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Do exercise machines lie? What you need to know about the feedback you get

from U.S. News & World Report

We've all been there: After a hard-core tryst with the stair-climber or elliptical machine, you step off feeling virtuous when you see how many calories you just burned. Before you give yourself a high-five in the mirror or treat yourself to a 500-calorie scone at your favorite coffee joint, there's something you should know: "The readout information on exercise machines can be off by as much as 20 to 30 percent – giving you numbers that are 20 to 30 percent higher than the calories you actually burned," notes Michele Olson, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, or ACSM, and a professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University–Montgomery in Alabama. "Over a couple of weeks, that [overestimation] can add up to thousands of calories, and it can really throw you off if you're using it to decide what to eat and you're trying to lose weight."

Granted, some of the feedback you get from exercise machines – such as heart rate, distance covered and pace – is pretty accurate, says exercise physiologist Richard Cotton, national director of certification at the ACSM. But the calorie count is another story. And some exercise machines are more reliable than others in this respect. In a 2010 study at the University of California–San Francisco’s Human Performance Center, researchers evaluated the accuracy of four different cardio machines’ calorie counters, compared to a VO2 analyzer that assessed an exerciser’s calorie expenditure during a workout by tracking his or her breathing patterns. What they found is that all the machines tend to err on the high side, and some more than others: Stationary bicycles overestimated calories burned by 7 percent; stair-climbers did by 12 percent; treadmills by 13 percent; and elliptical machines by a whopping 42 percent. more

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