How Accurate Are Treadmill Calorie Counters? (Some Are)
By Simon Gould
One thing we all want to know about our workouts on treadmills is how many calories we've burned. This is especially useful if we're trying to lose weight. When you have a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories you lose a pound of weight. Here I'll go through how the calorie counter numbers are calculated, and whether they can be trusted.
Some calorie counters are more accurate than others
You think the answer would be they are either accurate or not and this is not the case as it does depend on each treadmill to determine if they are. To tell how many calories you've burned during exercise you need to know your weight. The heavier you are the more calories you burn on a treadmill. The ones that display a number without knowing your weight are purely guessing.
Treadmills and the medical community measure calories burned using METs
METs is short for "metabolic equivalents" and is guide to how your metabolic rate is when you're doing an activity. A MET of 1 is how much energy your body is using when you're resting or sitting still. So a MET of 5 means your body is working 5 times harder than it is when you're doing nothing. Using this number and an accepted formula, the number of calories burned can be calculated.
|Activity||Incline||MET||Calories burned in 30 minutes|
|Walking 3 mph||0%||5.9||240|
|Walking 3 mph||5%||7||284|
|Walking 3 mph||10%||8.1||329|
|Jogging 4 mph||0%||7.5||306|
|Jogging 5 mph||0%||9.1||371|
|Running 6 mph||0%||10.7||437|
|Running 7 mph||0%||12.3||503|
|Running 8 mph||0%||13.9||569|
|Running 9 mph||0%||15.5||635|
|Running 10 mph||0%||17.2||700|
- The numbers above are based on someone weighing 180 lbs. If you weigh more the numbers would be higher and lower if you weigh less.
- METs and calories burned were obtained using this online calculator.
- Jogging or running on an incline for 30 minutes is bad for your joints, so I've used 0% incline for those activities.
The chart shows as you start running at fast speeds, you're burning a lot of calories. You can also see it's harder to walk at 3 mph on a 10% incline than to jog at 4 mph. For the MET number of over 800 activities including household ones like cleaning, click here. The formula for calculating calories burned from the MET is METs x 3.5 x (your body weight in kilograms) / 200 = calories burned per minute (source).
Even using METs isn't perfect
It's nearly impossible to be truly accurate for each individual. This is due to other factors that can't be easily measured. You burn less calories doing the same activity if your fitness level is high. This is because you become more efficient over time. It's known that as you get older you burn less calories doing the exact same activity as someone younger.
If you have more fat as opposed to muscle mass, you'll burn more calories even if you weigh the same. The same goes for someone with a larger frame. The way someone runs may be less efficient and so the MET would be higher as the workout would be harder for them. So when considering the calorie number you get after your exercise. Don't assume you can eat a certain amount of calories as the number is usually an overestimation.
For a treadmill specifically, if you hold onto the handrails you're making the exercise easier, so the MET and calories burned numbers would be lower. If you think you'll get an accurate reading from the wrist worn watches and fitness trackers, you won't. The calorie numbers on these are, on average, off by 27%. The worst was off by 93%, according to this study.
How you can use the calorie burn numbers on the console
Where the treadmill doesn't have your weight then the calorie counter isn't accurate but that doesn't mean the number they give is useless. It still gives you a measurement of how hard your workout is. If you do a slow run for 60 minutes and it says 600 calories burned. The next day you do 30 minutes of fast interval training and it says 600 calories burned then you know it took the same effort to do both workouts.
I would say don't obsess about how many calories you've burned. It is interesting and you may be trying to lose weight so it can be motivational when it's a good high number. The number that is most interesting and accurate are the scales when you weigh yourself. This is the important number which will go down if you exercise regularly.
Try to weigh yourself weekly in the morning as soon as you awake at the same time and you'll tell how much weight you could be losing. A calorie counter will only tell you so much and the scales will tell you if you're succeeding in losing weight. I've written a page on how to lose weight on a treadmill and there are many workouts which can help.
The key to burning a lot of calories is to build up your workouts in time and doing it often. The World Health Organization recommends we do 150 minutes of exercise per week. If you can do this you'll lose weight and feel good. I did this and lost 30 pounds all by using my treadmill. I didn't look at the calorie counter, I went by minutes.
So if the treadmill has your weight, then the calorie counter is as accurate as you'll get. As I've discussed there is no method that will give you a truly accurate number for you individually. But use it as a guide for how hard your workout has been. A treadmill is one of the best calorie burning fitness equipment there is. Just make sure to keep the MET number high to get the best results.
Thinking of buying a treadmill? Here's my favorite, I always recommend it when asked*