Fitness Articles

Busting the Top 4 Cardio Machine Myths

Don't Let These Myths Sabotage Your Success

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Spending a good 60 minutes on the treadmill is a surefire way to make you feel accomplished. After completing the machine's fat-burning workout, you feel great and quite proud of yourself as you stare at the number flashing on the screen: 752 calories burned. "Wow," you think. "That's enough to splurge on a little dessert later."

The old saying goes that what you don't know can't hurt you, but that's wrong when it comes to cardio machines. What you don't know about that treadmill, elliptical, stair stepper or stationary bike may not cause you physical pain, but it may significantly hamper your fitness and weight-loss goals. It's time we set the cardio-machine record straight! Read on as we bust four common cardio machine myths—and help you avoid their lure.

Myth #1: The Fat-Burning Program Helps You Burn More Fat and Lose Weight
I see this happen time and time again at the gym. People hop on their piece of cardio equipment, run through the program options and become seduced by the "fat-burning" program because they're looking to lose weight. I mean, really, who doesn't want to burn fat? But what the program options aren't telling you is that the fat-burning program was designed to keep your heart rate pretty low, as research over the years has shown that when you're working at a lower percentage of your maximum heart rate, you burn a higher percentage of fat as fuel. However—and this is a big however—because you're working at a lower intensity, you're also burning fewer calories. So if you only have 30 minutes to work out, you may only burn 200 calories with a fat-burning program, while if you were following a more intense "interval" workout, for example, you might burn 300. And, as we know, it's all about calories in versus calories out when it comes to weight loss. But it doesn't matter where those calories burned are coming from—just that you're burning as many as possible. So don't be fooled by the alluring programs on the cardio machines.
Action tip: Add intervals. Interval workouts, whether programs on the machine or created by you, a trainer or SparkPeople (click here for our printable interval training workouts), will always give the most bang for your calorie-burning buck. If you need further proof of why interval workouts are so great, check out this article. To set up your own calorie-burning interval workout, simply increase your intensity to a hard pace for 30 seconds followed by 2 minutes at an easy pace; repeat for up to 30 minutes. Once you’ve mastered that, try 1 minute of a hard intensity, followed by 2 minutes at an easy pace.
Myth #2: The Calories Burned Display on the Machine is Factual
I know how awesome it is to see a big number on the calories-burned screen after a hard workout. But the sad truth is that that number is usually inflated. If you think that you burned enough extra calories this morning to eat that cheeseburger for lunch, think again. Even when you specifically enter your gender, weight and age, your estimate (yep, it's just an estimate) could be off by tens to hundreds of calories. Hundreds! In fact, the majority of cardio machines manufacturers test their equipment on big, muscular guys and not your everyday Joe. Because of this, the estimated calorie burn that is programmed into the machine is based on a large man who burns tons of calories just breathing. If you're a female, this is specifically problematic. So, literally, tread lightly!
Action tip: Be cautious about calories burned. On average, most people burn about 100 calories per mile walked or ran. If your cardio machine’s calorie count registers way more than this, then err on the side of calorie caution when planning your meals for the rest of the day. In general, all machines and online calculators offer mere estimates of calories burned, so never take them as fact. A better and more accurate way to estimate your calories burned for any workout is to invest in a good heart rate monitor that estimates calories burned based on your actual workout intensity.
Myth #3: Running or Walking on the Treadmill is as Good as Running Outside
I heart the treadmill. Treadmills allow you to run at a variety of paces and inclines while avoiding any nasty weather. However, if you're preparing for a running race or walking event, you need to know that the treadmill does not challenge you as much as doing the same activity outside. In fact, the motion of the treadmill belt actually slightly helps pull your feet back, thereby allowing you to shorten your running and walking stride and put forth less energy. Less energy means fewer calories burned. In addition, the treadmill is set at a totally flat or slight decline, which also makes your run or walk easier than it is in the great outdoors. Therefore, if you're used to running or walking on the treadmill, you'll be in for a big wake-up call when you head outside and find that you can't run as fast or as long without becoming winded.
Action tip: Change your scenery. Once a week, trade your indoor workout for a power walk or jog through your neighborhood or a park. The change of scenery will help give your body and your mind something new to focus on. As your muscles work harder to propel your body (without the help of a moving belt), you'll burn more calories and better gauge your true running or walking speed. If outdoor workouts aren't an option for you, add incline to your treadmill to help offset momentum of that treadmill belt.
Myth #4: You Should Change Your Workout Intensity Based on the Heart Rate Display
The built-in heart rate monitors on cardio equipment sure are handy. After all, they sense your pulse (heart rate) from your fingertips and hands! However, your pulse isn't as strong or accurate when measured from your hands as it is when it's measured closer to your chest. Plus, these displays rely on sporadic data, which is only available when you hold on to the console or handles. This is typically a bad idea, especially if you're running or walking fast or if holding on compromises your form or causes you to lean into your hands—a sure sign that you're not really working as hard (or burning as many calories) as you may think.
Action tip: Listen to your heart. Consider investing in a heart rate monitor with a chest strap. These are the most accurate and reliable ways to measure your exercise intensity continuously and safely as you work out—without compromising your form. If a heart rate monitor isn't in your budget yet, use the Rate of Perceived Exertion or the Talk Test to measure your exercise intensity. You'll find details on these methods and more in our Reference Guide to Exercise Intensity.
Above all, remember that when it comes to exercise—on the cardio machines or not—everyone is different and no machine can really be accurate for everyone. Some are more accurate than others are, but always listen to your body and continue to track your workouts on SparkPeople's Fitness Tracker. After all, you know yourself best—and that's no myth!

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Member Comments

  • Myth #5 -- "And, as we know, it's all about calories in versus calories out when it comes to weight loss."

