Calorie Burn: Could Your Exercise Equipment be Telling you Lies?

calorie burn

My gym has recently installed a vast array of shiny new treadmills, stationery cycles and elliptical, all with impressive screen displays and access to a wealth of information about your workout.

So much information is available on the exercise equipment that it often takes me more time to work out how to get the thing started than do the actual workout. I admit to being an eavesdropper in the gym because the conversations floating around the barbells and leg press provide me with a wealth of material.

My eavesdropping tells me that its good to know how fast and hard you are working out but there is no doubt that in my gym and probably in most others everywhere, the calorie counter on the cardio machines is the proverbial gold nugget. It’s not just the satisfaction of knowing how much you have burned off but also an unofficial license defining the boundaries of how much you can eat as soon as you leap off that machine.

Sadly but not really surprisingly, some recent studies have shown that cardio machines and fitness trackers are not entirely accurate and in some cases, not even remotely reflecting reality.

Researchers have found that exercise equipment like cardio machines overestimated calorie burn by 19% on average. The elliptical was the biggest fibber, overestimating calories burned by a substantial 42%, the treadmill by 13% and the stair climber by 12%. The stationary bike told the most truth but still overestimated calorie burn by 7%.

It has been shown that newer machines are more accurate which means happy days in my gym but usually most of us just have to deal with whatever exercise equipment is available at our gyms. None of this should be a huge surprise though, as most machines only account for age and weight without considering heart rate, body temperature, body fat, fatigue and hormones which fluctuate often.

Outside of the gym, you will see fitness trackers such as Fitbit, Jawbone and now the Apple watch gracing the wrists of many people who might not step a foot in a gym. Various studies have shown that these devices also have a margin of error but do give a more accurate assessment of calorie burn plus they can be worn all day to measure overall energy expenditure. The downside is that many of them can’t track stairs or cycling as they don’t contain an altimeter but they can track basic steps, calories and the length of exercise.

I love that fitness trackers help motivate people to maximize their daily step tally and improve fitness levels making them a very useful tool in managing health and well-being. I love the conversations and comparisons in workplaces that drive those extra steps and encourage us to do a couple of laps of the office to reach our target for the day.

Accept that the numbers flashing results while you are striding out on exercise equipment or the tally on your wristband as benchmarks and not scientifically written in stone. Don’t base your calorie intake or consume extra calories based on the number provided but do use them as a push towards being more active and increasing your fitness levels. Calories are a bit like money in the bank, it’s good to know you have some extra up your sleeve for when you really need them.

On the Move

The productivity and engagement of staff should be a top priority for businesses simply because it drives the profitability of the company and there are many innovative businesses globally who look for unique ways of doing this. Stand up desks and fit balls are now more common in the workplace than ever before but a finance company in the US has taken it to a new level.

This company undertook a year long study of their finance workers using a treadmill desk. They found that the productivity of 40 treadmill users dropped at first as they struggled to master typing and manipulating a mouse while walking at speeds of up to two miles per hour. That speed doesn’t seem fast on paper but try typing while moving and I bet it seems a little trickier.  Despite the initial productivity drop, within four to six months, all three measures of performance – quality and quantity of work, and quality of interactions with colleagues – rose steadily, according to weekly surveys of participants.

Treadmill desks, standing conferences and walking meetings are all gaining attention, with research showing that being desk-bound at work for long periods poses a health and safety risk to workers. The research also shows that extended sitting was a separate risk factor from not getting enough daily physical activity.

For tasks like solving problems or taking calls, walking can be useful because it increases blood flow to the brain, but there could be downsides too. The Wall Street Journal wrote about treadmill desks last year and discussed the possibility of falls and injuries and painful shocks from the machines build-up of static.

Of course, there are some types of jobs that are not well suited for a treadmill desk including those that involve fine-motor tasks such as threading a needle or using tools that might sever body pieces.

If a treadmill desk has not appeared at your workplace as yet, there are other things you can do to reduce your sitting time.  Standing to talk on the phone, using an adjustable desk that allows sitting or standing, walking to speak to a colleague rather than emailing or simply taking regular breaks away from your desk are all good ways of reducing your sitting time.

Are you using an innovative way of moving more at work or home?