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. Continued ›
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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.

Member Comments

  • 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
    - 7/15/2014 3:24:46 AM
  • 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). - 6/6/2014 9:25:44 AM
  • 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. - 4/26/2014 10:55:16 AM
  • 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. - 4/25/2014 6:50:05 PM
  • While this article is a great warning not to take the numbers on the calorie readout too seriously, I believe there is some flawed information. DADKAT had several valid nutritional points that were not covered or considered. Calories in vs. calories out may be a simple calculation as for WEIGHT loss, but those that are concerned about FAT loss and MUSCLE MAINTENANCE, which will give the APPEARANCE of more weight loss should be doing longer, lower intensity workouts so they are not tearing away hard-earned muscle mass. Tefular cardio workouts that are too high in intensity will result in a small version of exactly the same body you had before. If you don't care about muscle maintenance and fat loss and a lower body far composition, go for those high-intensity cardio workouts. This is not to say that the occasional high intensity workout doesn't have it's place in your workout plan, though. And APACHESTEVE, I'd guess that the reason for the lower calorie output on the incumbent vs. the elliptical is that on the elliptical your entire body weight is being supported on your feet and your core has to work harder to keep you upright and balanced, a feat in engineering in itself. This is also the reason you would burn more calories walking or running outside vs. on a treadmill-uneven surfaces will require more body work. In the end, it's all relative to your goals-more fat loss vs. ANY weight loss. I'll take the former :)
    - 4/25/2014 9:25:02 AM
  • I think the most important thing to consider is the mentality we subject ourselves to when doing cardio. The point of burning calories is not to replace those calories with more food - particularly foods that are low in nutrients and high in unhealthy fats, unhealthy carbs, sodium and unnecessary sugars. Just because you supposedly burned 200 calories on the treadmill today does NOT mean you should go and eat a whole candy bar that's the same amount of calories. It's not just about calories in vs. calories out. What's in the calories you're consuming makes a HUGE difference when it comes to weight loss. I mean, maybe you do yard work each day and burn an average of 500 calories each time. But do you really think that eating cheese burgers that are 500 calories won't show up on your body just because you supposedly "burned" that food off?

    I came across a body building forum about a week ago while researching nutrition science degree programs. There ways a guy who referred to women who do mostly cardio as "cardio bunnies" and proceeded to make fun of their attempts at weight loss. While I don't appreciate his slight to women who focus on cardio, he made a very valid point in all of his sexist talk. Many people who do cardio often make the mistake of thinking that burning calories earns them the right to eat whatever they want. I can have 2 huge slices of cake if I burn 600 calories today. That's the wrong way to think, and I completely agree with that guy on that point. If your only purpose for jumping on the treadmill is so you don't have to feel guilty come Thanksgiving, think again. It's what's in your "calories in" that truly counts. You won't lose weight by replacing the calories you burn with unhealthy, greasy or processed foods - no matter how many calories you burn in a day or week.

    I think the point of this article isn't so much to cast a negative light on cardio machines as it is to make us really think about the mentality we take on when using those machines. It is highly likely that they aren't as accurate as they could be ... - 11/26/2013 12:31:16 PM
  • Just a quick note about accuracy for both cardio equipment at the gym AND heart rate monitors. They are both flawed for many reasons, but give you a general ball park figure on calories burned. I agree with GLAM-CAT about exercising for different (more significant reasons) other than simply calories burned. After all, if I exercise only so that I can eat the amount of calories in a whole wheat bagel, how depressing is that?!!!! - 10/12/2013 8:33:38 PM
  • DADKAJ
    just started to read and the first myth made me amazed - in a negative way. it is not true that calories in - calories out. it matters where these calories come from. if one burns more glycogen vs fat, the body has homeostatic mechanisms to make sure that the glycogen stores are repleted for the sake of stable blood glucose and working muscles - i.e. kicks in the hunger. it really depends on the intensity of exercise and individuality of each person. too intensive run is not good for burning fat - it depletes glycogen instead as above certain threshold the body is not able to metabolize aerobically and it also needs more time to break down fatty acids than it needs for glucose. and i guess that everybody here knows what acummulated lactic acid can do in case of too intensive workout. this confirms that the fat-burning modes are not accurate for everyone, but at the same time it does matter where the calories come from - 10/6/2013 5:52:15 PM
  • Let's put it this way. If the machine doesn't ask for your gender, age, weight, height, AND can't read your heart rate, then whatever number it's flashing at you is a lie.

    Same thing goes for those workouts or exercise guides. They're NOT accurate. Say two people start jumproping for 30 minutes. One person is a woman who is 25 years old, 5 feet tall, and weighs 120 lbs. The other is a man who's 40 years old, 6.5 feet tall, and weighs 275 lbs. They are NOT going to burn the same number of calories, no matter what your exercie machine or website says. - 10/6/2013 7:21:42 AM
  • I've never assumed that the calories burned on any of the cardio machines at my gym are accurate. For example when I perform a 30 minute cardio interval workout on the incumbent bike it actually records more calories burned then if I do a 30 minute cardio interval routine on an elliptical. Things that make you go hmmmmmmm.....

    I am curious how Spark arrives at their calories burned in their exercise tracker? I'm an engineer by education and a calorie is a measure of energy expended. My understanding of physics is that it takes more energy for a body of my mass to do the same work as say Coach Nichole. So then how can she and I burn the same calories in the same workout as recorded in the exercise tracker??? Now in the real world for the same time and same intensity my body will burn more calories, but Coach Nichole is in much better shape and will be able to do much more work at a higher intensity than I can, thus burning more calories in the long run. - 10/3/2013 3:02:47 PM
  • ugh, I hate the treadmill. Even if I watch TV, I am so bored, but I can run outside for miles and come home feeling so energized. - 10/3/2013 7:39:16 AM
  • "that are making you fat" -- kind of an obnoxious title being that ANY cardio would be beneficial & burn calories. - 9/4/2013 11:20:38 AM
  • GLAM-CAT
    I don't really care about calories burned during a work out. I work out to get better body shape, stronger bones and muscles, better mood NOT to eat more. Why? A few years ago I was going to gym 3-4 times a week, doing cardio and strength training. I have photos of myself from that time and a time when I weighed the same, but without working out. The first photo set motivates me like nothing in this world. My body was amazing. And I wasn't counting calories burned. Just how many minutes I spent on doing my work out. - 9/4/2013 5:42:41 AM
  • NINA4D
    Great article!!! Been faithfully on my treadmill for 10 months M-F, 40-60 min. per day and have not lost weight and or inches. I do not eat my activity calories, but for once this makes total sense. I am going to step it up and rotate my exercising. Thank you again! - 7/20/2013 12:05:50 PM
  • funny...my heart monitor and my edge bike (yes, I use both) are usually in agreement for heart rate, though typically 100 cals different when it comes to expended effort...? - 7/13/2013 9:47:14 AM
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