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How many calories are you really burning with that video workout?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Do you ever wonder how accurate the numbers you get from exercise machines or on-line trackers are when it comes to calories burned during exercise?

You probably should, because chances are they aren’t very accurate--especially for some of the newer forms of exercise, like bootcamp programs, power yoga, kickboxing, spinning, or this new fitness sensation that's climbing up the charts right now. Unlike the old standbys such as walking, running, biking and swimming, these popular new exercise programs haven't been studied very thoroughly, so not much data is available to base estimates on. But that is beginning to change.

Read on, and find out about some recent research results you can use to give your calorie burning estimates for these activities a “reality check”...

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recently did a study of a popular “bootcamp” exercise video, to evaluate its effectiveness for fitness enhancement and calorie expenditure, and compared the results to similar recent studies of some other popular exercise programs. The results might help you figure out what's really going on for you.

The Bootcamp Video Study

ACE commissioned researchers John Porcari, Ph.D and graduate student Kirsten Hendrickson, from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse Exercise and Health Program, to determine the training effectiveness and calorie expenditure of a typical “cardio bootcamp” exercise program. After reviewing many different videos available, they selected The Method: Cardio Boot Camp with Tracey Mallett as the program they would evaluate because, as Porcari explained, it “has a good blend of aerobic movements and strength moves...where people were taxed pretty hard because that’s what you picture when you think of boot camp.”

The only way to really know how many calories you're burning is to do your exercise while hitched up to some elaborate equipment that can directly measure how much oxygen and fuel you're actually using. In this study, that was done with 6 men and 6 women, between the ages of 19 and 29, and the following results were obtained for a 40 minute workout:

Average Heart Rate 138 (men) 152 (women)
Percent of Heart Rate Max 73%(m) 81%(w)
Rating of Perceived Exertion13.3(m) 13.5(w)
Average Cals/minute 12.0(m) 7.5(w)
Highest Cals/min 15.3(m) 9.9(w)
Total Cals for 40 minutes 480(m) 300(w)

As you can see, this workout was challenging enough to keep everyone's average heart rate in the ideal aerobic training zone (70-85% of max), and to provide some intervals where heart rate was elevated above that range briefly, for maximum training benefit and calorie burning. Both men and women rated their own effort level as "somewhat hard to hard" on the Rating of Perceived Exertion scale.

Comparison of Bootcamp Workout to other Programs

These same researchers have recently done similar studies (also sponsored by ACE) with some other popular workout programs. Here's how they stack up in terms of average Percent of Maximum Heartrate achieved and calories burned per minute. Note that these figures represent results for women only, not men. The first number is the average percentage of maximum heart rate maintained for the whole session, and the second number is average calories burned per minute of exercise.

Boot Camp 81% HRmax, 7.5cal/min
Cardio Kick Boxing 86%HRmax, 8.1cal/min
Spinning 89%HRmax, 9.6cal/min
Aerobic Dance 85%HRmax , 9.7cal/min
Curves 75%HRmax, 6.4cal/min
Power Yoga 62%HRmax, 5.9cal/min
Advanced Pilates 62%HRmax, 5.6cal/min

How To Use This Information

You won't be able to exactly determine your own calories per minute information using these numbers, because you probably don't exactly match the small number of women in these studies in terms of your body size and personal fitness level. The larger you are, the more calories you'll burn, and the more experienced and efficient you are at the particular exercise, the fewer calories you'll burn (which is why it's a good idea to have some variety in your exercise routine).

But you can use these numbers to do a reality check on the estimates you're getting from on-line estimating software and/or your heart rate monitor. The best way to do this is, first, to think in terms of calories burned per minute, rather than total calories burned during your session. Take the total calorie burn estimate you get and divide it by the number of minutes you worked out, and then compare that number to those above.

For example, if the calorie estimate you get for 60 minutes of exercise is 800 calories, that means you'd have to be burning 13.3 calories per minute. As you can see, that's a lot more than anyone in these studies achieved, so it's a pretty safe bet that the estimate is way too high. For most women, the range for moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise is going to be about 6-10 calories burned per minute.

If you know your average heart rate for your session, you can also convert that into a percentage of your maximum (maximum = 220 minus your age), and see how that matches up with the numbers above. If your calorie estimate is only 300 for 60 minutes, but your average heart rate for the session was in the 65-75% of max range or more, your estimate is probably too low.

