How Many Calories Did You Really Burn?

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How Many Calories Did You Really Burn?
© Tina Anderson,
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Wonder who is burning the most calories on these treadmills?


I often get asked how many calories one might burn in a cycling class, for example, since the person asking me the question has usually experienced an outrageous calorie burn on a treadmill or elliptical – like 600 to 800 calories, etc.  I wonder how many people run out and have an extra large serving of dessert thinking they have excess calories to burn. Or, on the flip side, wonder why they aren’t losing more weight, based on what the treadmill is telling them.

Manufacturers of cardio equipment have improved the accuracy of calorie-burning estimates but there are far too many factors involved to achieve precise numbers. What we are really getting is their best estimate. The newer, more expensive the machines, the better chance of improved accuracy, especially if you have to input a lot of personal information but each manufacturer uses a different formula to calculate our precious burn. For example, Precor USA, created their formula in consultation with the American College of Sports Medicine. Generally, those formulas include weight and age, along with speed of the workout and incline or intensity level. But, there are many other factors that the machines do not factor in to their formulas. What are some of the variables that affect our calorie expenditure? Let’s see. The minor ones like gender, body fat, your metabolism, how long – or consistently you’ve been using the machine; how efficient you are using the machine and of course, your age! And yes, I tested my Bodybugg several times and yes, the cardio equipment was usually about 25-percent higher than my monitor.

According to, machine calorie counts tend to overestimate by 10 to 15 percent up to as much as 50 percent. (Holy Hell!) Why, because muscle burns more calories per minute than fat; because men generally burn more calories than women, because older individuals typically have a slower basal metabolism than their younger counterparts; and, because interval training may show less calories burned than steady state but that configuration excludes the important after-burn that can make a huge difference in the long run. Fitness levels vary greatly between members of the same height, weight, gender, and age. Those of us who have been consistent exercisers are probably burning less calories, too, unless getting on the treadmill or elliptical is part of our cross training routine. Therefore, it is IMPOSSIBLE to account for the athletic efficiency and/or biochemistry of one user over another.  And then there’s dehydration, chronic illness, stress and innumerable other factors that can alter your ability to burn calories at any given time. Even the most gifted mathematician with detailed information about an individual cannot correctly predict with 100% accuracy the rate at which calories will be burned during a specific activity.

So, why use them? Motivation and benchmarks. These indicators definitely give you a ball park figure by which to estimate your calorie expenditure. And, in case you’re a bit curious as to those estimated numbers, here a few based on an average elliptical trainer:

  • 150 pound woman/30 minutes: 387 calories
  • 180 pound man/30 minutes: 464 – 500 calories
  • 120 pound woman/30 minutes: 310 calories

So, what else can we do to maximize calorie burning on our beloved cardio machines? Try the reverse direction on an elliptical and by all means change your incline levels and speeds on a treadmill. Unless you are dealing with an injury or medical condition, you need to be at 1.5 incline on your treadmill to somewhat replicate outdoor walking.  If you are one of those walkers at level zero, time to hit the up arrow!

Okay, so not to discourage you, but at least you know the real deal. Kind of ironic, since it seems that young, obese men who have never worked out before will take the gold medal for calorie burn. Curious. What is the most you’ve burned according to a piece of cardio equipment? I’ve pushed 600, but that was after 60-minutes of continuous hard work with killer tunes and major determination. Made me want to drink after I was done…

Live In The Groove At 50 & Beyond Author Tina Anderson Certified through ACE and AFAA and possessing a number of specialty fitness certifications, Tina Anderson started teaching group fitness in 1985 and has coordinated or consulted for over 15 group fitness programs, served as a master trainer and coordinator for Star Trac Fitness and their Precision Cycling Program, completed project work with major corporations and on international projects, presented as a guest speaker and maintained her personal training business throughout. As a fitness author, Tina's articles often appear in national and international fitness publications.

Tina is an independent trainer in the South Orange County, California, area where she trains small groups and private clients - contact Tina Anderson for information on her current and upcoming Battleground Fitness programs and classes.

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