeaBreeze July 9, 2009 at 6:18 pm

I wish I had a heart rate monitor. It's on the "To Purchase" list, but got shuffled down a little because I want a 70' climbing rope more. I digress, I too get MAD sugar cravings when I do cardiocentric workouts. My solution it to load up on protein and ride it out as best I can. Doesn't always work, but its a start.

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Shay July 13, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Great post awesome video.

As a personal trainer I try to emphasize that all calories are NOT created equal.

Adding a good whey protein isolate powder to your diet can actually help your recover better from intense training and fight off sugar cravings.

http://www.midwestdairy.com/files/PDF/WheyResearchFactSheet.pdf

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dwgranda February 24, 2010 at 11:05 pm

You definetely can burn 1000 calories/hr. I've done 900 KJ in an hour (using a powertap powermeter with better than 2% accuracy). It nearly killed me and I'm far from the best rider out there. With the inefficiencies in the human body that's about 900 cal in 1hr. If I'm doing a stairmaster (which is a weight bearing activity unlike cycling) and I know I only have to do it for an hour, I know 1000 Kcal is achievable. Again, you have to crank it up, avg heart rate for me is going to be > 160 and I'm going to leave an ocean of sweat behind.

I totally agree with this post though that burning this many calories in an hour is not fun, only a sense of accomplishment you get afterwards and you will definately crave food perhaps defeating the original purpose.

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sarah August 28, 2011 at 10:10 am

Hello,my names Sarah and I’m 12 years and a half…I went on this diet and lost 1 stone and now I go to the gym to stop gaining weight and I was wondering how long should I run on the treadmill for?

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Ken May 3, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Exercising to lose weight works very well, when one sticks to a restricted caloric intake and does not give in to the hunger pangs that good workouts inevitably trigger. It’s tough, but it pays off. I’ve lost 10 lbs in four weeks, and feel great. I use those feelings of hunger to reassure myself that I’m doing it right.

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Tom June 28, 2013 at 5:06 pm

To say calorie restriction and exercise doesn’t produce results because it triggers hunger is misleading. It really is as simple as calories in vs calories out. You may have a hard time determining how many calories you burn in a workout, but if you are systematic about recording what you eat, how much you workout, and your weight every week, you can easily determine how many calories you are going through. Remember to take your weight 3 times a day, and take an average, to reduce the effect of water weight inaccuracies.

When people don’t get the results they want, I find it is because they are not recording anything, they simply start exercising and eat when they are hungry. If you aren’t making measurements along the way and trying to beat these measurements, you won’t see the results you want. (How long/far/hard did I run? How much did I lift? How much did I eat? etc)

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Ken June 29, 2013 at 12:52 am

Well, here it is, almost another two months since my last comment, and I’ve lost another 10 lbs by staying on my strict regimen of making sure I’m burning more than I’m taking in. At age 50, I’m now down to 150 lbs (5’11″). I have not weighed that since high school (1980). I’m a cyclist, and I’ve noticed an astonishing difference in how I’m able to handle climbing the tough mountains in my area. It’s amazing! I feel like I’m in a positive feedback loop that’s going to keep me in my winning ways.

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