So, how do your numbers compare to these--higher, lower, or about the same?

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Thank you for the information. Report
It's all estimated. Since each person is different there is no way to calculate accurately 100% of the time. As long as you move more and eat less success is inevitable. Report
well I'm loosing weight and it started when I upped my cardio. I don't know how accurate my workouts are but its working so when I crunched the numbers it showed what I was loosing. as far as that goes not all calories are the same either not every single apple weighs the same and the same goes for most fruit. I weigh most of my food but then what I prepare won't be as accurate as we think boxed food is.. I even heard that those are off.. the bottom line is if we are losing does it really matter if the trackers are right.. I think they just keep us accountable, and that is whats working for us.. Report
I am on the side of "a heart rate monitor is good, but should only be used as an estimate" - I don't think there is any single consumer-available device out there that can accurately determine how many calories you are burning at any given time. But they can be a great benchmarker to try and push you harder during your workouts! Report
I don't have a heart rate monitor yet, and use RPE instead. I would LOVE to get a monitor and its one of my rewards but I need to further research these and will be searching SparkPeople for those articles, hopefully. I just did SparkPeople Cardio Blast 10 minute Bootcamp workout and it was intense and I felt great for doing it. I think I will stick with it for now. Report
just saw on the news today that hr monitors & calorie counters on fitness equipment can be off. I only use the calories as an estimate. I don't base my calorie intake on it. so I am good by just doing regular exercise and not worrying so much about the numbers the machine gives me. Report
Add me to the HR monitor fans. I definitely work harder when using it. I've found I'm not a very good judge of my exertion level. I've also started using my HR monitor when I do my Wii Walk It Out game. It's giving me much lower numbers than the game lists. Report
I don't have a hrm yet. I just go by what it says on this site . I hope the estimates are fairly accurate, bur would like to know for sure. I work really hard when I exercise and always sweat a lot. Some of the people around me don't look like they are working half as hard, so it's difficult to know for sure. I'd rather underestimate then overestimate. Report
I'm not into a lot of gadgets like HRMs because I don't like to complicate things. I'd rather go by "perceived exertion". With a little experience you can recognize your target zones simply by your breathing and using the talk test. I do check my HR when I use the elliptical trainer and that gives me a general idea of my heart rate at a certain "perceived exertion".

If someone tries to talk to me and I can answer them but not easily carry on a conversation then I am burning about 10 cal/min. Since I run a 10 min/mile at that level of exertion it is easy to do the math. One mile - or 10 minutes - burns 100 calories. Therefore 10 mins doing another exercise at the same perceived exertion burns about 100 calories as well. If the exercise is harder (I can't talk at all) or easier (I can talk normally) then I adjust the calorie burn accordingly. Report
I just purchased a HRM and I love it. It’s a Mio Motiva. It has several features but I started using just one, the 3500 calorie countdown. Burn 3500 calories; lose a pound of weight. As I burn exercise calories they are subtracted from the 3500 calories. My goal was to burn 500 calories a day but I am finding that with an hour of cardio I am burning way more than that. This is my first week using it, so I am dying to see if I will loose a pound if not more. Report
I agree that a HRM will be a great help in determining if I am working hard or just working. I love mine (MIO Stride)

Q Report
I am addicted to my polar heart rate monitor - it is the yardstick by which I can compare different exercises. I should say though that unlike most of the posts here, I am consistantly amazed at how similar my calorie calculation on the monitor is to the SP calculations (unlike the cardio machines which are outrageously inaccurate).
Also, for others like me who have a poor sense of body awareness and for which everywork out feels like 110% effort, I use my polar monitor to tell me if I really am exercising at optimal (85%+) or just think I am. Report
I would suggest to anyone looking into it to get a good HRM. I have one made by Polar and it is the best thing I have ever invested in. The model I have is the F11 and it calculates your heart rate and calories burned. It also keeps track of how long you exercised at a certain heart rate and what your max heart rate and average heart rate is. I think it is very helpful. The best part is when you are working out you can see how many calories you are burning and it is a great motivator! The one I have also lets you send the info to your computer and set up a free training program online where you can have a visual of your workouts. Like I said I love mine and it was well worth the investment. Report
I can never go by what it says on the cover because I am very small. When they say you'd burn 7.5 calories a mintue, to me it's more like 5 cals. Personal fitness level and body size (esp muscle mass) should take into considerations when it comes to calculating calorie burn. Report
Interesting article. Now I feel like investing in a heart rate monitor since it sounds like it would be just the boost that I need for my work-outs. Report
I tried for 2 years to lose weight, and it wasn't until I bought a heart rate monitor that I started actually losing it. Prior to getting the HRM, I had VASTLY overestimated my calorie burn on pretty much every activity.

