How accurate is the “calories burned” indicator on your cardio machine?

When you scroll through your Facebook news feed you are likely to see some posts from your friends where they put a picture of the display of a cardio machine up showing a large number of calories burned. And shortly after that they post a picture of some dessert they ate after the workout with as justification that the dessert contains fewer calories than they burned so they will still lose weight. But how accurate is the calorie counter on your cardio machine exactly?

The answer to this question is simple: not accurate at all.

How many calories you burn exactly on a cardio machine depends on many more factors than your cardio machine can know. The machine normally measures the resistance of your training and the duration, and before you start you need to enter a few metrics like your age and body weight. And based on these inputs it will estimate your calories burned.

But in reality the number of calories burned depends on many more factors that the machine cannot know. For example it matters if you a male or female because males generally burn more calories at the same effort level as females. But if you don’t enter your gender the machine cannot know.

Also your fitness level will make a huge difference. If you are out of shape it will cost your body a lot of effort to keep going at a high pace burning lots of calories. But a well-trained marathon runner can easily hold a high pace for hours without breaking a sweat as his body is trained to conserve energy while running.

And finally your height also has an influence. If you are short and have short legs it will take you much more effort to run at 10 kilometers an hour on a treadmill than someone who is very tall with long legs. For every step he does you have to make 2 or 3. Your caloric burn will therefore be much higher than his.

So be very careful with accepting the “calories burned” you see on the indicator of your cardio machine. You can even test this for yourself by doing the exact same workout on similar machines of different brands: the results will differ widely. Research by the University of California found that especially elliptical machines overestimates the calories burned (+42%), followed by treadmills (+13%), stair machines (+12%), and stationary bikes (+7%).

If you are interested in getting better estimates of your calories burned during a cardio workout you can consider buying a heart rate monitor. Here you normally enter much more data and by keeping an eye on the level of effort (high heart rate means you put in a lot of effort) the results are much more accurate than the display on an average cardio machine.

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