If you’re monitoring your weight, you’re probably interested to know how many calories you burn in a day.
It makes sense, considering that calorie counting is one of the most popular ways to lose or maintain weight, among many of the other diets that work (opens in new tab). But, it’s important to note that the answer to this question will be different for everyone. How many calories you burn on any given day is all dependent on what you get up to.
So whether you’re looking to know how many calories you burn in a day through particular exercises or just through eating, drinking and breathing, this is what the experts want you to know.
What is a calorie?
Calories are the unit of measurement for the amount of energy in food and drink.
Everyone needs to eat a certain amount of calories to keep functioning. According to the NHS (opens in new tab), this is around 2500 calories a day for a man and 2000 a day for a woman. However, this number actually depends on a whole range of factors, including whether you’re looking to gain pounds or wondering how to lose weight (opens in new tab).
Dr Greg Potter, nutritionist and chief science officer at Resilient Nutrition (opens in new tab), says that when it comes to weight loss, maintenance or gaining weight, what many people are really interested in is the energy balance over time. “So, the difference between the calories they ingest and the calories they expend,” he explains.
“If someone wants to lose weight, they want the long-term trajectory to be such that they are expending more calories than they consume.”
How many calories do I burn a day?
Most people will burn over 1800 calories every day, without doing any exercise at all.
As Dr Potter explains, this is because we burn most of our calories just through daily bodily functions. “Our bodies have all sorts of different housekeeping functions they have to maintain even at rest. Your heart is always beating, your brain requires lots of energy. That resting energy expenditure actually makes up the majority of calories people burn each day," he says.
Naturally, if you do any exercise or have an active job then you're likely to burn more calories.
On average, someone with a job where they walk around for most of the day will do over 14,000 more steps than someone with a sedentary job.
This finding comes from a study by the American Council on Exercise and the Exercise and Health Program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (opens in new tab). They looked at 10 different occupations and how many steps each person did every day. A mail carrier, for instance, does around 18, 904 steps per day according to the study. This works out to about 882 more calories burned per day than a secretary, who will supposedly burn 196 calories throughout the day.
However, it's a little bit more complicated than this. How many calories you'll burn per day, either just through your bodily functions or with the addition of exercise, also depends on three main factors according to the Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab):
- Weight/Height: The heavier you weigh, whether fat-mass or muscle mass, the more calories you'll burn. Taller people tend to also weigh more because they are supporting more mass.
- Sex: Men tend to have more muscle and less fat-mass than women, meaning they burn more calories
- Age: The amount of muscle you have tends to decrease as your get older, slowing down the amount of calories you burn.
How many calories do I burn without exercise?
The average person burns around 1800 calories a day doing absolutely nothing. According to the Healthy Eating Guide (opens in new tab), sitting burns an estimated 75 calories per hour.
A sedentary woman aged 19 to 30 burns 1,800 to 2,000 calories daily, while a sedentary woman aged 31 to 51 burns about 1,800 calories per day.
However, it’s not always as simple as that. Dr Potter explains, “The number of calories you burn each day depends on your body composition first and foremost. What that means is, the more fat-free mass you have (the body weight you have that’s not made up of fat, e.g. muscle) is the main determinant of how many calories you’ll burn.
As a study from the University of Cambridge (opens in new tab) shows, muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue as it’s metabolically more active. This means it works more to grow, produce energy and eliminate waste material. So the more muscle you have, the larger amount of energy your body uses up (even during rest), which means your body burns calories while effectively doing nothing.
While we all want to believe that you can lose weight without diet or exercise, this is largely untrue. So, when you’re thinking about what exercise you may want to include in your regime, Dr Potter says that if you want to burn calories in the long-term then it helps to build muscle - or at least hang onto the muscle you already have.
How many calories do I burn during exercise?
How many calories you burn during exercise depends on: weight/height, sex and age.
However, if you’re looking to take up an exercise that burns the most calories per minute, there are some that are more intensive than others. This is how much a 68kg, 5ft 6 woman in her 30s may burn per minute when working at an average pace:
- Running: 11 calories
- Spinning: 11 calories
- Skipping: 10 calories
- HIIT/Interval Training: 10 calories
- Swimming: 10 calories
- Jogging: 8 calories
- Cycling: 7 calories
- Boxing: 6 calories
- Tennis: 5 calories
- Rowing: 5 calories
- Pilates: 4 calories
- Walking: 2 calories
- Yoga: 2 calories
However, this may be more or less depending on how intense the workout is and the variety of factors listed above.
Naturally, the most successful exercise will be the one you enjoy most. While running tends to burn more calories than cycling, if the idea of going out for a run fills you with a deep dread, you’re less likely to go.
However, if you’re relatively new to exercise and still finding your groove in what you do and don’t like, Dr Potter says there’s one type of exercise that’s perfect for those looking to lose weight.
He says, “If I was going to pick one exercise for somebody whose goal is weight-loss, knowing that people are a bit crunched for time, I would definitely push them towards doing strength training.”
Not only is strength training (otherwise known as resistance training) proven to burn more calories in the longer term, whether that be weightlifting or callisthenics, it’s also better for maintaining an all round body composition.