    My major objection in the above statement is the use of the word "all". This simplistic line of thinking has been repeatedly debunked. There are a whole host of other issues that impact weight loss. Illness, inflammation, hormonal disturbances, etc, etc. etc. If you have no inflammation (no illness, no gastro- intestinal problems, no allergies, no sensitivties, i.e no autoimmune responses that often result in water retention and other adverse effects to your body), you are getting your ultimate dose of sleep daily, you have only the slightest amount of stress (i.e. not enough to tax your adrenal glands), you have a wonderful social support system, your thyroid is working perfectly, and you are literally in PERFECT health, then perhaps weight loss or gain is directly related to net caloric intake minus caloric expenditure.

    How many of those people do you know?

    Or, maybe I misunderstood?? Perhaps the author made the above quoted statement pejoratively.
  • I didn't know there were "myths" attached to cardio machines! What a silly & unnecessary article. If you're OFF THE COUCH & working out--it's all good! Doesn't matter what you do, or where you do it--just MOVE! Walking is a great workout...whether inside, or outside. I love my treadmill--saves me from bad weather, unleashed dogs, and attacking birds (damn blackbirds!). So if I'm doing it wrong--oh well. At least I'm doing it!
  • Tip: don't eat what you burn. Defeats the purpose.
  • The Polar ft4 monitor works well for me so far. I got it for this very reason, and have not regretted it. Good article :)
  • Hi! I love treadmill so much because its give me best work than any oyher exercise equipment.... :-)
    Through http://treadmillr
    eviewzblog.com/ this link you can know the best & affordable product information.
  • CKOSSNAR
    I've had tremendous success with treadmills. I walk(fast) outdoors-weather permitting, but I use a treadmill in the winter/bad weather. I can feel that it is a very different movement, although if I loosen my hold the handle bars, it is similar to walking outdoors. anyway, I walk about 2.5 miles a day, on the treadmill I walk at a speed of 4.8-5 miles per hour. Sometimes 4.8 mph with an incline of 1 degree. This has helped me just as much as walking outdoors, maybe moreso. I eat sensibly but not particularly low cal, & I have steadily, albeit slowly, burned fat at a pretty constant rate(other than the holidays). My cholesterol & triglyceride #'s have improved drastically, with the help of fish oil. To sum it up, I've had a lot of success with treadmills, so, to each their own.
  • I don't believe the machine a whole lot anyway. For the heck of it, I'll do an hour at a time.
  • LAURAABRODY
    I also use a fitness app on my watch (googlefit; gwatch) and it defiantly gives me a more accurate counts than any machine I use.
  • I use a stationary bike at home. As a general rule of thumb, I don't do less than 20-30 minutes. That is the average amount of exercise recommended on a daily basis by fitness experts. I to try and mix up workout routines - bike faster for ten minutes, slow down for five, then work on arms, etc. About three times a week I aim for 50-60 minute work outs. I always feel great after that. So, don't worry too much about how many calories you burn off - I tend to focus on length of workouts and intensity.
  • I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestion to get a chest strap heart rate monitor. They're easy to use, they're comfortable, and a no-frills model (like mine - Polar FT7) costs around $60. It was well worth the spend, and I wear it every time I work out - both to get an accurate calorie count AND to monitor my heart rate to make sure I'm exercising at the proper intensity. It helps me know when to pick up the pace and when to slow down.
  • I tested my Elliptical against the SparkPeople data and against the data reported from my heart monitor; Doing 30 minutes at level 1 resistance without incline comes within a couple calories of these other indicators. I believe my machine is properly calibrated at this time. I do test it a couple times a year to make certain it remains accurate.

    While I do believe that not every machine will be properly calibrated, I also believe that when one starts taking away the trust of those machines, one stands to risk the loss of the motivators. It starts feeling the same as with people who cheat on the Leader Boards: everyone knows they are cheating and it is pointless to try to achieve I higher rank because you know it won't happen unless you cheat too. So what is the point of having them.
  • I have a treadmill (I have now had 3) a rowing machine and an exercise bike. None are even close to my heart monitor with calorie burn.

    My last treadmill always read about twice the calorie burn while my new one is way under, after 10 minutes it can be 50 out.

    The others are much the same. So it is worth getting a HRM
  • MMGAGE1701
    I use a heart-rate monitor when I work out to give me a more accurate calorie count. I will second the article's statement about running outside to prep for races too. It's very different than on the treadmill, and the thing about increasing your incline to more closely mimic running outside is a myth. I use my treadmill to give my shins a break from the pavement and because it's great for doing intervals (and avoiding rain/snow/ice).
  • I don't pay attention to monitors; I just do as much as I can until I'm worn out and have to stop. I'll adjust the intensity of my workout to fit the amount of time I have: maybe a long fast walk one day, a shorter walk mixed with short sprints another day, and all day doing work in the garden another, maybe with some short and very intense karate practice here and there. Weights three days a week too of course. Variety in exercise is good. Also, if exercise can involve a practical skill you get more bang for your exercise buck. That's why I do things like karate, running, gardening, and so on. Even things like laundry and house cleaning can be good exercise if you do them right.
  • I am one of those people that get excited when I see I have burned 700+ calories but always think it is not correct. But then when I see that my spark tracker, "sparky" as I have named it, tells me it is damn close on when I am uploaded to Sparkpeople. I feel a bit more at ease that the treadmills we have at the local gym may be somewhat closer than your old run of the mill treadmills at the other gyms around my areas. These treadmills have a lot of bells and whistles with inclines and declines (something I haven't seen before.) And it has been working for me so far.

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomeGirls.com, FitBottomedMamas.com and FitBottomedEats.com. A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.

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