Fitness Articles

Busting the Top 4 Cardio Machine Myths

Don't Let These Myths Sabotage Your Success

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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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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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