Can You Count On Your Treadmill Calorie Counter?

Woman using treadmill

Even the most basic treadmill will have an in-built calorie counter that will gauge how many calories a user burns in a session. However, given that some treadmills do this without asking for salient information, such as user height or weight, how reliable are their estimates?

In this post, we are going to discuss the factors that affect the number of calories you burn while using a treadmill and why counters are often wrong in their estimates. We will then consider the other, more accurate, ways you can track your calorie burn rate and how to use this information to support weight loss.

What is a calorie?

In simple terms, a calorie is a unit of measurement, like a litre or a kilogram. The thing that is being measured is the energy that our bodies use to perform whatever it is that we are doing – from running a marathon to sitting on the sofa, everything requires energy.

We get our energy from food. Whenever we consume more calories than we require to meet our energy demands, our bodies store the excess as fat. When we consume less, our bodies must turn to their fat reserves for energy. This is what is known as being in a ‘calorie deficit’. It is important to remember that your body has access to the energy it needs while you are in a calorie deficit, it just is not getting it from your diet.

What determines the calories burned on a treadmill?

Woman running on treadmill

Increasing the demand for energy by engaging in cardio exercise is one way to speed up the weight loss process. Running on a treadmill is a popular option in this respect because it is an accessible exercise, and it can be an energy-intensive one. If you are lacing up your trainers in the hope of losing weight, then there are a number of things that you should keep in mind.

The first is the level of resistance that the treadmill is set to, also known as the ‘incline’. The higher the resistance, the harder your body has to work. You should always run at an incline of at least 1-2% to mimic the conditions of running outdoors. However, to get more out of your workout you should enter the 5-15% zone.

The second thing to keep in mind is the speed at which you are running. Again, the higher the setting, the harder your body has to work. When it comes to speed, there is no need to aim for a specific number. You will be able to tell when you are moving from ‘walk’ to ‘fast walk’ to ‘jog’ and then to ‘run’. Obviously, the faster you are moving, the more calories you will burn in a session. Mixing up your session with interval training – going at a higher incline or speed setting for short bursts – is a good way to structure your workout; there is no need to run at 15% incline for 30 minutes (although, if you can, more power to you!).

How accurate are treadmill calorie counters?

While the resistance and speed settings on treadmills can be relied on, the calorie counter is less likely to be accurate. This is because there is no objective measure of how many calories a person will burn. Factors such as gender, height, and weight will all affect the calorie burn rate. Without asking the user to input this basic information, there is no way that a treadmill calorie counter can provide even a rough estimate.

Some of the more advanced models will ask for user information and may even have a strap-on heart rate monitor. If you are using a model like this, then your calorie counter will be much better. If you only have a basic model, then you can use alternative devices to measure your calorie burn, the most popular being wearable fitness trackers.

Whether you wear a FitBit or an Apple Watch, an advantage to these devices is that they ask for your personal data (gender, height, weight etc.) and so are tailored to your body. They also monitor your heart rate throughout your session and outside of your session, thus enabling measurement of a heart rate change. These factors all improve the accuracy of their calorie burn measurements, although they will never be 100%. The only way to get a ‘real’ reading is by attaching electrodes to your body and using an expensive medical-grade machine, which is a bit too inconvenient for most of us!

Take calories with a pinch of salt

In summary, if you are trying to lose weight you need to combine a calorie-controlled diet with increased physical activity. Running on a treadmill is brilliant in this regard. While treadmills can be relied upon for their core running function, their calorie counters are often inaccurate. Using a wearable fitness tracker is a better way to measure your in-session calorie burn and also to monitor your day-to-day energy expenditure.

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