Is Your Elliptical's Calorie Count Accurate?

by Alanna Greco

Sometimes the only thing keeping me going at the gym is my cardio machine’s calorie counter, providing me with actual proof that my efforts are working. But unfortunately for my sense of motivation, it turns out that out that our gym efforts aren’t as productive as we thought: exercise machines overestimate your calories burned, and by a lot.

Researchers at UC San Francisco’s Human Performance Center set out to find the exact discrepancy between the calories that cardio machines say that users burn, and actual calories burned. In order to do this, researchers had subjects use a variety of standard gym-grade exercise equipment while also measuring calorie burn with a VO2 test that tracks fat burning though breathing patterns. The study concluded that cardio machines overestimate calorie burn by an average of 19 percent. When broken down by machine, the stationary bike overestimated calorie burn by 7 percent, the treadmill by 13 percent, the stair climber by 12 percent, and a fan-favorite, the elliptical, overestimates by a huge 42 percent.

But how can these machines be so off? Cardio equipment uses standard formulas to figure out how many calories you burn, and asks users for their age and weight in order to produce a more accurate read. But there are many more factors that figure into how many calories you burn, such as your body fat, body temperature, hormone changes, your running form, and your running efficiency. The machines themselves get less accurate as they age and at higher intensities. Furthermore, even if you are one of those people who actually enter your age and weight, many cardio machines are calibrated for men, leaving you with skewed formula from the get-go.

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But before you tear up your Valentines Day card to your favorite elliptical, know that there are some ways to more accurately gauge how many calories you’ll burn at the gym today. Experts at ABC News suggest that you enter a slightly lower weight to counter balance the machine’s overestimation, and Women’s Health advises that you simply increase your desired calorie burn by 30 percent to ensure that you will actually hit your goal. You can also use wearable devices to get a more precise idea of how efficient your workout is, like a fitness tracker or a heart rate monitor.

So even though it might be hard to get over your treadmill’s betrayal, remember that all exercise is good for you, no matter the calorie count. As long as you are pushing your body and raising your heart rate, your workout is worth the effort every time.

Image: Ivan Kurmyshov/Fotolia