Am I burning as many calories as I think I am on the elliptical?
June 10, 2013 11:15 AM   Subscribe

My gym has several different types of cardio equipment. I've been using the recumbent bike for a while now, but recently tried the elliptical. The elliptical seems to say that I'm getting more "bang for my buck" in terms of exertion for calories burned. Is this possible, or is the machine inaccurate?

Both machines are made by Precor. I input my weight and age at the beginning of each session to get a more accurate calorie count. According to the recumbent bike, I am burning about 500-520 calories in 60 minutes, but in order to get this figure, I have to max out the resistance on the machine and really exert myself.

On the elliptical, the machine gives me an estimate of 500 calories burned after only 45 minutes. I have the resistance turned up about halfway, and while I go along at a pretty intense clip, I do not perceive that I'm having to exert myself as hard as I am on the recumbent bike.

The simplest explanation is that the calorie counters on one or both machines simply aren't that accurate.

However, one rational explanation for the discrepancy is that I'm using more large muscle groups on the elliptical than on the recumbent bike. On the elliptical, I'm using my glutes and quads heavily, whereas on the recumbent bike, it seems like there's less quad and glute involvement and more hamstring and hip involvement. Plus I'm using my upper body on the elliptical, but my arms are more-or-less stationary on the recumbent bike, unless I try to swing them--awkwardly--at my sides.

I'm not interested in disrupting my weight loss progress to hash out the difference between the machines myself, so I'm hoping someone here has some personal experience or knowledge of exercise science that help me sort this out.
posted by jingzuo to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't pay too much attention to the calorie counts on the machines...they're notoriously unreliable. Also, exercising for weight loss is a helpful add-on, but the best way to deal with calories is through diet.
posted by xingcat at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

The calorie counts are nuts. I've seen treadmills where hard walking burns 3-4 kCal in thirty minutes... and I've seen ellipticals that claim I'm practically burning a cheeseburger every hour. Both are nuts.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:29 AM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ignoring whether the actual calorie counts are accurate, some machines are more efficient at burning calories than others. In my experience, the hierarchy of Precor machines is when it comes to ease of burning calories (according to whatever their formula is) is:

o Stairclimber (fastest)
o Treadmill
o Elliptical

I've never used the recumbent bike, but my impression was that you couldn't burn calories on it very quickly.

The range of motion is larger on the elliptical. You're also standing, rather than sitting, while using it.
posted by deanc at 11:33 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Calorie counts on machines are notoriously inaccurate

Counting calories burned is not as easy as 1-2-3
Lies, Damn Lies and Calorie Counters
Putting Very Little Weight in Calorie Counting Methods

How well averages work for calibrating calorie counters depends to some extent on the type of exercise you're doing, says William Haskell, an exercise physiologist and professor of medicine at Stanford University.

* Treadmills (as long as they ask for your weight) and exercise bikes (where weight is less important because you're sitting down) offer fairly good accuracy.

* Machines such as ellipticals or cross-country skiing simulations, which require a certain skill level for proper use and are calibrated according to people with that skill level, are less reliable. So are calorie counters that attach to outdoor bikes because they should -- but probably can't -- take gear ratio, wind (direction and strength) and terrain (uphill, downhill or flat) into account.

* Holding on to handrails can throw off the count on treadmills and stair-climbing machines. The rails support part of your weight, and the counter can overestimate the calories you're using by 30% to 40% because the averages come from people who are not holding on or using the rails to help pull themselves forward.

posted by Comrade_robot at 11:33 AM on June 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

The Straight Dope forums featured an almost identical question a few years ago.

