Are Calorie Counters On Cardio Machines Accurate?

Mastermind Weekend 1/16

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I'm Tina

I’m the owner of Carrots ‘N’ Cake as well as a Certified Nutrition Coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner (FDN-P). I use macros and functional nutrition to help women find balance within their diets while achieving their body composition goals.

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Hi, friends!

I got my sweat on first thing this morning. Woohoo! I woke up, ate breakfast, and headed straight to the gym for a run on the treadmill.

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I had some fun with inclines and intervals, and I covered 4.37 miles in 40 minutes.

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Once I finished, I spent a few minutes walking on the treadmill as my cool down. During this time, I noticed that the machine said I burned 600 calories, which I thought was a serious overestimate.

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I’ve actually heard that some cardio machines bump up the calorie count by 25% or more. I remember one time I spent 60-minutes on an elliptical, reading magazines and barely breaking a sweat, and the machine said I burned 1200 calories! Um, no. The workout was much too easy to burn that many calories. Common sense.

I pretty much use cardio machine readouts as a guideline to gauge how many calories I’ve burned during a workout. To be honest, I usually don’t even look at them because I know they’re so off. Plus, I really enjoy exercise, so the calorie count at the end of my workout isn’t all that important to me. I just want to feel like a got a good workout at the end.

Anyway, if you’re curious about how many calories you burn while running, I stumbled upon this neat chart from FitSugar that tells you what your running pace and workout time translates to in calories burned. Cool, right? It seems more accurate than the treadmill, especially for a 130-pound woman like me.

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Breakfast

Before I hit the gym, I fueled up with Overnight Oats In a (Sunflower Butter) Jar and a bottle of water. In the mix: rolled oats, banana slices, cinnamon, ground flaxseed meal, and almond milk.

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Dinner

Last night’s dinner was an oldie, but goodie: Mac & Cheese Lite. I like this recipe because it has a ton of garlicky and onion flavor, but, sadly, it isn’t as cheesy as others. I actually think using a really stinky cheese would make it a lot better. I used mild cheddar, so I barely tasted the cheese. Even still, it was a yummy dinner. I even went back for a second helping! 

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After dinner, I wanted something more to eat so I grabbed an Apple Cinnamon & Pecan KIND Bar. I wanted to eat more cookies, but I figured something with a little substance would be a better bet.

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Question of the Day

How do you estimate the calories you burned during exercise? Do you use a device (Garmin, FitBit, BodyBugg, etc.) to track calories burned? Does it matter to you how many calories you burn during exercise?

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93 Comments

  1. I usually assume that the calorie counts on machines are way higher than the amount that you’re actually burning, so I don’t pay attention to them much. Having said that though, the chart you showed actually looks very similar to what “my” treadmill at the gym tells me, so maybe it’s not so far off!

  2. I love those Kind bars! Especially the chocolate peanut one!

    I’ve always wondered about the cal counters on the treadmill, stepmill, etc.. So if I’m under 130 pounds (I’m super petite), would I be burning more or less calories as listed on that chart?

  3. I agree with Claire. My exercise science professor told us that the average person burns 100 cals per mile on foot. If you weigh less than average (which I think is 150 lbs) you burn slightly less per mile and if you weight more than average you burn slightly more per mile.

  4. I’ve never really paid too much attention to the calorie counter on the treadmill machines. I try not to focus too much on working a certain number of calories off because then I start trying to calculate exactly how many calories I’m consuming and then I come a crazy person. Calorie counting always makes me so frustrated!

  5. I look at the machines calorie counter when I exercise but I always feel its either too little or too much. I just use it as a general guideline and not as absolute fact. I mean really how can a standard machine like that accurately calculate such different peoples calorie loss by just putting in your current weight?

  6. I use my garmin or daily mile online to get an idea for running, and when I’m on the cardio machine I usually subtract about 10-15%. But what I think is weird is that things like daily mile and my garmin tell me I burn more calories when I do the same distance but slower… Which makes no sense to me!?

  7. Great Post! I am always interested in the calories I burn during a workout and I never trust the machines. However, the machine was relatively closer to the correct calories burned than I thought. I want to get a heart rate monitor to track my calorie burn. Do you have any recommendations for a good one?

