How Many Calories Are You Really Burning in the Gym?

Anthony J. Yeung
by Anthony J. Yeung
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How Many Calories Are You Really Burning in the Gym?

“Calories.” Who knew one word could carry so much weight?

Whether you’re trying to get lean, maintain your weight or bulk up, you need to know how many calories you’re consuming and burning. Yet, while it’s easy to count calories in our diet, it’s hard to estimate how many we’re actually burning in the gym.

If you want to truly achieve your goals, you need to understand how many calories you’re really burning each session — that way, you know if you’re doing too little or too much. Unfortunately, what your cardio machine says isn’t always accurate.

In fact, many cardio machines inflate the number of calories you burn. Why? Because they usually take into account your weight and your age only, instead of also including additional factors like fitness level and body composition. A study from the University of California, San Francisco found:

In this article, we’ll break down popular exercise methods and how many calories you’ll actually burn. Use these guidelines to get a better estimate of how much work you’re actually doing every 30 minutes.

CALORIE BASICS

Before we dive into various exercises, here are some important things to consider:

  • Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body requires to carry out daily functions — and accounts for 50–70% of the energy your body uses.
  • The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn even at rest.
  • Physical activity produces heat in your body, called “thermic effect.” It’s the second largest contributor to calorie expenditure at 20%.
  • There are approximately 3,500 calories in one pound of fat.

READ MORE > IDEAL REP RANGES FOR WEIGHT LOSS AND 4 MORE GOALS 


EXERCISES THAT BURN THE MOST CALORIES

In March 2017, Harvard Health Publishing released data on dozens of common activities and their calories burned within 30 minutes for people of varying weights. Here are some of the best in no particular order:

  • Running on the treadmill
  • Stationary biking
  • Swimming
  • Circuit training
  • Vigorous weight lifting

Read on to see how many calories you’ll actually burn from these exercises. (The lower end of each range is for a 125-pound person and the higher end is for a 185-pound person.)

Begin Slideshow

*Calorie burn based on 150-pound person

About the Author

Anthony J. Yeung
Anthony J. Yeung

Anthony, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, is a fitness expert at Esquire, GQ and Men’s Health and gets guys in shape for their wedding at GroomBuilder.

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20 responses to “How Many Calories Are You Really Burning in the Gym?”

  1. Avatar Marilee Jikey says:

    No matter what exercise you do, you had better enjoy it or you won’t keep it up. Me, I don’t like going to the gym, because I don’t like the way it smells, plus I love being outdoors. I am retired so walk & hike a couple of hours a day and a lot if it is uphill. I figure that I burn between 5 & 6 hundred calories on these walks, maybe more. Seems to work for me.

    • Avatar manthony says:

      Good for you! I wonder why anyone is indoors when the weather is good. Outdoors is always better unless it’s icy or lightening or something!

  2. Avatar Michael D. says:

    The fallacy of this article is that none of the exercises (with the exception of the stair climber) consider the definition of work (Mass X Distance). In general the only work you’re doing is to lift your leg. When you add incline on the treadmill you are lifting the entire body weight therefore the increase in calories consumed. Please refer to and compare more valid estimates of caloric consumption which include mass (your weight) and he distance you move it. Personally, I’ll see you on the roads.

    • Avatar Surfer C says:

      Not true. A stationary bike works like a leg machine. Your body’s weight is supported by the seat. The mass is the level of exertion needed to move the pedals (one at a time as you extend your leg). That increases with each level you increase on the machine. The distance is how far your leg has to extend before the next leg has to take over–multiplied by 2 for each cycle and then multiplied again by how many cycles per hour. Easy-peasy. But saying the only work you’re doing is raising your leg is the only fallacy here. If that were the case, then the same would be true for road runners.

    • Avatar manthony says:

      Unless you hold onto the handles and lean back in which case you’re not on an incline at all. I see it all the time in the gym.

  3. Avatar Ted_Fontenot says:

    I’m 70. I have leukemia (CML). My leukemia medication gave me arterial blockage in the left lower leg. I was told that as an alternative to a surgical procedure I could try doing the treadmill. I started the regimen last August. I was burning about 200-245 calories per 45-minute workout, according to the reading on the machine itself. I now burn about 900 calories per hour, according to that same machine. I start at 11 % elevation and about 2.8 mph. By the end of the first five minutes I’m doing like 3.2 mph and 15% elevation. I maintain this, going up to 16 % (and maybe 17% for a little while toward the end) and 3.3 and 3.4 mph. I don’t run. I’m pretty wobbly when I get off, but I feel I get a good cardio workout and my leg feels much better just walking around. What do you think?