For those of you who say you wouldn't exercise any differently with the HRM, I think you would be surprised how motivating it is to wear one, SEE your heart rate, and see the approximately calories burned numbers ticking away. Many many many times I've kept exercising beyond the point where I would normally have stopped, just because I wanted to get to a round number (of calories burned) or make it past like 500 or 750 calories.

Yes, I think Spark really needs to adjust their "approximate calorie burn" numbers for many of the activities -- Tae Bo, Belly dancing, and boxing especially, because I've noticed those numbers for me are WAY off from the numbers my HRM gives me for doing those activities.

I realize a lot depends on your fitness level and your weight, and none of the popular HRMs can also figure out VO2max, but still, Spark's numbers seem WAY high. Report
I frequently use a HRM when I exercise, mainly because the pulse count machines don't register my pulse (I can be working at a very high exertion, and only register 80 BPM, which I know is waaaay off). This article was great as a double-check tool, though, to make sure that the numbers I'm getting from the monitor are a reasonable estimate. Thanks! Report
I have a Polar F6.and I wouldn;t be without it now,it gives me peacre of mind to know I am getting in the right heart rate zone,it was a very good investment.I think anyone wanting the get the best from their workouts should definately think about getting a heart rate moniter. Report
For me, I'm not spending money on a HRM, as I will exercise the same with one as without one. Report
I have been training with a heart rate monitor for some time and it's the best investment! For me, it helps to push me harder in my activities and keeps me motivated. At the same time, I have to remember that the more experienced and efficient I am at the particular exercise, the fewer calories I'll burn and that it's important to switch up, to quote the article :) Hoever, once a week, I don't wear the HRM during cardio, because sometimes it's just better to enjoy what you're doing instead of doing it just to see the numbers. Like Amber, I don't want to think too much about it sometimes. Report
I regularly use a HRM to see how many calories I am burning. Nearly always, I am burning less than the machine averages predict - significantly less, something like half to 1/3;less. That changes when I find a new activity (such as when I first began biking) or switch to a new dvd. Can't say enough about the importance of at least periodically checking your exertion using a HRM!

I'm working in my target HR zone; it's just that I've gotten pretty fit, my resting HR is quite low (54 rather than the 80 of former days), my body is accustomed to a wide range of activities and has gotten pretty efficient, and my recovery rate is quick. Those are good things so I'll put up with a lower calorie burn :) Calorie burn is by no means the most important reason to exercise! Report
I have been checking out different HRM's and this helped me decide that ....yes, it would be a good investment for me. Report
It's all about getting up and moving around instead of sitting all day Report
I say get a heart rate monitor that gives cals burned Report
I agree 100%. As long as you are up and moving and not sitting something is burning and that is a good thing! Report
I think the real point is that its a guesstimate. But it gives you a good idea of what you've burned. It may be high or low, but unless you're tracking everything you do all day (like 10 flights of stairs 4x's a day, or walking from the back of the parking lot) your calories burned are never going to be 100%. And isn't it better to get that work out in, no matter what the amount of time spent or the calories you might have burned? Isn't it still progress? I think it is. Maybe I won't feel that way if I hit a platue for a while, but I think that will just be my sign that I need to change SOMETHING. Intensity or length of time or stop being too predictable...
I bought a heart rate monitor specifically because I knew I couldn't be burning as many calories as the machines were saying. And I was right! Some machines were more accurate than others, but on average only about 75% accurate.

