Many of us rely on the inbuilt calorie counters in treadmills, cross trainers, stationary bikes and stair machines to give us an indication of how much less we can hate ourselves in the shower afterwards. The better versions of these calorie counters will ask you for your age, weight and gender before giving readings – but even these aren’t quite as reliable as you may have thought.
The bike supports more of your weight than any other cardio equipment. Because of this you are using only your legs to keep the machine going, which makes it easy to standardize calorie expenditure, making the stationary bike the most accurate cardio equipment with respect to burn rate calculations.
The only way to vary the burn rate is by changing your pedalling technique. For instance it is harder to stand on the pedals than it is to sit down with the same resistance as the seat is no longer supporting your weight. This is a popular routine in spinning classes as it provides a simulation of uphill mountain biking.
The calorie counter on the treadmill is recognized as being one of the most reliable cardio machines, second only to the stationary bike. This is because you can’t easily cheat by adjusting posture or varying your gait, the treadmill will mercilessly keep you pumping away without offering a way to decrease the load. The only way to deceive the calorie counter is to decrease your weight by holding onto the rails. Gyms should consider high voltage handrails to avoid this temptation.
The treadmill is easier than running outdoors, but running on concrete will wear away at your joints over time. To compensate for this decreased difficulty just increase the incline by a few percent or run for a bit longer.
The cross trainer has a clear advantage over the treadmill, namely that you don’t wear out your knees and spine, due to the zero-impact motion. However, a recent study shows that the cross trainer is possibly the least accurate when it comes to estimating your energy expenditure, with some machines giving read-outs up to 40% higher than true values.
One possible reason for this inaccuracy is that the movements we make on the cross trainer aren’t as natural as those on the treadmill.
Cross trainers also vary greatly between brands, with different resistances and ranges of motion, making standard calculations even more difficult.
Furthermore, whilst on the cross trainer we use a combination of leg and arm movement to increase our heart rate. Yet the cardiovascular benefit of using your legs or arms are very different. Your arms weigh much less than your legs, hipps and glutes, which means that the more you rely on your arms to keep the cross trainer going the less calories you burn.
The main problem people have with the stair machine is posture and technique. As soon as we get tired we have a tendency to lean forward and take shorter, faster steps, instead of pressing the pedals all the way to the floor. When you lean forward this way you are handing over a lot of your weight to the machine and are therefore working less to move your body up and down. However, the machine doesn’t know that you’re cheating in this way, and so will overestimate your calorie expenditure.
To get the most out of stair machines, keep your back straight and eyes forward, and don’t lean on the handrails. Also don’t cheat yourself with the range of motion – take long and deliberate steps. Don’t worry if you find you can’t do as much as before, at least now you’re doing it properly and you can build honest fitness over time.
In general you shouldn’t rely to heavily on calorie counters, as even the most accurate tend to overestimate. A better way to get an idea of exertion is to use a heart rate monitor and aim to keep your heart rate within the margin as dictated by your age. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor then this old rule works quite well: you should be able to talk whilst working out without getting too winded, but if you can sing you’re not working hard enough.