How Accurate are Treadmill Calorie Counters?

The other day I saw a tweet on Twitter that said “I just burned 938 calories in 45 minutes” and I thought WOW! That’s a lot of calories to burn and this person must have been busting their butt.

The very same day a friend told me she loves a particular mainstream treadmill because the it said she burned 740 calories in 45 minutes – all 110 pounds of her. Later on I rode the bike at my gym for 45 minutes and it said I burned only 625 calories. And I was using HIIT training and pushing hard. So what gives?

Well I did a bit of research (thank you Professor Google) and what I’ve found is there really isn’t any proof, data or studies to back up the calorie burn figures shown on many treadmills.

In fact from one manufacturer to the next the numbers can be significantly off and in many cases inflated. That said this doesn’t mean you CAN’T use these metrics as a training tool.

If you routinely use the same treadmill, I actually don’t think it matters if the calorie counter is accurate as long as you try to keep burning more of them and progress in a program.

It’s like body fat testing – most forms are horribly inaccurate in terms of the result they give you. But if that number continually goes down you know you’re making progress regardless of the outcome.

So if your session on the treadmill this week tells you that you’ve burned 500 calories in an hour but next week reads 540, well then you know that more energy was expended.

The fact is there are many factors that contribute to our actual calorie burns. Two people of the same weight can be light years apart in body mass, with one having considerable muscle and another being obese. Yet when both enter their weight into a treadmill, it will kick out the same number of calories burned if both individuals kept the same pace.

Surely that’s not correct. Furthering the inaccuracy is a person’s level of conditioning, genetics and gender. Two seemingly identical people can have vastly different calorie burns based on cardiovascular efficiency and a whole host of personal differences.

In fact less fit people may burn MORE calories because they have to work harder initially. When you’re a pro often times you just plug away in a very efficient manner. This is another reason why cross training and continually changing your program is a good idea – you burn more!

Another factor to consider is that no treadmill will ever tell you whether you’re burning fat or sugar. This would require serious monitoring in a laboratory with strict guidelines. Personally I think we’re a nation too obsessed with calorie counting.

The old days of “calories in versus calories out” is just that – OLD. Every food has different metabolic effects on the body, so to say 100 calories of cookies is the same as 100 calories of broccoli is silly. And I know that many people look at that calorie counter as an eraser or free pass to binge. It’s just not so people.

Sure you’re burning calories when you exercise – no one disputes that. But the calorie counter on your favorite machine is just a guess at best and not to be followed as gospel.

I have a friend that has a fairly high-end heart rate monitor. It asked for her age, weight, height and some other information including gender –  and the difference between what her watch said and a popular treadmill was nearly 200 calories less!

So if you like to keep track of calories burned then great. But realize it’s just an estimate. Let’s be honest – you know when you’re working hard or not. You don’t need a heart rate monitor to tell you that (unless medically necessary).

Are treadmill calorie counters accurate? They're not – but don’t let that stop you!

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