Most responses boiled down to "machines lie about calories counts." You may also see a relatively high calorie count on the recumbent because you're using the highest resistance. What do your poor knees think of 60 minutes of this punishment?
posted by maudlin at 11:35 AM on June 10, 2013

In addition to what people are noting above, the fact that your perceived rate of exertion isn't very high on the elliptical is probably indicating that your form isn't correct. When I learned the "right" way to use the elliptical, I had a hard time going for more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time--in contrast, just bouncing up and down and letting your bodyweight do most of the work means you're probably burning fewer calories than you could/should be burning. See this question for more info.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:38 AM on June 10, 2013

Are you very tired in the evening? Are you sore the next day? Are you extra-hungry after working out? This is how I know that I have worked out hard and am making progress, and I suggest that this may be a more accurate (and yes, motivational) method of gauging your workouts as well.
posted by epanalepsis at 11:50 AM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

nthing that machines are inaccurate for calorie burn. The most accurate way to find out how many calories you are burning during exercise is with a heart rate monitor.
posted by bedhead at 11:53 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

The calorie estimates are estimates built upon estimates and are highly inaccurate. They are just dumb algorithms that assume some theoretical human doing some theoretical version of the exercise at hand.

Case in point, I have a fairly high end Precor treadmill that says for my given weight, walking at 3.7mph causes me to burn 338 calories/hour. If I bump that up to 3.8mph it says I burn 601 calories/hour.

Why? Well, their simplistic algorithm probably considers 3.7 to be walking and 3.8 to be jogging but for me there is virtually no difference in the amount of effort I expend. So if the algorithms are this simplistic you can't assume that it properly calculating anything with accuracy let alone trying to use them to compare two different exercise regimes.
posted by mmascolino at 11:59 AM on June 10, 2013

Thanks for the responses so far.

My diet is well in hand. The exercise is a necessary adjunct.

I searched Google before asking my question, but didn't come across that Straight Dope question. That question was actually the opposite of mine, though, because that person thought they were getting more calories burned for less effort on the recumbent bike. The recumbent bike doesn't bother my knees at all, even on the highest resistance.

My form is correct on the elliptical.

Soreness, hunger, and fatigue aren't going to be a helpful measure of the effectiveness of my cardio routine, unfortunately, as I'm on a diet and I lift heavy free weights 3-4x per week. I don't think I could separate out what's causing what.

It sounds like a heart rate monitor may be a good option.
posted by jingzuo at 12:10 PM on June 10, 2013

Your heart rate is probably a better indicator of how hard you are working on the machines. Keep your heart rate in the target zone for 45-60 minutes and you are getting a decent workout.
posted by COD at 12:11 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Those calorie counts aren't great in terms of accuracy. I would make sure you are entering your weight and age at least to try to make it a little more accurate -- on my Precor elliptical you have to press "options" and then "enter" and it will prompt you for age and weight.

However, I definitely think an elliptical is a better workout than a bike, especially if you don't hold onto the handlebars on the elliptical. Standing upright and needing to balance will provide more of a workout than sitting down and peddling with your feet. Try using the elliptical with your arms in an L-shape in front of you, as if you were jogging. And on the other end of the spectrum, compared to a treadmill, elliptical machines have a less impact on your joints, so you can go harder, longer. I strongly recommend elliptical workouts.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:47 PM on June 10, 2013

Even heart rate monitors are not always terribly accurate. But for the average person, they're better than exercise machines. I'd recommend getting one that asks not only for your weight and height but also your maximum heart rate and resting heart rate, since those are important factors. (Other things being equal, someone whose resting heart rate is 50 will be exercising much harder at 120 than someone whose resting rate is 80.)

The Compendium of Physical Activities suggests that the METs required for an elliptical trainer and a stationary bicycle, at moderate effort, are comparable, though they don't have much data on ellipticals.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:51 PM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here's the real question: do you need to be counting cardio calories? Since you have nutrition in hand and have a good lifting regimen (assuming you're doing big compound movements and such), long-term scale loss is likely to be fat rather than muscle---so why not just track bodyweight changes (with the occasional body composition measure by a pro to confirm), and, so long as the scale is moving the right direction at an acceptable pace, keep doing what you're doing? If not, reduce calories/increase cardio duration or perceived intensity. Simplicity...

(I speak here as someone who lost upwards of 100lbs, mostly in two ~yearlong bursts of ~50lbs each with this method---going to moderate to lowish carb at a reasonable calorie deficit, progressive overload lifting, and un-calorie-counted gym cardio, mostly HIIT keyed to heart rate and/or subjective intensity.)
posted by paultopia at 5:20 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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