Walking Guide

Busting the Top 4 Cardio Machine Myths

Spending a good 60 minutes on the treadmill is a surefire way to make you feel accomplished. After completing the machine's fat-burning workout, you feel great and quite proud of yourself as you stare at the number flashing on the screen: 752 calories burned. "Wow," you think. "That's enough to splurge on a little dessert later."

The old saying goes that what you don't know can't hurt you, but that's wrong when it comes to cardio machines. What you don't know about that treadmill, elliptical, stair stepper or stationary bike may not cause you physical pain, but it may significantly hamper your fitness and weight-loss goals. It's time we set the cardio-machine record straight! Read on as we bust four common cardio machine myths—and help you avoid their lure.

Myth #1: The Fat-Burning Program Helps You Burn More Fat and Lose Weight
I see this happen time and time again at the gym. People hop on their piece of cardio equipment, run through the program options and become seduced by the "fat-burning" program because they're looking to lose weight. I mean, really, who doesn't want to burn fat? But what the program options aren't telling you is that the fat-burning program was designed to keep your heart rate pretty low, as research over the years has shown that when you're working at a lower percentage of your maximum heart rate, you burn a higher percentage of fat as fuel. However—and this is a big however—because you're working at a lower intensity, you're also burning fewer calories. So if you only have 30 minutes to work out, you may only burn 200 calories with a fat-burning program, while if you were following a more intense "interval" workout, for example, you might burn 300. And, as we know, it's all about calories in versus calories out when it comes to weight loss. But it doesn't matter where those calories burned are coming from—just that you're burning as many as possible. So don't be fooled by the alluring programs on the cardio machines.
Action tip: Add intervals. Interval workouts, whether programs on the machine or created by you, a trainer or SparkPeople (click here for our printable interval training workouts), will always give the most bang for your calorie-burning buck. If you need further proof of why interval workouts are so great, check out this article. To set up your own calorie-burning interval workout, simply increase your intensity to a hard pace for 30 seconds followed by 2 minutes at an easy pace; repeat for up to 30 minutes. Once you’ve mastered that, try 1 minute of a hard intensity, followed by 2 minutes at an easy pace.
Myth #2: The Calories Burned Display on the Machine is Factual
I know how awesome it is to see a big number on the calories-burned screen after a hard workout. But the sad truth is that that number is usually inflated. If you think that you burned enough extra calories this morning to eat that cheeseburger for lunch, think again. Even when you specifically enter your gender, weight and age, your estimate (yep, it's just an estimate) could be off by tens to hundreds of calories. Hundreds! In fact, the majority of cardio machines manufacturers test their equipment on big, muscular guys and not your everyday Joe. Because of this, the estimated calorie burn that is programmed into the machine is based on a large man who burns tons of calories just breathing. If you're a female, this is specifically problematic. So, literally, tread lightly!
Action tip: Be cautious about calories burned. On average, most people burn about 100 calories per mile walked or ran. If your cardio machine’s calorie count registers way more than this, then err on the side of calorie caution when planning your meals for the rest of the day. In general, all machines and online calculators offer mere estimates of calories burned, so never take them as fact. A better and more accurate way to estimate your calories burned for any workout is to invest in a good heart rate monitor that estimates calories burned based on your actual workout intensity.
Myth #3: Running or Walking on the Treadmill is as Good as Running Outside
I heart the treadmill. Treadmills allow you to run at a variety of paces and inclines while avoiding any nasty weather. However, if you're preparing for a running race or walking event, you need to know that the treadmill does not challenge you as much as doing the same activity outside. In fact, the motion of the treadmill belt actually slightly helps pull your feet back, thereby allowing you to shorten your running and walking stride and put forth less energy. Less energy means fewer calories burned. In addition, the treadmill is set at a totally flat or slight decline, which also makes your run or walk easier than it is in the great outdoors. Therefore, if you're used to running or walking on the treadmill, you'll be in for a big wake-up call when you head outside and find that you can't run as fast or as long without becoming winded.
Action tip: Change your scenery. Once a week, trade your indoor workout for a power walk or jog through your neighborhood or a park. The change of scenery will help give your body and your mind something new to focus on. As your muscles work harder to propel your body (without the help of a moving belt), you'll burn more calories and better gauge your true running or walking speed. If outdoor workouts aren't an option for you, add incline to your treadmill to help offset momentum of that treadmill belt.
Myth #4: You Should Change Your Workout Intensity Based on the Heart Rate Display
The built-in heart rate monitors on cardio equipment sure are handy. After all, they sense your pulse (heart rate) from your fingertips and hands! However, your pulse isn't as strong or accurate when measured from your hands as it is when it's measured closer to your chest. Plus, these displays rely on sporadic data, which is only available when you hold on to the console or handles. This is typically a bad idea, especially if you're running or walking fast or if holding on compromises your form or causes you to lean into your hands—a sure sign that you're not really working as hard (or burning as many calories) as you may think.
Action tip: Listen to your heart. Consider investing in a heart rate monitor with a chest strap. These are the most accurate and reliable ways to measure your exercise intensity continuously and safely as you work out—without compromising your form. If a heart rate monitor isn't in your budget yet, use the Rate of Perceived Exertion or the Talk Test to measure your exercise intensity. You'll find details on these methods and more in our Reference Guide to Exercise Intensity.
Above all, remember that when it comes to exercise—on the cardio machines or not—everyone is different and no machine can really be accurate for everyone. Some are more accurate than others are, but always listen to your body and continue to track your workouts on SparkPeople's Fitness Tracker. After all, you know yourself best—and that's no myth!
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Member Comments

When using such equipment, I regularly attend an online class via YouTube or Udemy, etc. Report
Learned something new! Thanks for the article Report
This is very helpful information! Report
great. Report
Thanks Report
Thank you Report
When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice. - WHITE ELK ~ 4/19/18 Report
Actually, the one thing I noticed was on the machines I used seemed to underestimate the calories that
I burnt (the one I rode at a city rec centre 0.5 hr =110 cals (this was a moderately hard programme not steady slow cycling ) Report
Actually the one thing I noticed was that the machines I used seemed to nderestimate the cakories
the one I rode at a city rec centre 0.5 hr =110 cals (this was a moderately hard programme not steady slow cycling. Report
The idea that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie is plain wrong. If you use a calorie from fat, it's gone. You lost the weight, If you use a calorie of carbohydrate from your glycogen stores, you have to replace it before you can do another good quality workout. if you burn a calorie of carbohydrate from your exercise drink or energy bar, it was never yours to lose in the first place. To lose fat, you have to use fat. There is an optimal intensity at which the most possible fat is used per minute, and it's not at very low effort where you are using the highest percentage of fat, nor is it at high-intensity where you are using the most calories per minute. It's somewhere in between, at a pace that still feels pretty mellow and sustainable. Report
great. Report
CACUJIN
"Myth #1: The Fat-Burning Program Helps You Burn More Fat and Lose Weight" --- this is not a myth. It is more of a misunderstanding. Fat-burn rates do burn more fat than higher heart rates. Burning fat does help you lose weight. The idea that people are wasting time using equipment at fat-burn level is a self-centered one. Not everyone wants to walk away from the gym tired and sweaty. Not everyone is going for maximum burn per hour.
Report
Great to know. Report
I don't believe any of those machines. Too many variables. Report
Good to know. Report
Walking Guide

About The Author

Jennipher Walters
Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomeGirls.com, FitBottomedMamas.com and FitBottomedEats.com. A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.
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