  8. Well I don’t count calories, but I’m a little under 110 pounds so I assume around 70 calories/mile or if I’m doing other cardio about 70 calories/10 minutes but that’s a rougher estimate. For you at 130 pounds I’d say 100 calories/mile sounds about right 🙂

  9. I’ve heard that cardio machines assume that your entire body is muscle and it calculates the calories burned that way (I’m not sure if this is right though?) so I usually don’t even look at what the machine says. It usually doesn’t matter to me too much though, I can tell when I’ve worked out hard vs. an easier workout and thats what matters most to me.

  10. I rarely pay attention to calorie counters on those machines because they always seem so off. I pay more attention to how hard I’m working and how I’m feeling than calories anyway.

  11. I don’t really track calories burned. I look at the readout that my garmin gives me, but I don’t live and die by it. I’ve heard the estimate is about 100 cals for mile, but I’m not sure what weight that was based off of (I want to guess 145?).

  12. I’ve finally stopped caring precisely how many calories I burn during a workout. I estimate that I burn between 200-300 each time I’m at the gym, which is pretty much on par with the weight/pace chart you posted, but I don’t really go too in depth with how that impacts my calorie intake.

  13. I’m vaguely interested and use an app called RunKeeper, which seems pretty accurate, and also monitor my elliptical at home. More importantly, I just like to track miles/speed. That way I know I’ve had a good workout or an active week.

  14. I don’t pay attention to calories burned at all. It’s just not that important to me! One of my friends at our (crossfit) gym wears a heart monitor, though, and she’ll sometimes tell us the calorie burn count at the end of a WOD. It’s occasionally been over 1000 calories! But that probably doesn’t surprise you now that you’ve experienced crossfit. : )

  15. I usually wear a HRM so I always know exactly how much I burn. When I’m running the treadmill count is always too low, but when I’m walking or on the elliptical it’s always too high. I use it as a guide to see how hard I worked, but that’s about it.

  16. I look at it but use it as a guide like you do. I always input my age and weight in the personal information section in hopes of a more accurate reading.

    I wanted to share a recipe for mac and cheese that is the best I ever had and it is from CookingLight!
    http://www.cookinglight.com/eating-smart/recipe-makeovers/light-macaroni-cheese-00412000072555/

    The cheese can be a little expensive but it makes a significant amount, freezes well, has butternut squash in it, and it the creamiest mac and cheese!

  17. I could care less about calories when I work out. It’s not what I am doing, it’s how I feel while doing it. That is my gauge for health, not stupid calories…leave those for those who enjoy calorie counting.

  18. I generally take the average of my HRM and what the Nike+ tell me what I’ve burned. Usually they are pretty close. I always used what the treadmill/elliptical/etc as something that is probably off by 15-25%. If I feel sweaty and I know my heart rate was workin’ I take that over a number any day.

  19. Ever since I sort of stopped running and got into weight lifting, calorie burn has almost no importance to me. It’s more about just being active, feeling strong and good, and building up muscle than it is about negating calories. PS I’ve started crossfit and fallen in love with it. I’m going to my first real class tonight and I’m a bit nervous but excited!

  20. That would be a big fat: NO!!!! I’ve used a heart rate monitor for years now and that showed me just how inaccurate all the machines are. I never go off what they say!

  21. I actually have a book that my trainer gave me when I started trying to lose weight that gives you calorie burn for a plethora of different exercises depending upon your weight, and that’s the most reliable thing I’ve found for keeping track of calorie burn. I used to pay a lot more attention to that, but now that I’m close to my goal weight, I really just try to mentally tally up an approximate calorie burn so I eat enough during the day to prevent my body from going into starvation mode!

  22. This is true, most cardio machines totally DO overestimate….especially if you’re smaller or bigger than the average size used to gauge the estimate from the machine! Smaller people burn less calories than larger/taller people (common sense), so anyone smaller than an “average” is going to have a calorie count way higher than is actual.

    I use a BodyBugg, but because I got it for free, not because I care that much. I know if I worked hard or not, and I don’t need a number to tell me that! Hah.

    Besides, weight training is awesome and you burn way more after the exercises are done (because of more muscle)….so the number shouldn’t matter too much!