“If those who are losing weight don’t do resistance training,” Dr Greg Potter says, “They’ll end up losing a big proportion of their mass as fat mass but also a relatively substantial portion of their mass as fat-free mass. They’ll lose muscle mass and bone mass and so on as well.”
A few years down the line, the depletion of muscle mass could lead to less mobility and greater weakness, meaning you’re more prone to falling over and fractures. While the loss of bone mass can trigger conditions such as osteoporosis, otherwise known as “weak bones”. It’s a disease that causes bones to become brittle and makes them more likely to fracture too.
“However, if they do resistance training, they’ll hold onto a lot more of their fat-free mass.”
Resistance training is also a good exercise to go for, as you really never know how many calories you’re actually burning through exercise - even when you use a fitness tracker.
“What’s important to recognise is that when somebody steps on a treadmill and they see some estimate of calories burnt while running, they often forget two things,” Dr Potter tells GoodtoKnow. “One, that it is just an estimate and it’s probably not particularly accurate. It’s actually quite difficult to measure energy expenditure (i.e. calories burnt) in the real world.
“And two, people often forget that they would have been burning calories at rest anyway during a bout of exercise. I think many people go wrong because they’ll go to the gym, get on a treadmill and stay on it for an hour.
“It’ll say something like ‘500 calories burnt’ and they’ll think, ‘great, I’ve just earned an additional 500 calories on top of what I would have burnt’. But the reality is, they would have burnt some of those calories at rest anyway.”
This is why it’s important to look at your diet first if you’re looking to gain or lose weight.
How many calories should I eat to lose weight?
Typically, to lose weight you have to eat 500 calories fewer than your maintenance level.
If you have a calorie deficit of 500 per day, according to a leading study (opens in new tab) on the subject, you’ll lose one pound per week as 3,500 calories roughly works out to one pound of body fat. In a month, you may lose almost 2kg in weight.
Find out your maintenance level with a simple calorie calculator (opens in new tab).
Calorie counting is one of the most popular ways to manage a diet without sticking to a specific one, like the Sirtfood Diet (opens in new tab) for example. It involves setting yourself a limit, depending on whether you want to lose, maintain or gain weight, and literally counting the number of calories you consume per day to ensure it meets this.
8 calorie counting weight loss tips:
1. Weigh and measure all of your food and drink
That’s right. To even attempt calorie counting successfully, you have to measure and weigh out everything that you put into your body. So whether that’s your morning coffee or the ketchup on your chips, it all needs to be recorded.
But there are apps that can help with this. These are some of the best ones:
- My Fitness Pal
- Lose it!
While there’s no guarantee that the nutritional information in the app will be entirely correct, unfortunately, you do have the option to scan labels and input the nutritional information yourself.
If you have a Fitbit, you can also record your calories within the Fitbit app. This will then weigh up the number of calories you’ve eaten throughout the day with the number you’ve burnt, whether through exercise or daily movement.
2. Limit calorie tracking to just a week or two
While those whose entire living is based on their weight may be able to make calorie counting sustainable, it’s not achievable for the everyday person. But calorie counting just for a week or two is a good way to discover what's actually in the food you're eating.
"Some people, when they're starting out, they really don't know what's in food. They don't really know what carbohydrates are. They don't know which foods are rich in protein, and so on. And so assuming somebody has a relatively healthy relationship with food, but they don't really know what's in food, I think calorie counting can be helpful. And I think the actual process of tracking [eating] behaviour is often helpful too," Dr Potter says.
3. Focus on the food you're eating - not just the calories
When it comes to counting calories, it’s also important to look at the nutritional information of the food you’re eating.
“Ensure you’re focusing on the nutrient density rather than solely the calories,” Nutritionist Jenna Hope (opens in new tab) tells GoodtoKnow.
“For example, oatcakes contain more calories than rice cakes but they’re also higher in fibre and B-vitamins. Fibre contributes to satiety and so they’ll leave you feeling fuller for longer.”
Having a source of complete protein is also important, Dr Potter says. "A fist-sized source of complete protein at each meal is a pretty good place to start. These are basically all animal sources of protein - and there are some plant ones too. It's important for fat-free mass but it's also the most satiating of all the macronutrients. One gram of protein is more satisfying that one gram of carbohydrate or fat on average. And so, protein is very good at keeping hunger at bay relative to the other macronutrients."
He also adds, "You burn more calories digesting protein than you do burning carbohydrates or fats on average."
4. Don't cut your calories too low
According to NHS guidance (opens in new tab), if you need to lose weight you should aim for a loss of maximum 2 pounds per week until you reach a healthy weight for your height.
"You should be able to lose this amount if you eat and drink about 500 to 600kcal fewer a day than you need," they say.
Cutting your calorie intake by more than this can have a serious impact on your health. They're not easy diets to follow through with and they can have dangerous side-effects.
Side effects of a low-calorie diet can include:
- Feeling hungry
- Feeling low on energy
- A dry mouth
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Hair thinning
"While very low calorie diets can lead to short term weight loss, it is likely that the weight will come back on after the diet ends," the guidance adds.
