The In(Accuracy) of the Calorie Counter
By: Marylin Salgado
September 2, 2019
Last week I wrote a blog on the pros and cons of running on the Treadmill vs. the Road and vice versa. With that in mind, I would like to re-focus this week on the treadmill, and other cardio machines; but this time, I would like to discuss the calorie counter that is installed on these fitness machines.
Whether I walk or run on the treadmill, or do interval training, I have noticed the fitness tracker will calculate how many calories I have burned. The thing is, I workout at both the gym and my boyfriend’s home. At both places, there are treadmills available, but the gym is cooler than his place. I sweat heavier when I workout at my boyfriend’s then at the gym, yet the treadmill still calculates a similar calorie burn. I fail to see how accurate this is if the treadmill, unlike us living, breathing beings, can feel heat, moisture or cold.
According to experts, and of course treadmill manufacturers, the treadmill is pretty accurate if you input your weight, age, gender, and with the speed, workout and incline used; it can give you a pretty close number of how many calories you have burned. Again, what about environmental factors?
If anything, this calorie counter is convenient and plays a big psych role in how good you feel about your workout. I know I feel great when I see the sweat coming down and the calories burning off. Just to clarify on the sweating; it is not a good indicator of a good workout. Sweating is your body’s way of cooling down. It does not tell you how many calories you’ve burned since everyone sweats at a different rate. It does however, enhance circulation and increases blood flow.
Let’s consider other factors.
- Fitness level – I have seen some people walk on a speed of 3.8 or lightly jog on a speed of 3.8. I have done both and noticed that I sweat more with a light jog then with speed walking. Here is where things get interesting. Whether I walk or jog, I burn the same number of calories, but yet the sweat output is greatly different. For those that are not used to running on the treadmill or can’t do it for health reasons, you will notice that you will have to increase your speed in order to sweat more. As your body adjusts, you will burn fewer calories than what the treadmill is calculating. This is definitely something to consider.
- Body Composition – Most people who initially start working out, are looking to burn fat and tone. Some have the benefit of starting straight into weight training since there are so thin, they need to increase muscles mass than burn fat. Efficiency for those wanting to burn fat is key here. When you first start working out and building stamina, you will burn less calories then when you are at optimal fitness and can increase workout time and levels. Again, the treadmill might not be the most dependable given the number of calories actually burned.
- Body size – Two people can have the same body frame, but the heavier person will burn more calories. Do the same workout on the same machine at the same speed, and given just a slight difference in age (not gender), you might get a close number of calories burned.
- Age – This is a huge one. As you get older, you will definitely not burn the same number of calories as when you were younger. Given this important fact, you will have to workout longer in order to gain that same workout benefit. Again, the treadmill will probably tell you you’ve burned many more calories than you actually have.
For example, if a 160-pound woman with 35 percent body fat and a 160-pound woman with 20 percent body fat are both running at a 10-minute mile pace, the treadmill will display the same amount of calories burned. However, the woman with the lower body fat and more muscle mass is actually burning more calories. – Christine Luff, verywellfit, July 29, 2019
The exercise bike, although you are upper body stationary, has been studied to be the most accurate calorie counting cardio machine. If you happen to be working on a top of the line stationary bike, then you will get the most accurate read as it measures metabolic equivalent and watts. The one downside to this top of the line bike is that it can’t determine your pedaling technique, which in turn can inaccurately measure your final calorie count. If you don’t care much for all this technical mumbo jumbo, then a simple stationary bike will do. Just don’t expect it to get an accurate number out of it. For a more intense workout, a standing climb positional machine will offer a higher resistance and will no longer support your upper body weight, adding intensity to your workout.
The stair- stepper is another very effective and popular machine, but there are also a few things to keep in mind with this machine. If you lean forward while taking short and quick strides, you can decrease your calorie burn by as much as 50 percent. Using a big moving staircase stepper will help maximize your workout and burn a lot more calories.
In a recent study, the elliptical trainer was noted to burn more actual calories than a treadmill and give you a better overall workout, but yet the counter shows it burns less calories than the treadmill. It was also shown that ellipticals over-estimate your calorie burn by about 40 percent, when in fact, you have burned much less. The benefit of the elliptical is that it actually burns more fat then a treadmill, has less impact on your feet and knees, and has the ability to retain your gait and more of a natural body motion.
The elliptical also adds the benefit of giving you a great cross training cardio workout with higher intervals and less time on the machine. You get the same benefit of a less intensity workout and much more time on a treadmill or elliptical. If you workout on ellipticals, which I also love to do, workout and sweat your butt off, but don’t rely on that calorie counter to let you know you how much you burned of last night’s pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
If you decide you will use a wristband fitness tracker, don’t bother spending too much money on these, either. Although they have been known to accurately measure heart rate, they are not very dependable on measuring calories burned. Caloric intake would be much easier to measure since you are providing the tracker with this information during the day.
In conclusion, how you feel and your healthy weight is what, in the long run, will measure how many calories you have burned and how effective your workouts have been. High tech or not, don’t depend on the calorie counter to reach your fitness goals.
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