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The amount of calories that you burn in one bout of exercise will vary by gender, age, fitness, weight and type of exercise.

In some cases, an exercise machine will ask you for your weight. In fact, you may even get to enter your age and gender, but these facts are left out on many machines. Even if you get a chance to enter your weight, there is a good chance that the other variables are not being added up correctly. In the event that you don’t get to enter your weight, the machine is most likely using a base weight of about 155 pounds when it is on factory settings.

How accurate are treadmill's calorie burn displays?

As you become more fit, your body will gain efficiency in a particular exercise. Therefore, you will burn less calories doing an exercise that your body is used to. Treadmills have no way to account for variations in running form or running efficiency. A difference as simple as this can lead to a huge difference in calorie calculation.

It has also been shown that you will burn significantly fewer calories on the treadmill if you lean on the handles. Similarly, leaning forward on the stair climber or favoring arm motion on the elliptical will reduce your calorie expenditure.

University of California, San Francisco did a study to see just how far off exercise equipment calorie trackers are:

  • Treadmills overestimated calorie expenditure by an average of 13%
  • An elliptical overestimated a participant’s calorie expenditure by 42%
  • Stair climber machines overestimated calorie expenditure by an average of 12%
  • Stationary bikes were found to be the most accurate, only overestimating by 7%

Bottom Line: If you think that you have burned more calories than you have, you are more likely to eat extra calories to replace those that you burned. You can't rely on the calorie counts displayed on the treadmills.

How to calculate better

So, is there any way to actually get an accurate calorie count?

For one thing, newer machines have been shown to be better. The calorie expenditure count is also typically more accurate at lower intensities (slow speed walking). 

Higher intensities are better for long term calorie burn and cardiovascular fitness. A fitness tracker can be a relatively accurate way to calculate calorie expenditure. These trackers are much better than the machine calorie trackers for measuring high intensity exercise calorie expenditure.

Heart rate monitors are powerful tools to calculate calorie expenditure because your heart rate is directly correlated with the calories that you burn. They can also be used for any type of exercise, whether it be resistance training or cardio. The lower the heart rate, the fewer calories are being used.

Even with heart rate monitors, there is room for error, so you have to look for heart rate monitors with a few features in particular:

  • Chest strap rather than handheld or wrist strap to get consistent reads
  • Ability to input gender, age, weight, resting heart rate, max heart rate and maybe even VO2 max
  • Proven software and algorithms that have been tested on subjects that vary in fitness, gender, weight, etc.

Bottom Line: Heart rate monitors are usually more accurate than cardio machines. You have to look for heart rate monitors with in which you can input gender, age, weight, resting heart rate and max heart rate.

Can you rely on the calorie counts on the treadmill?

It would be super convenient if exercise machines just maintained accurate calorie trackers, but this, unfortunately, is not the case. The important thing is that you should assume the number on the treadmill is an overestimate.

Bottom Line: You can't rely on the calorie counts on the treadmill. 

Conclusion

The best thing that you can do to avoid falling into the trap of thinking you burned more than you did is simply be aware of the inaccuracy. If you can get a better way to track calories burned, such as a heart rate monitor, you will be in a great position. Otherwise, you just have to be aware.

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Written by Katie Carsky , B.S. in Medical Humanities from Boston College | MD/MPH candidate at Tulane University School of Medicine
Katie runs everything from road 5K’s to trail 50K ultramarathons, and she is the captain of Eagles Club XC at Boston College. She enjoys using research to make comprehensible articles for readers.

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