There constantly seem to be new commercials or infomercials selling aerobic exercise equipment to help you burn calories and lose fat. Many of these advertisements make a point of mentioning how their product gets you to burn calories at a faster rate than if you perform other types of exercise or use a different piece of equipment. With so many companies making statements about their equipment being the best for burning calories, it raises the questions, are these statements accurate and which form of aerobic exercise really is best for fat loss?
If you ask a fitness professional what type of aerobic exercise burns the most calories, you will likely get a response like, “The best form of exercise or the best machine is the one you are most willing to use, because you don’t get any benefits if you don’t do the workouts.” In some ways this seems like a lazy answer, but it is actually quite accurate, even though it is not very informative.
The truth is that anytime someone tells you one specific type of aerobic exercise burns more calories than everything else, they are either trying to sell you a specific product or they have a poor understanding of exercise physiology. Some types of aerobic exercise have benefits over other forms of exercise for different reasons, such as the amount of stress put on your joints, but the actual calorie burning and fat loss effects have less to do with the form of exercise and more to do with how the exercise is performed.
There is quality scientific evidence to support the belief that other factors, such as intensity, are more important than the piece of equipment you use or the type of exercise you perform. Researchers have compared various types of exercise to see which ones burn the most calories and when all other factors are kept the same, there is usually no statistical difference between different forms of exercise. However, there can be differences in the specific physical adaptations you get from different forms of exercise, just not in the total number of calories burned.
For example, in a study published in the June 2010 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the authors compared the number of calories burned during treadmill and elliptical exercise and they let the subjects select their own exercise difficulty. They found that when the perceived level of exertion was the same, the calorie burning and oxygen consumption were also the same. The only difference between the two types of exercise was that exercising on an elliptical machine resulted in higher heart rates than when exercising on a treadmill, even when calorie burning and perceived difficulty were the same.
This is just one of many examples, but it is the one I read most recently, so I decided to include it in this article. The important thing to note is that when exercise difficulty increases, calorie burning also increases, regardless of what form of exercise is being performed. Therefore, you can see that it is really true that the best type of aerobic exercise is the one you enjoy or are willing to do most consistently. Of course, there is no reason to stick with only one form of exercise and it is a good idea to mix things up to help prevent problems related to constantly repeating the same motion.
As for the issue of how companies make claims that their specific product results in more calorie burning than other forms of exercise, well that is really in issue involving misleading exercise comparisons. For instance, sometimes comparisons are made between a piece of equipment that only involves lower body muscles (treadmill) and a piece of equipment that makes you use your legs and arms.
In these situations, if people using both machines are working their legs at the same level of difficulty, which is typically the case, then obviously the people performing additional work with their arms will burn more calories. The information that is usually left out is that the people working their arms and legs will also be performing a more difficult workout and the exercise will feel more challenging for those people as well. If the people working just their legs increased their work rate to match the overall difficulty of the other exercisers, then the calorie burning would almost certainly be the same.
In the most basic terms, your body burns calories to accomplish work, so if you are performing more challenging exercise, then you are doing more work and you will burn more calories. At least at this point, there is no magical machine that allows you to burn more calories by doing less total work. If you want to burn calories through exercise, then you have to make your body perform enough work to burn the calories. However, you can use any form of exercise for this task, so try some different types of exercise to find out what works best for you.
 Brown, GA, Cook, CM, Krueger, RD, and Heelan, KA. Comparison of energy expenditure on a treadmill vs. an elliptical device at a self-selected exercise intensity. J Strength Cond Res 24(6): 1643-1649, 2010.