Losing fat is dependent on creating a caloric deficit. Which means nailing at least one (and ideally both) of two scenarios: eating fewer calories than are needed to maintain your current weight and burning more calories than you consume.
That last part can be tricky. Figuring out the number of calories burned through exercise is no small task, as there are many factors that impact that total (e.g., weight, sex, age, genes, exercise intensity). What’s more, research suggests we may overestimate how many calories we burn in a single workout by as much as four times the actual amount! But rest assured, it can be done.
Here, we help cut through the confusion. Consider this your primer on calories burned during exercise.
What Are Calories?
We know calories are central to weight lost and gained, but few of us can explain what a calorie is.
A calorie — or Calorie, with a capital “C” — is really a kilocalorie, which means it’s composed of 1,000 calories. One Calorie can heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
In fact, roughly 60 to 75 percent of the calories you need per day get used up to keep your body functioning at rest. This is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR), and it varies from one person to another. Key factors that determine BMR include age, body mass, sex, genetics, and organ weight. There are a variety of online calculators that can give you an estimated BMR.
2 Biggest Factors in Calories Burned: Duration and Intensity
When it comes to caloric burn from exercise, exercise duration and intensity are the two key factors that determine your final tally.
“Of the two, intensity is the most important, because it influences how long your metabolism remains elevated once you stop working out,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content.
You might burn more calories during an hour-long, steady-state cardio session than during a quick high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session. But that HIIT workout will keep your metabolism elevated up to a couple of days instead of just a few hours as your body recovers.
This “afterburn” effect is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The longer and more intense your workout is, the longer and more intense your recovery will be — and the more fat you’ll ultimately burn. Why? Because fat is what your body uses to fuel your recovery.
Exactly the number of calories burned via EPOC can be tough to pin down, but according to a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, participants who spent just two minutes sprint-cycling burned enough calories in the 24 hours afterward to equal half an hour of steady-state cycling.
Does weight affect how many calories you burn?
As a general rule, the more you weigh, the more calories you’ll burn during exercise — or any other time. “That’s simply a function of the energy required to move your body,” says Thieme.
That said, your muscle-to-fat ratio will also determine how many calories you’ll burn on a daily basis: “A lean, muscular 180-pound man will burn more calories than an overweight 180-pound man during the same workout simply because the muscular guy has more ‘metabolically active’ tissue,” Thieme says.
Does height affect how many calories you burn?
Height can affect the number of calories burned through exercise, but only because height influences weight. “If you’re tall, you’re likely going to weigh more [than someone who’s shorter],” says Tim Church, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. However, if you weigh less than someone who’s shorter than you, your caloric burn may end up being lower.
How Do You Calculate Calories Burned?
To figure out how many calories you burn from exercise, look to a method commonly used by exercise scientists to estimate energy expenditure: metabolic equivalents.
What is a metabolic equivalent (MET)?
A metabolic equivalent, or MET, is a measure of the amount of oxygen you consume during physical activity, expressed in calories. METs are calculated by multiplying 3.5 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight by the number of minutes of activity. To use a real-life example, a 70-kg (154-lb.) person will burn roughly 1.5 calories per minute while sitting in a chair.
Calories Burned During Different Types of Exercise
Thankfully, you don’t need to be a scientist or mathematician to figure out the number of calories burned during your workout. The Compendium of Physical Activities provides MET values for a wide range of movements, while Cornell University offers an online calculator where you can input your weight, MET value for your activity (from the Compendium), and time to easily calculate the number of calories you can expect to burn.
We’ve used both resources to provide you estimates for the number of calories a 150-pound person can burn performing a variety of physical activities.
Walking (239 calories/hour)
Walk at a moderate pace (2.8 to 3.2 mph) on a level surface and you’ll rack up at least 3.5 METs. Pick up the pace to a brisk 3.5 mph, however, and you’ll nab 4.3 METs, which works out to 293 calories/hour.
Jumping rope (750 calories/hour)
Lifting weights (239 calories/hour)
Build muscle mass and strengthen your bones with some good old-fashioned resistance training and you’ll rack up 3.5 METs. And as you’ve already learned, adding muscle to your frame means you’ll burn more calories on a daily basis.
Exercising on the elliptical (341 calories/hour)
Hop on the joint-friendly elliptical and pedal away at a moderate effort to get 5.0 METs.
Doing yoga (273 calories/hour)
There are a variety of yoga styles, and each offers its own level of intensity. Power yoga, one of the more intense versions of this ancient form of meditation, will give you 4.0 METs. Hatha yoga, which is typically slower and gentler, offers only 2.5 METs (171 calories/hour).
Swimming (396 calories/hour)
Doing squats (341 calories/hour)
Riding a stationary bike (464 calories/hour)
Cycling at moderate-to-vigorous effort is not only easier on your joints than other forms of cardio exercise (namely, running), but it’ll net you 6.8 METs.
Doing jumping jacks (546 calories/hour)
Hiking (409 calories/hour)
Spending time out in nature will net you roughly 6.0 METs, which will only increase if you add weight (like a backpack) or climb hilly terrain.
Doing sit-ups (259 calories/hour)
Moderate-effort calisthenics like old-school sit-ups clock in at 3.8 METs.
Climbing stairs (273 calories/hour)
Doing burpees (546 calories/hour)
At 8.0 METs, burpees are a full-body, high-intensity calisthenic exercise. In fact, a 2014 study found that performing burpees offers cardiovascular benefits similar to doing sprint intervals on a bike.