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Are calories burned displayed on cardio machines reliable

After the last post on this blog about how it is a myth that you must do cardio 6 days a week to lose fat, I got an interesting and commonly asked question about using cardio machines. The question went something along the lines of "after doing my cardio, the cardio machine shows that I have burned X number of calories, is it ok or should I burn more"? In other words, can you rely on the number of calories burned shown by the machine?

Now first of all, not all cardio machines calculate and display the number of calories that you are burning during a cardio session. If you go for the cheaper models of treadmills, etc then you are unlikely to get this feature. On the other hand the slightly more expensive ones are the ones that have this feature. So how does it calculate the number of calories you have burned? In general it does so by using pre-set formulas for calculation, which are based on the following factors:

  • age
  • gender
  • weight
  • height
  • bodyfat % (not available in all cardio machines)
  • speed of your workout

So basically the calories burned are externally calculated, by pre-set formulas. Now is this reliable? The simple answer is NO! Ok, I hope that did not shake you up badly, and hopefully you were not one of those who base their entire workout on what number the cardio machine shows. But if you are one such trainee, then pay attention to why relying on calories burned display on cardio machines is not a good idea:

1) It is calculated on preset formulas- ask yourself this question, do you always feel the same way when you do a workout, dont you find that some days you have to work harder, whereas on other days the same workout seems a lot easier. I am sure you do, and on the days that the workout seems easier, chances are that you may have burned lesser calories, compared to the days that you struggle with the same workout. Yet, the cardio machine will show the same number on both days since your weight is the same. So how can that be accurate? Besides everyone is different, so while two people maybe of the same weight and height their bodies could burn different number of calories for the same effort.

2) It does not take your fitness level into consideration- continuing on the previous point, as you get better and more efficient at using a cardio machine, you will burn lesser calories doing the same workout at the same pace. So if you have been using a cardio machine for 3 weeks doing the same distance and same speed, you would be burning much lesser calories now. However if you have not lost significant weight, the machine will show that you are still burning the same number of calories, which is not true. 

Think of another example where two people are doing the same workout on the same machine. Lets say X and Y weigh the same and are of same height and age, but X used to weight a 100 pounds more, and has lost that weight over a period of 15 months and has now become efficient at using this machine, whereas Y is a couch potato, and is just beginning to use this cardio machine. In this case though both are physically the same size, X will burn much lesser calories for the same workout as his body is far more efficient at doing the same workout when compared to Y. And yet, this factor will not be accounted for by the cardio machine.

3) It does not always take body composition into consideration- not all cardio machines ask for your body fat %, and I am not sure that even the ones that do so actually take that into consideration when calculating calories burned. So if an athlete who weighs 200 pounds were doing a slow long duration workout, the machine would show that he has burned the same number of calories compared to a fat guy weighing 200 pounds, even though the fat guy would be huffing and puffing and exerting a lot more.

4) HIIT vs LSD difference- HIIT or high intensity interval training vs LSD or long slow distance training can have different effects on the body. An HIIT workout though might burn lesser calories during the workout itself, yet during the next 24 hours or so it will burn more calories than LSD cardio, since it raises the resting BMR. This is something that is often ignored by those who are crazy about the number displayed in the "calories burned" section. Yes, if you are a beginner with very poor endurance levels, then initially you need to go slow, but as you get fitter, you better train at higher intensity to lose more.

5) Reports suggest that treadmills and other cardio machines overestimate calories burned by 15-20 %- for all those who love to brag about those "500 calorie workouts", and then use that to justify the fatty burger and a big serving of fries post workout, this may help explain why they are not losing weight as they think they ought to. So while they maybe thinking that they have burned 500 calories (never mind the possible muscle loss too), they may have actually burned only about 400-425 calories. And when you consider that most people usually burn about 200- 300 calories in a 30 minute session, you can calculate how much lesser they are burning compared to what the machine says. 

Besides these reasons, have you ever heard an athlete talk about how many calories they burned during a workout? They might measure their heartbeat, but I doubt if anyone ever relies on calories burned to decide whether they had a good workout or not. An athlete always relies on measuring progress in his/her performance, and how intense they found their practice or workout to be. And that is what you should focus on too, that is improving performance along with following a good diet and proper recovery to burn fat.

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