  4. Avatar Alex Budin says:

    It says the elliptical burns up to 42% but no explanations why.. I assume that you work both your lower and upper body at the same time…?
    On my own experience I burn about 300Cal on the level 8 to 10 per 30min with 70% of maximum heart rate..

    • Avatar Karen Duncan says:

      I think the article was saying the elliptical overestimates the calories burned by 42%, not that people burn 42% more calories. That was the point of the article, that all these cardio machines overestimate it. Then the article went on to try to give more realistic estimates.

    • Avatar Surfer C says:

      No. It says that elliptical machines overestimate what they’re telling you you’ve burned by up to 42%. So that means they are the most inaccurate. That means you should multiply the number an elliptical machine gives you by .58 to get the correct number of calories that you actually burned. That really sucks! Lifecycle stationary bikes use to do the same thing back in the day, until they updated the program. On the older bikes it was telling me that I was burning 729 cal/hr on level 8. The newer bikes now say 568 cal/hr on level 8, and the new level 8 felt much harder than the old level 8.

      • Avatar Katochiapet says:

        Your math is not quite correct. Take the number off the elliptical and divide by 1.42. If the elliptical says 700, the actual should be 493. 42% of 493 is 207 (the over-estimated amount). 493+207=700

    • Avatar manthony says:

      It says the estimated calorie burn on the elliptical are 42% higher than actual. The estimate the machine gives you are often overstated.

    • Avatar Guest 2003 says:

      Actual arithmetics is: you should devide by 1.42 to get right calories… if your correct number of calories is 100% and you get 42% more the reading is 142%.

    • Avatar Lou Ascarrunz says:

      Regardless of how much Ellipticals “over-estimate” calorie burn….it’s still better than sitting on your couch. So don’t be discouraged….keep on keeping on!

  5. Avatar Itachi says:

    So question, I’m 23 weighing in at around 157, I have one of those heart rate monitors that I wear around my chest and the tracker watch on my wrist, say I burn around 2000-2300 calories in my session at the gym and I try to keep my intake between 1900-2100 per day would that be any good for trying to get lean muscle and abs?

  6. Avatar James B says:

    Something is horribly wrong.
    I am 135kg and 187cm tall. Everyday, between treadmill and road cycling, I spend about 1000 calories doing that (I use a Polar FT 60 which has been touted as being one of the more accurate cal meter outside a lab. accurate to +/-12%) and I weigh myself religiously.
    So, anyway, my BMR according, to this site is about 4000 cal per day to maintain current weight at activity level.
    In NO WAY do I consume that many a day. That is like 4 Big Mac meals with soda! A day! I eat once a day. I do not snack, and I drink mostly water and coffee with the occasional Coke Zero tossed in.
    Typically I will make a small sandwich. 2 pieces of bread, some mustard, a slice of veg-cheese, and two pieces of veg meat.
    The bread I will assume comes to 100 cal per piece. The sheeez about 100. And the “meat” about 100, so 400 per sandwich. I have 2, so 800. No chips. For dinner, I intake about 1000 calories. A guess, I have no idea. Basically tofu skins and veg that is boiled.
    Now, as I mentioned, I daily hit the tread and road for a total of 1000 spent. Intake about 2000. That is half my “calculated” BMR and yet I cannot break from 135kg! For over a month! Something, something is horribly wrong. Something is horribly over/under estimating.
    I am at the conclusion that either exercising in no way burns anywhere near the amount of calories stated, or food has 10 times the amount of calories stated, or the BMR is way, way off.

    I read, or heard somewhere, I think some BBC program that an obese runner doing a marathon will only burn about 100 calories during the whole race. If that is true, then I give up on exercise.

    • Avatar Christy says:

      Eat more. One meal a day is terrible for your metabolism, break it up into smaller more regular meals and try and speed your metabolism back up. Also, when you under eat by so much you put your body in starvation mode and it will hold onto fat instead of burning it.

  7. Avatar TheDogHermit says:

    I’m using a FitBit Charge to track all of my workout stats (I never even look at the “Calories Burned” data on a machine). Does anyone know how accurate the FitBit app is at calculating calories? For example, I walked on a treadmill for 60 minutes this morning at 3.2 MPH, average heart rate was 94 BPM, I am 5’7″ and 166 lbs; the FB App says I burned 636 calories, which does NOT sound right.

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