Dear Trainer: Are the Calories on Cardio Machines Accurate?

Shana Verstegen
by Shana Verstegen
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Trainers get asked all kinds of questions, which makes sense: The gym can be an intimidating place with trends coming and going by the second. How can a person keep up with it all? We’ve been collecting questions and asking trainers for answers. If you have a question of your own, leave it in the comments below — and yours just might be answered next.

The long and short of it is the calorie counts on machines aren’t very accurate.

The best tactic is to use these counts as a very rough estimate and probably assume you burn fewer calories than it indicates.

Research demonstrates most pieces of cardio equipment overestimate caloric expenditure, with ellipticals having the highest level of inaccuracy — and treadmills and stair-climbers next.

WHAT TO KNOW

Several factors feed into this inaccuracy:

1

THE AGE OF THE MACHINE

In general, the older the machine, the less accurate the calorie readout will be. This is due to improved technology over time and general wear and tear of the machines.

2

DATA INPUT

The more information you plug into the machine, the higher the accuracy. Many cardio machines ask for weight, height, gender, etc., which all factor into the equations that estimate overall calorie burn. If none of these items are entered, most machines calculate for a 150-pound user.

3

HUMAN ERROR

The cardio machine does not know you, obviously. Even if it knows your weight, it cannot factor in things like your basal metabolic rate, body composition, experience with the particular cardiovascular activity or if you may be using the machine improperly (i.e., leaning on the handles of a stair-climbing machine).

4

COMPETITION

There was a time when machine manufacturers would purposely have their piece of equipment produce a higher calorie read out. Exercisers would want to use the machine that said they burned the most calories because they assumed it meant they were working harder, thus that particular machine would get more use and be more popular at fitness centers. This has gotten much better in recent times.

WHAT TO DO

Rich Hesketh, Under Armour training team member and strength coach at DECAMAN athletics, explains that, “If you’re going to use calories, the key would be to use the same machine (brand) and mode of work (bike, treadmill, rowing erg, etc.) to measure improvement. Try to reach caloric goal rides in specific times. For example: 500–1,000 calorie efforts in the shortest time duration possible.”

Todd Durkin, also an Under Armour training team member and owner of Fitness Quest 10, prefers to use his heart rate monitor for more accurate (but not perfect) caloric read out: “Nothing is as accurate as a chest-strap heart rate monitor. I prefer to use a MyZone Heart rate monitor when training as it tells me heart rate, calories burned and gives me MEP’s, which is an effort score based on metrics including height, weight, heart rate, intensity and duration.”

Being aware of the machine’s tendency to overestimate calories helps. Also, if you are especially concerned about overestimating calories for tracking on MyFitnessPal, consider entering in a lower weight on the cardio machine.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Take your caloric read out on that piece of cardio equipment with a grain of salt. If the workout didn’t feel very intense, chances are you didn’t burn 1,000 calories in 30 minutes. The calories on your machine can still be a fun gauge of intensity from workout to workout, but shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all for how much ice cream you can allow yourself to eat post-workout.

About the Author

Shana Verstegen
Shana Verstegen

Shana, a member of the Under Armour Training Team, is a TRX and American Council on exercise master instructor and a six-time world champion lumberjack athlete. She holds a degree in Kinesiology
- Exercise Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a certified personal trainer through ACE, NASM and NFPT. An energetic and personable speaker, she is also the National spokesperson for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.

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