How Many Calories Do You Really Burn On Cardio Machines?

Before you get too excited about your total, see whether the calorie counters are accurate — and how many calories you really burn — on the elliptical and other gym machines.

After 30 minutes of sweating on the elliptical, you look down at the console and start feeling pretty triumphant about your cardio session. While you can definitely trust the machine to tally the amount of time you put in, can you put the same stock in the little counter telling you how many calories you burned on the elliptical? (

Here, experts dish on just how accurate your calorie readout really is on cardio machines at the gym. Read on to see which machines and data you can trust, plus how many calories you burn on the elliptical, stationary bike, treadmill, and stair machine.

How to Calculate Calories Burned

First, it helps to know a little about how to calculate calories burned. To estimate it, scientists use a unit called the metabolic equivalent for task (MET). This unit more or less measures how hard your body is working. Different tasks and exercises will clock different METS; for example, running can be anywhere from 7 to 13 METS, depending on speed.

To find out about how many calories you're burning, you can plug the estimated number of METS for the activity you're doing into a formula along with your bodyweight and the amount of time you're doing the activity. You can refer to the Compendium of Physical Activities which is a giant list of activities and how many METs they "cost," then plug it into an online calculator like this Cornell University Ergonomics METS to Calories calculator to get your result.

Reminder: Working out isn't always about burning calories or losing weight. You can work out to feel good in your body, score some mood-boosting endorphins, to get stronger, train for an event, stay healthy for life, or even as an activity to bond with friends, family, or your partner. So while it's fun to know about how many calories you might burn on any of these gym machines, know that it's certainly not the most important thing about your workout — if its even worth noticing at all.

Calories Burned On the Elliptical

Why pound your joints on the treadmill when you can burn just as many calories on the elliptical while you watch Real Housewives? Here's why: A recent study named the elliptical trainer the least accurate when it comes to calorie counting, with most machines overestimating your burn by 42 percent, says Jay Cardiello, a strength and conditioning specialist and author of Bodyweight Strength Training. Another estimate from the American Council on Exercise says that they can be as much as 20-30 percent off.

Why are elliptical machines so off base? Unlike treadmills, which can closely replicate your normal gait, the movement of the elliptical is not a natural motion, says Cardiello. Ellipticals also vary from manufacturer to manufacturer in terms of the range of motion, so a 'standard' just is not feasible. Plus, while using the arm levers (handles) will increase your heart rate, your arms don't weigh a lot compared to your hips, butt, and leg muscles, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., senior clinical professor in the Department of Sport Science and Physical Education at Huntingdon University. "So don't confuse a pronounced increase in heart rate from more arm movement to mean a pronounced increase in calories expended."

How many calories you burn on the elliptical: The average American woman weighing 170lbs will burn about 386 calories/hour on the elliptical. (To calculate it for your workout, go to this calculator, input your weight, 5 METS, and the amount of time you're exercising.)

How to burn more calories on the elliptical: If you really want to maximize your calorie burn on the elliptical, try an elliptical HIIT workout, which will alternate periods of hard work and rest to burn calories while you're working out and long after. And remember, the elliptical is also an awesome choice if you're coming back from an injury or illness, want a recovery workout when you're sore, or need to do something low-impact to take care of your joints. (

Calories Burned On the Stair Climber

Hang out at a gym long enough, and you'll notice a trend among most stair-stepper users: They lean over the console while taking super-short, quick strides instead of using their full range of motion. What's so bad about that? Leaning forward can decrease your total calorie burn by as much as 50 percent, says Olson. And even if you make it through your session without doing that, most stair steppers still overestimate your total burn by about 20 percent, she adds. (

Here's why: "Many models calculate the 'gross energy expenditure' and not the 'net energy expenditure.' Gross energy expenditure includes your resting metabolic rate, or the calories you would burn anyway," says Olson. "What you really need to know is how many more calories above your resting metabolic rate you are burning." So if the machine reads 400 calories burned, a 20-percent adjustment to find your net number reveals that the stair stepper workout is responsible for 320 of those 400 calories. "In other words, the workout caused you to burn 320 calories, and you would have burned the additional 80 sitting and reading a book anyway."

