How To Find Out How Many Calories You Should Burn Each Day

The word “calorie” may conjure up thoughts of nutrition labels and treadmill readings, but calories are simply units of energy. Your car runs on gas, your house runs on electricity, and your body runs on food energy. So how many calories do we burn every day, and some must are you burning? Come and dig.

You actually burn most of your calories at rest

Calories are not only burned during exercise. It takes energy to keep the lights on, so to speak—for your heart to beat, your brain to think, your cells to repair themselves, and more.

In fact, mostly our calories are burned doing these maintenance tasks. Scientists call this baseline calorie burn our “basal metabolic rate,” or BMR. There are several equations that will estimate your BMR; for a calculator, try one of the (It uses the Mifflin-St. Jeor formula if you don’t know your body fat percentage, and the Katch-McArdle formula if you do.)

To give you an example, I plug in my stats—I’m 150 pounds and 5’6”—and the equation predicts my burning size:

  • 1,352 calories for most of my basic bodily functions (not including digestion!)

  • 1,623 calories, total, if I’m sedentary

  • 2,096 calories, total, if I do moderate exercise three to five times a week

  • 2,569 calories, total, if I’m a hardcore athlete or someone who exercises in addition to physical labor

Note that these are only estimates; your actually The calorie burn can be more or less. Factors that affect your total calorie burn include:

  • Body size: The bigger you are, the more calories you burn at baseline and you burn more during exercise.

  • Muscle mass: Muscle burns more calories than other tissues (which is why you get a more accurate estimate if you know your body fat percentage; the lower your body fat, the more muscle you have in comparison)

  • Age: These formulas assume that your metabolism slows down a bit as you get older (although there is evidence that it may not make much of a difference)

  • Activity: The more you exercise, the more calories you burn

  • Genetics and other factors are not considered in the formula: There are actually a big variation from person to person, even when you compare people of the same size, age, etc.

To give you a sense of scope, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans figures that a 5’10” man weighing 154 pounds will burn, in total, between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day, depending on his age and activity level. Their model woman is 5’4” and 126 pounds, and she’s on fire between 1,600 and 2,400 calories.

So if you’re used to thinking of 2,000 calories as some sort of upper limit for how much to eat—or 1,200 calories as a calorie budget for dieting—you might be surprised to realize just how many calories there are likely to be already burn

How (and why) to burn more calories

If you’re trying to lose weight, logic says you should focus more on diet than exercise. After all, if most of your calorie burn is your BMR, exercise will be a drop in the bucket in comparison.

I don’t think that’s the only thing you should consider, though. If your BMR is 1,300 calories and your total burn is 1,600, then sure, you can eat 1,300 calories without exercising and probably lose weight. But it’s hard to be healthy when you’re eating so little.

Burning more calories through exercise helps your body in two ways:

  1. Exercise is good for us, regardless of calorie burn; we should all be getting at least 150 minutes of cardio per week, along with some strength training to help build or maintain muscle.

  2. The more food you eat, the easier it is to fit in the good stuff: vitamins, minerals, fiber, good fats, and a variety of vegetables.

Someone who burns 2,300 calories and eats 2,000 is in a better position to benefit from exercise and good nutrition than someone who burns 1,600 and eats 1,300.

So how do you burn more calories? You can’t get younger, and if you lose weight you don’t want to get bigger. The biggest lever you can pull is:

  • You will still sweat

  • Gain muscle mass (through strength training, and eating lots of protein)

  • Don’t diet all the time

I have written before how I noticed that my total calorie burn increased when I ate more food; when you feed your body, it is more willing to expend energy. This is one of the reasons why it is thought to be beneficial to take “diet breaks” if you plan to be in a weight loss phase for a long time.

Why you shouldn’t rely on “calorie burn” numbers from wearables or exercise machines

You’re probably wondering how much exercise is “enough” to burn more calories. This is a trick question, though: You want to change what kind of person you are—stop being sedentary and become a frequent exerciser—instead of nickel-and-dime yourself about what numbers you burned in which exercise.

This is because the our bodies become more efficient at exercise over time. A half-hour jog can burn 300 calories in theory, but at the end of the day you may have burned only, say, 200 more than if you hadn’t jogged. You may feel more tired the next day, or you may be better at running and burn fewer calories when you do. (This is an ongoing area of ​​scientific research.)

There is already evidence Exercise machine estimates of calorie burn are highly imprecise; wearables like Fitbits and Apple Watches are probably a bit better, personalized to your exercise intensity, but ultimately they still rely on estimates that aren’t always accurate.

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