How Accurate Are Calorie Counters on Exercise Machines?

Exercise is not always fun, especially when you’re running a treadmill or riding a stationary bike when you could be partying at the bar or watching your favorite television show in the comfort of your inviting couch.

Often times, the only comfort that we get from those long and arduous cardio sessions is the calorie counter that shows how many calories we’ve burned as we push through the boredom on that God-forsaken machine…

The question is, can we trust that digital computer to tell us the truth? How accurate are calorie counters on exercise machines…It sure looks technically advanced, and thus trustworthy…

Researchers Weigh In On The Question, “How Accurate Are Calorie Counters”

The University of California at San Francisco put the machines to the test and what they discovered may shock you.

The scientists at the Human Performance Lab at UCSF used sophisticated machinery to determine how many calories each person actually burned while using different types of exercise machines. They then compared those actual values to the calorie counts provided by the machines.

In addition to the calorie counters on the exercise machines, the researchers also tested heart rate monitors, which report caloric expenditure, to see if they are as accurate as reported.

What’s the Verdict On Calorie Counters?

On average, the machines overestimated the number of calories burned by 19% while the heart-rate watches overestimated the number of calories burned by 28%! More specifically, the various machines returned the following values:

  • Treadmill overestimated by 13%
  • Stationary bike overestimated by 7%
  • Stair Climbers overestimated by 12%
  • Elliptical machines overestimated by 42%

As you can see, this overestimation can pose a significant obstacle to those people who rely on these numbers to estimate caloric expenditure. Lucky for me, I never trusted these machines.

Allow me to give you some alternative ways to get more out of the calorie number that ticks away with each step:

  1. When the machine asks you for your weight, input the weight that you’re aiming for, rather than your current weight. For example if you weigh 190 lbs and your goal weight is 170 lbs, you will input 170 lbs. Because the machines use your weight to calculate the calories burned, the lower the weight the fewer calories it will show you as burning. This may help to account for some of the overestimation error. In addition to providing a more accurate calorie count, the act of inputting your goal weight can act as an affirmation each time you input the goal weight number.
  2. Use the calorie counter as a challenge. Try to “one up” your burned calories with each session. If you burn 200 calories this session, try to burn 205 or 210 the next session. Make sure that you’re inputting the same weight into the machine each week in order to make sure that the machine calculates the calories consistently from week to week. Also, be sure to use this technique on the same machine. This technique will force you to increase the intensity with each workout!
  3. Use the above published percentages to recalculate your workout total at the end of the workout. This will be especially important if you use the calorie-counting model for weight loss.
  4. Don’t hold on to the handles of the machine as this practice will significantly decrease the number of calories expended. Wondering how much? Read the brief post on how to burn more calories.
  5. Give up…on calorie counting altogether. Listen to our recent interview with Jonathan Bailor, author of the book, The Smarter Science of Slim as he and I debunk the calorie-myth of weight loss. Our Fat Cutters know that we exercise to change hormones, not to manage calories. When we exercise with intensity, we change the chemistry of the body in such a way that will promote caloric expenditure all day long, rather than just while we’re chugging away on the treadmill.

About the Author Dr. Ray Hinish

Dr. Ray Hinish is a nutritional pharmacist, certified personal trainer, & certified Lifestyle & Weight Management Coach. He currently practices in Baltimore, MD, where he owns and operates a wellness center and natural foods restaurant. His mission is to help folks to live their health potential so that they can pursue their passions with confidence and endless supplies of energy!

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