Low energy levels, linked to not eating enough, are famously a reason why many of us feel tired all the time (opens in new tab). Our body needs calories to function day-to-day so when you limit these, you're likely to feel fatigued.
5. Focus on long-term lifestyle changes rather than a quick fix
Ultimately, calorie counting is not sustainable in the long-term and weight loss is affected by many other factors as well as what you put into your body.
“Weight can also be heavily affected by sleep and stress too. Therefore, try to ensure you’re getting ample sleep and that you’re managing stress where possible too,” Jenna says.
6. Try high-volume eating
The worst part of counting calories will be feeling hungry. This is almost inevitable if you’re reducing the amount of food you’d normally eat in a day.
High-volume eating can work to counteract this. It’s a strategy of eating where you can consume a large amount of food while not exceeding your calorie goals as you’re eating a lot of food that’s low in density, i.e. low in calories.
It’s based on the idea that a food’s physical weight and the number of calories it has is not directly linked. For example, 160g of (cooked) red lentils works out to be about 154 calories. While 170g of (cooked) white pasta works out to be almost double this at 282 calories.
This is because white pasta is significantly richer in carbohydrates, which have a higher calorific value, than red lentils. So by eating for volume, you can eat more food while consuming less calories.
7. Make sensible food swaps
Swapping out calorie-dense foods for lighter ones means you have more calories to work with.
But this doesn't even need to be as extreme as swapping your favourite spaghetti bolognese for lentils. It can be something as simple as swapping from whole milk to sugar-free oat milk. The difference between the two may only be 20 calories per 100ml. But if you drink multiple cups of milky tea or coffee every day, it can really add up.
8. Try zig-zag calorie counting
Not only is eating exactly the same number of calories every day likely to get boring very quickly as you’ll undoubtedly find yourself sticking to similar foods, there’s also evidence to suggest that it will stop working after a while. As one study from 2015 (opens in new tab) found, a three-week low calorie diet decreased participant's metabolisms by more than 100 calories.
Zigzag calorie counting aims to combat this as you alternate the number of calories you eat on any given day. The same study found that when they switched participants onto a higher-calorie diet in the fourth week of the program, their metabolism increased to above the starting level.
For it to work, you should have a combination of high-calorie days and low-calorie days. All these add up to your weekly calorie target.
So for example, if your weekly calorie target is 14,000 calories per week (2,000 per day) then you may eat 2,300 calories for three days a week and 1,775 for the other four days of the week.
This method of calorie counting prevents the body from adapting to the lower number of calories and putting you into a weight loss plateau (opens in new tab), research shows. Aseven-week study (opens in new tab) of participants who had taken part in calorie-restricted diet found that a heavy carbohydrate "refeed" for two consecutive days was more effective at preventing the loss of fat-free mass than a continuous cycle of energy restriction. They also discovered that the participants' resting metabolic rate was slightly better maintained.
And a second study from the Obesity Society (opens in new tab) also confirmed that intermittent low-calorie diets were more effective for weight loss than a continuous restriction.
Calorie counting: Is it for you?
It’s not the healthiest way to lose weight
Nutritionist Jenna says, “Calorie counting is generally not the healthiest approach to losing weight. It oversimplifies nutrition and dietary choices. Making healthy decisions should be based on a wide range of factors including proteins, fibre and micronutrients.”
The nutrition label on the back of food packets isn’t always correct
Also if you do decide to calorie count, be aware that what you nutritional information won’t always be true.
“The calories listed on food labels are often inaccurate,” Jenna says.
Or there won't be a nutrition label at all
So if the labels aren't always correct (or they don't exist), you'll have to make an educated guess. You'll have to base your plan around the nutritional values you do know - if you know any of them.
Whether calorie counting will work for you also depends almost entirely on your lifestyle. If you’re someone who enjoys going out to eat or drink, at a friend's house or in a restaurant, you're naturally going to find it harder to count calories. You won't always know the calorific value of the food you're eating.
While the government did announce intentions to list the nutritional information some restaurant menus (opens in new tab), this hasn’t happened yet. The requirement to do so would also only apply to chains with more than 250 employees. This means ruling out any smaller or independent eateries.
You may experience a negative impact on your mental health
Naturally, a restrictive diet of this kind can have unwanted effects after you decide to stop.
“Tracking calories can become all consuming and can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing,” Jenna says.
And it’s particularly not recommended for those who have experienced disordered eating in the past. Time and time again, calorie counting has been associated with the development of an unhealthy relationship with food.
For example, one 2018 study (opens in new tab) found that out of 105 people diagnosed with an eating disorder, 75% said that they used an app to count their calories. While 73% reported that they felt using an app like this contributed to their eating disorder.
While another, also conducted in 2018 and published in the journal of Eating and Weight Disorders, found that frequent self-weighing and calorie counting were two factors directly linked to a higher severity of eating disorder.
The research concluded, instead, that intuitive eating (only eating when you’re hungry) was better for healthier outcomes.
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and can manifest in many ways. If you need help, eating disorder charity Beat has support available. Learn more via their website (opens in new tab) or contact them via their helplines (opens in new tab).
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