But no method is perfect. I've been making sure to attempt to live my life in moderation and not worry too much about each calorie I burn. I already think about all of this too much! lol Report
I guess this just confirms what I've known for a while...I need to invest in a good HRM to have a better idea of what I'm burning. Super frustrating!
I use a HRM, but its values have always been higher than SP's and higher than this study, so I don't know what to think. I'm considerably overweight, though, and I work out in the 70-83% range of my max HR all the time, so maybe it's okay that my HRM will say I've burned 600 calories in 45 minutes? I really don't know. I've been using it since May, however, and I haven't been gaining weight, so I guess its estimates aren't too far off, or I'd see the effects on the scale. Report
This article doesn't appear to take into consideration if the exercisers were first timers, or has been doing the exercise over time. The more often you do a particular exercise, the more your body becomes used to it, and the fewer calories will be burned. That being said, and the figures given in the article, are all good reasons for mixing it different things to stay active, try new activities for your cardio, and pay attention to what your body feels like. Report
This is the really frustrating part about the "calories in, calories out". Lots of calorie expenditure calculators are off and even calorie content on some foods are off so even if you are tracking, it's quite possible that you could be wrong. Report
Yes when I do exercise I use my hrm too. Need to get back into it. But I dont really on the machines and If i dont use my hrm I use calorie by hour for thaat seems closer to my hrm than sparks. Report
I am so glad that I have a heart rate monitor. SP and the machines are consistently higher than what my HRM says. I trust it. Report
I've always used Spark's Low and High Impact Aerobics choices when I do my video dance workouts, and choose which one depending on the intensity of the workout. I just calculated my workout from a couple of days ago, and it said 5.5 cal/minute for Low, and 5 cal/minute for High. That's actually lower than what the study says for Aerobic Dance workouts, yet several people have said that they think Spark's estimates are too high. Interesting. Report
I am always confused by this. I find SP numbers high and tend to put in a little less time than I actually worked on SP to try and balance out. At the moment its working for me so I'm going with it. If I need to look at a heart rate monitor down the road, I will. Report
Based on this info I think SP calculates too high Report
This actually gives me more confidence in the HRT/calorie estimate built into my elliptical machine, (I wear a chest strap.) It's calories burned is always lower than the ones at the gyms (and considerably lower than SP's numbers), and I think it's more accurate. I wish I had an HRT that I could use while swimming. I just use SP's numbers. I guess it really doesn't matter. Just doing it is enough, and my estimate method is consistent. Report
I think just plain walking should be added, not the x minute mile thing, just plain walking for like 45 minutes. Report
Please add those to the cardio Tracker! Add the different kinds of yoga. I know I burn way different amounts of calories when I'm in doing different types of yoga. It also frustrates me that running doesn't have anything less than 12 min miles, that there is no mt biking options, no primarily uphill options, no primarily down hill options. It's one of my great frustrations on SP!

It is also frustrating that alot of the things I do I feel should be strength training, yoga, rock climbing, mt biking and the tracker doesn't say give a percentage for it. Say my ashanti yoga was 50% strength and 50% cardio, or Rock climbing was 75% strength and 25% cardio. It looks like I never do any strength training just because I don't lift weights. Report
Since I don't have a heart rate monitor, I still have to rely on the numbers provided by SP. Good enough for me. Report
I agree with SUN_CLAY, some of the SP numbers need work. I am always totally shocked by the calorie count given for kayaking ... 11 per minute, clearly totally out of line! Plus there should be a range for things like that: sometimes we're just poking around a lake, sometimes we're working hard to cross a bay against wind & tide. If we can have 4 choices for fishing (!!) we need a few more for other options. I love ya to pieces, SP, but the Add Cardio needs a makeover. Report
To me, THIS part of a healthy lifestyle is, without a doubt, the most DIFFICULT to figure out! Report
did not know that Report
So... what if you've bought a good quality heart rate monitor and it's telling you that you've burnt 800 calories in an hour? Do I believe it, or this blog? Report
This is Great Information Thanks! Report
i didnt know that Report
very interesting. Report
Great info thanks for sharing. Report
Very interesting stuff. I always think that the SP numbers seem high for calories burned. This just backs that up for me. Thanks for the info! Report
I'm glad that professionals are evaluating things like this. As a math teacher (our curriculum includes statistics and probability for 6th graders), I value studies. Too bad the samples are so small, but I also understand that $$$$ is probably one of the biggest problems for studies in general. Thanks again for publishing the information! Report