Are You Really Burning as Many Calories as That Cardio Machine Says?

This is the age old question that even I wonder about sometimes. You step on whatever machine it is to do your 30+minute cardio workout and you proceed to enter your weight and/or age before you begin. Then you continue to workout until the machine tells you that you’ve burned “x” amount of calories. You step off the machine, and for many of us- the number of calories that we’ve burned gives us the perfect excuse to head right from the gym next door to the bagel shoppe where we can proceed to stuff our faces with whatever high-cal treat we want without feeling guilty…right? After all, you deserve it for working so hard!

There are two things wrong with this picture though. First of all, if the above scenario describes you, then you seriously need to re-think the reasons that you workout. And secondly, what most people don’t realize is that the so-called number of calories that they think they’ve just burned are only an approximation. In many cases, the machines are nowhere near as accurate as you think! So, you may be making room for those extra calories when you can’t really afford to…which may later clue you in as to why you aren’t dropping the pounds the way you’d hoped.

Tragic, I know. So, let’s look at some of the reasons that the machines are giving us false expectations.

Reasons Why The Cardio Machines Don’t Count

  1. Energy Expenditure-The thing that makes humans great is that we are all different. For example, the energy expended on a treadmill by a 25 year-old who weighs 120 pounds and is out of shape is TOTALLY different from the energy that is expended from another 25 year-old who weighs the same but is an elite runner. So, what’s the problem? The problem is that the machines cannot tell the difference. Need it broken down further? For the person who is “in-shape,” a 7 mile run on a treadmill at 7min/mile pace will be a walk in the park and probably won’t yield the same amount of calories burned versus the “out-of shape” person who will be sweating up a storm and wheezing as he or she tries not to pass out in front of the entire gym. See the difference?
  2. Body Fat Percentage-Another problem with cardio machines is that they cannot tell the body fat percentage of an individual. For instance, a person who has a higher percentage of body fat will typically burn fewer calories than a person who has more muscle mass. It is a known fact that the more lean muscle a person has, the more calories that person will burn because muscle naturally burns more calories than fat.
  3. Your Target Heart Rate-Your target heart rate has to do with the first point I made about energy expenditure. If you want a more accurate representation of how many calories you’re really burning while doing cardio, figure out ahead of time what your target heart rate is. Defined, your  target heart rate (THR) or Training Heart Rate is: “a desired range of heart rate reached during aerobic exercise which enables one’s heart and lungs to receive the most benefit from a workout. This theoretical range varies and is based on one’s physical condition, gender, and previous training” (source). To break it down into even simpler terms: If you are walking and talking comfortably or running and chatting it up without breathing too hard, then you are nowhere near your target heart rate because you’re not putting out maximum effort. However, if you’re walking or running and can barely get a word in in between all of the sweating and heavy breathing, then you may be closer to your THR. There are all sorts of formulas and ways that you can figure out your target heart rate. The American Heart Association (AHA) provides some suggestions as well as Discovery Health.
  4. Technique– What the machines don’t tell you is that if you hold on to the “oh crap” handles versus swinging your arms at your side, then it will actually reduce the number of calories that you burn- sometimes by up to 40-50%! It’s ok if you want to hold on for dear life, but realize that occasionally changing up your technique can help burn up a few extra cals.
  5. Familiarity-When it comes to getting in shape, diversity isn’t only GREAT, it is an absolute must. Believe it or not, when you do the same thing over and over again, your body sort of acclimates to it. For instance, if you are a total gym groupie and head to the gym only to hop on the elliptical machine for 30 minutes every day at the same intensity, eventually it won’t be challenging anymore and you probably won’t see any results. Instead, switch it up every now and then. Sometimes, I like to play musical chairs with the gym machines. I’ll walk briskly for 10 minutes on an incline and then jump onto the elliptical for 20 minutes before finishing it off with a nice easy 10 on the stationary bike. Variety is the spice of life!
  6. Calibration-Depending on the gym that you go to and the type of machines that they house; with poor maintenance or outdated machines, the calibration can get thrown off. This can mean that the numbers you see on the screen aren’t entirely true. If you have concerns about whether or not the machines are working correctly, you should definitely bring it up to the gym person who’s in charge. After all, you’re not paying money each month to use crappy machines, and if you are, then you may want to think about switching gyms!
  7. Different Manufacturers– One of the last things to take into consideration is who manufactures the machines that you use at the gym. There’s a rumor going around that the newer the machine is, the more accurate it may be in calculating your total calorie expenditure…BUT keep in mind the other six points that I just brought up. Even if everything is the same on a piece of equipment that you’re using at one gym compared to another, the amount of calories burned may still be different because various companies use their own “special formulas” to calculate how much they feel an average person of a certain age and size will burn at a specific level of intensity.

I hope these tips help you stay grounded during your next workout, and I apologize if I dropped the ball on anyone!

The word ‘aerobics’ came about when the gym instructors got together and said: If we’re going to charge $10 an hour, we can’t call it ‘jumping up and down’. -Rita Rudner

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