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How Accurate Are Calorie Counters?

These electronic gadgets may be working against you

Burning calories is crucial for losing weight. But most guys sleepwalk through their cardio and don't get results. If you've been bragging about torching 500 calories every session, brace yourself. The calorie counters can be inaccurate—and misleading.

REALITY CHECK
When it comes to the quality of your workout, think of the numbers ticking by in front of you as more of a guideline than gospel. The amount of calories you actually burn per session depends on your overall fitness level. A raw beginner may shed calories quickly because his body isn't used to training, but that will gradually change as you get in better shape. "When your body gets used to a workout, it doesn't burn as many calories," says Melissa Rodriguez, C.S.C.S., a Boston-based personal trainer. For maximum burn, switch workouts often.

FAT-LOSS FORMULA
To get the best gauge of how many calories you're burning in every workout session, you need a heart rate monitor. Never rely solely on your machine's counter. "Most aren't accurate for about 20% of the population," says Joe Stankowski, a C.P.T. from Grand Rapids, Mich. Even on high-tech equipment, little things can screw up the counter. "Sometimes, it's as simple as how you grip the handles," says Rodriguez. "If you hold on too tightly, the measurement will run too low. If you hold on loosely, it may be much higher."

REAL DEAL
Here's what you should expect to burn, per minute, in your next cardio session.

Low-Intensity Training
Activity: softball, golf
The Burn:

  • 4-6 calories if you're fit
  • 6-8 calories if you're not

Moderate-Intensity Training
Activity: jogging, rowing
The Burn:

  • 8-10 calories if you're fit
  • 10-12 calories if you're not

High-Intensity Training
Activity: running, boxing
The Burn:

  • 12-15 calories if you're fit
  • 15-20 calories if you're not

HOW TO MAKE CARDIO MORE EFFECTIVE
1.) Pick the Right Machine
Ellipticals with levers that you push back and forth with your arms offer a better workout, since integrating your upper body will activate more muscles.

2.) Don't Hold On
If you grip the frame of your machine, you're making it easier. Use the arm levers or move your arms in a natural running motion. 3.) Forget the Numbers
stay focused on how you're burning the calories. "Don't expect the activity to do the work," says Stankowski. Throw a towel over the display and just concentrate on pushing yourself hard. 4.) Pay Attention
"Listen to your own body and monitor your own effort," says Rodriguez. "Soon you'll be able to rate the quality of the workout by how your body feels when you finish."

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