The five gyms I've used as an adult have had one thing in common: All of the elliptical machines—or the "good ones," at least—are always in use during peak hours. Every other machine—stairs, rowing, treadmill, etc.—usually have at least a vacancy or two, but not the fancy ellipticals.

Some people—suckers, for instance—might attribute this to the good ellipticals being the best machines on which to take a casual stroll while reading your phone or watching something on TV. And yes, that is true. But there's another, more sinister theory out there, invented I think by me, Taylor (Berman): The companies behind the fancy ellipticals have rigged their machines' computers to artificially inflate the calorie count in order to give the gym-goer a higher sense of achievement. This, in turn, makes the machines more popular. That, in turn, makes the manufacturers more money.

Who, exactly, believes this, aside from me? Gawker and Deadspin fitness columnist Hamilton Nolan said, "Yes[, it's possible]. Good investigation." Thanks. And there are probably hundreds or thousands of other people at the gym right now, thinking the same thing.

The fact is: Calorie counters on workout machines are inherently inaccurate. Without entering your exact height, weight, and age, while also monitoring your heart rate and accounting for your general fitness, metabolism, and health history, plus the machine's wear and tear over thousands of hours of use, you'll never receive an accurate count of how many you're burning.

Elliptical machines are the worst offenders, according to science. In a 2010 calorie-counting experiment commissioned by noted research facility Good Morning America (carried out in the University of California at San Francisco's Human Performance Center) the elliptical machine tested overestimated the number of calories burned by 42 percent. The treadmill, by comparison, only overestimated by 13 percent, the stair climber by 12 percent, and the stationary bike by just seven percent.

Fancy elliptical machine maker Precor defend its machines' inaccurate calorie counters on its website:

Precor equipment calculate caloric consumption from a proprietary algorithm based on an average profile developed in conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine. A number of variables determine the formula, including weight, speed, incline setting and torque. Since people burn calories at different rates, it is impossible to create absolutely accurate calorie burn rates without using sophisticated and sensitive monitoring equipment. Therefore, the calorie burn rate shown on the console fits an average profile. The actual accuracy of the results depends on how close you are to the average profile. These results should be used as a benchmark and not as an absolute measurement.

And yet: Have you ever used an elliptical and not been surprised by how many calories you were burning so quickly, and with such relative ease?


According to a 2011 study by the esteemed International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association, 31.5 percent of gym users say they use the elliptical machine. And—if a blog post stating that, between 2005 and 2006, elliptical machines experienced "an impressive 29% sales growth!"—is to be believed, those numbers will just keep rising.

Elliptical machine manufacturers have clearly rigged the gym game in their favor, even more so than the equally-corrupt makers of other exercise equipment. These machinations are, of course, unnecessary because elliptical machines are already super easy and the natural choice of the sort of people inclined to be swayed by calorie counts in the first place.

What can we do to stop Big Elliptical? Probably nothing. But you could try the rowing machines instead, I like those.

This is Illuminati Month on Black Bag, in which Gawker locks itself in the woodshed and breaks out the red yarn to explore its favorite conspiracy theories. Photo by Shutterstock. Contact the author at