How many calories you burn on the stair climber: The average American woman weighing 170lbs will burn about 695 calories/hour on the stair stepper. (To calculate it for your workout, go to this calculator, input your weight, 9 METS, and the amount of time you're exercising.)

How to burn more calories on the stair climber: Always stand up straight and only hold onto the handrails lightly (if necessary). If your gym has a stepmill — the machine with the big moving staircase — try using it instead of a stair-climber or stepper, which only requires your legs to make small movements. It isn't easy (there's a reason a stepmill is always open when all the treadmills are taken!), but it's worth the sweat. (More here: How to Get the Best Workout On the Stair Climber)

Calories Burned On the Treadmill

Good news for treadmill fans: Experts agree that the calorie counter is pretty accurate, especially if you input your weight and don't use the handrails. The problem is that many treadmills don't ask for your weight and use a reference of about 155 lbs, Olson says. That means if you weigh 135 lbs, you're really burning about 15 percent fewer calories than the machine says (300 calories vs. 255 calories, for example).

Relying on the handrails — especially during higher inclines or while running at high speeds — can throw off your reading by as much as 40 percent (that 300 calories burned just became 180). And we're not just talking about the people who pull themselves up a hill for 20 minutes. Placing even just a slight amount of weight on the support rails can decrease the actual calories burned by 20 percent (or more), says Olson. (More here: How Many Calories Do You Really Burn While Running?)

How many calories you burn on the treadmill: The average American woman weighing 170lbs will burn about 757 calories/hour on the treadmill running at 6mph. (To calculate it for your workout, go to this calculator, input your weight and the amount of time you're exercising, and then find the correct number of METS to go with your speed, and input that as all.)

How to burn more calories on the treadmill: To maximize your treadmill time, avoid the handrails, and be sure to practice good posture. "Slumping over can have a major impact on your oxygen intake, making your workout harder," says Cardiello. (Learn more about proper running form.) If you can, take your run outdoors whenever possible. "Running outdoors is more difficult on the body," he adds. "And you can't equally compare the distance and speed with your treadmill run vs. outdoor running; the calibration and physical stress are less from the treadmill than your outdoor trail run." Can't make it outside? Go a little longer (or farther) with your indoor session to make up for the terrain difference or try this HIIT interval running workout.

Calories Burned On the Stationary Bike

Stationary bikes are in their own class of cardio machines because they support your body weight, says Olson. "If the bike is calculating calories based on technical data such as METs and watts (which measures power output), the calorie readout can be very accurate." In fact, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco's Human Performance Center found stationary bikes to be the most accurate of all cardio machines, with an overestimation of only seven percent.

One thing to keep in mind: A bike can't determine your pedaling technique, which could throw off your final count, says Olson. "For example, you will burn more calories if you are using a standing climb posture at a heavy resistance, compared to seated pedaling at the same resistance. This is because when you stand and climb, you are no longer weight-supported." How big is the difference? According to Olson, a 15-minute standing climb burns about 15 percent more calories than seated pedaling at the same resistance. (Just watch out for these other spin bike workout mistakes.)

How many calories you burn on the treadmill: The average American woman weighing 170lbs will burn about 540 calories/hour on the stationary bike. (To calculate it for your workout, go to this calculator, input your weight, 7 METS, and the amount of time you're exercising.)

How to burn more calories on the stationary bike: Pedal with purpose. You'll burn fewer calories overall (seated or standing) if you pedal without enough resistance. Try this 30-minute stationary bike workout that'll challenge you with intervals.

The Bottom Line

Take your calories-burned readout with a grain of salt. Too many machines ignore important factors such as your weight, use of handrails, or fitness level, which makes a big difference, says Cardiello. "[An individual's fitness level] is the biggest factor. How can a 200lb, out-of-shape man and a 165lb male considered to be in excellent physical condition burn the same amount of calories? They don't!"

Instead of relying solely on calorie counts, try monitoring your heart rate during cardio sessions or gauge your efforts using the perceived rate of exertion. The "talk test" makes it easy to determine if you're really working hard (if you're gasping for air while trying to sing the lyrics of a song, you are at a near maximum intensity, says Cardiello).

Updated by Lauren Mazzo
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