  23. I totally agree with you! Ellipticals are the worse, I honestly feel cheated sometimes when I remember going to the gym as a naive teen and thinking doing 45 mins on the elliptical while watching the price is right burned like 700 calories. Oh well, I know better now!

  24. They are CRAZY inaccurate. I notice when I run on different treadmills that some even overestimate more than others.

    I only use the calorie count to play like numbers games … like… keeping going at 8.0 until I hit 400 or something like that. I generally put a weight into the treadmill that’s about 20 pounds below what I weigh, and figure that might be a little more accurate. I like that thing from fit sugar though. cool.

  25. I am a HRM junkie (Garmin 405 + Polar). Must have it during all workouts or I feel naked! I am a very petite female (5 feet tall and 107 lbs), so anything calculated as the “average” female is always way off for me. (I burn only 86 calories per mile when running!)

    Interesting thing about the gym: I use my Polar HRM + cheststrap. Before starting a workout on the treadmill, I punch in my exact dimensions (weight + sex) and have it hooked up to my HRM. I have found that when I do so, it will actually come pretty close to what my watch says. So as far machines being way off, I think it’s just a matter of information not considered into the equation.

  26. I do incline treadmill-ing for my cardio and try to burn at least 300 calories per the machine, which is most likely between 20-50 calories off. But I also don’t just workout for the calorie count. Other factors, such as a better butt, are much more important! I prefer exercises where I don’t see a calorie count – like BodyPump, weightlifting, etc. So then I eat healthy and get an added bonus from my exercise, not eat around how many calories I’ve burned!

  27. I used to always, always look at the calorie burn on the treadmill or elliptical and take it to heart. I think the treadmill is pretty accurate when you input your weight, as is the garmin – but I know my elliptical is way off.
    I’m necessarily counting daily calories anymore, yet I find myself drawn to cardio versus strength because of the higher calorie burn. I do hills/resistance and body weight strength training, so it isn’t like I’m doing zero strength. It’s just hard to get out of that mindset!

  28. I have heard that the machines where you input your age and weight are more accurate than those that don’t ask you for iot…I have also heard that the machines typically base it off a male, who tends to burn moe calories in general than females…Anyway, I also estimate about 100 cal/mile when running and when I do arc trainer, elliptical, whatever, I put it in sparkpeople. I don’t tend to change my eating based on how many calroesi I burn so it doesn’t matter to me all that much…

    1. I also meant to say that i just did one of your treadmill workouts and I was dripping in sweat by the end and couldn’t even finish without decreasing the incline and speed. I showered and am STILL red in the face!!

  29. I pay no attention to the number on the machine (other than to say HA, if only! :)), and just look at my heart rate monitor.

    I actually have big issues with calorie counters on machines– I think they could be a large reason for why Americans are overweight. I would feel “justified” eating a lot more if I believed their sky-high numbers.

  30. ya good point about the machines in gyms. i definitely think they overestimate-i wish i burned 600 calories in 40 minutes! haha…i use a nike plus when i run and a polar heart rate monitor i think give or take i can figure out how many calories.

  31. i don’t usually get too caught up in how many calories i burn, as long as i am working hard and sweating, i’m happy with my workout. like you said, most cardio machines are way off when it comes to calorie burning. the ones that ask you your weight are a little more accurate i’ve found, but still not entirely correct. there’s so many things that factor into your calorie burn that the cardio machine doesn’t take into account.

  32. I used to be obsessed with tracking calories burned at every workout. It developed into a battle with anorexia and I made sure that I burned MORE than I consumed. So sad. Nowadays I don’t even track any calories whatsoever! It is amazing. I don’t own a garmin, look at the gym equipment, etc. SOO FREEING to just exercise for health! (I don’t think that tracking calories burned is bad, at all, just not for me and my history!) 🙂

  33. How funny, because I was wondering the same thing yesterday. I joined the gym not long ago after working out at home for years. So I never cared or looked or even found out how many calories I burned. If I feel good and completely sweaty and refreshed, then I know I got a good workout. But now that all the gym equipment tells me the calories, it feels a bit odd. I kind of wish it didn’t say so that it wouldn’t make people overly focused on that. And I heard that ellipticals measure cal. according to a big college football player! 😛 lol.

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