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Physical fitness does not need to be an exact science. But you could be working out smarter—not necessarily harder—to maximize benefits. So what is the minimal amount of calories you need to burn during a workout for it to be effective?
Just as nutritional needs depend on the person, the amount of calorie burn also varies for different people. How many calories you should expend will depend on the goal of your calorie reduction, such as weight management, which is impacted by calorie intake and physical activity.
How Many Calories Should I Burn in a Workout?
Speaking to Newsweek, Rena Oliver, a NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) certified personal trainer at Crunch Fitness, explained there are several factors that influence how many calories you should burn during a workout, with the biggest one being your fitness goals.
“Someone who wants to lose weight is working out very differently than someone else trying to gain muscle. If an individual is trying to lose weight, they should be burning more calories than they consume, in comparison to someone gaining muscle who needs to be in a caloric surplus,” Oliver said.
Speaking to Newsweek, Cemal Ozemek, a clinical exercise physiologist certified by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), also said the calories one should burn depends on the intended outcome of their exercise regimen and how much time they can commit to structured workouts during the week.
“Ultimately, all individuals should strive to meet the federally recommended physical activity guidelines for substantial health benefits by burning at least 1000 calories per week through any form of physical activity.”
The number of calories you burn in a workout will also differ according to your weight, sex and age, explained certified trainer Brooke Taylor, CNET reported in December 2021.
For example, a man who weighs 200 pounds will burn more calories doing the same exercise routine as a woman who weighs 130 pounds.
Every person’s body is different, which is why it is crucial to consult with certified professionals “to personalize a program for you, monitor your program, make suggestions as you go and make alterations if needed,” Taylor said.
As a general rule, a good place to start is aiming to burn around 400 to 500 calories per day, five days a week during your workouts, she said.
Calorie Burn for Weight Management
According to Oliver, if your goal is to lose weight, the average person can “healthily shed” one to two pounds of fat per week. This means you will need to burn at least between 500 to 1,000 calories more than you are consuming each day.
Over the course of a week, this would add up to something between 3,500 and 7,000 calories, the NASM certified Crunch Fitness personal trainer said.
Ozemek said individuals should strive to burn at least 2,000 calories per week if the ultimate goal is to promote and sustain weight loss. If you exercise five to six days per week, you would burn around 330 to 400 calories per session, according to the ACSM certified clinical exercise physiologist.
If you’re unable to do five to six exercise sessions per week, you would have to increase the number of calories burned per session to reach 2,000 calories per week. “Therefore, it is highly encouraged that those who have a goal of steadily losing weight also restrict their caloric intake,” Ozemek advised.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says: “Most weight loss occurs because of decreased caloric intake. However, evidence shows the only way to maintain weight loss is to be engaged in regular physical activity.”
To maintain your weight, the CDC recommends doing up to 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity” aerobic activity, 75 minutes of “vigorous-intensity” aerobic activity or an equivalent mix of the two types of activities each week.
There is “strong scientific evidence” showing physical activity can help you maintain your weight over time. But the exact amount of physical activity needed (and therefore how many calories you need to burn) to achieve this “is not clear since it varies greatly from person to person.”
If your goal is to lose weight and keep it off, a “high amount of physical activity” is required, “unless you also adjust your diet and reduce the amount of calories you’re eating and drinking.”
Calculating Calorie Burn
One of the key aspects of weight control is understanding your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), which is the total number of calories that your body expends in 24 hours, including all activities. This total can vary widely across populations and is much higher for athletes or extremely active individuals, explains the Kansas State University.
To figure out your TDEE, you’ll need to know your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories your body needs for normal bodily functions (excluding activity factors). BMR is based on multiple factors, including height, weight, age, and sex.
BMR can be calculated using the Harris-Benedict formula,” which is based on total body weight, height, age, and sex, as outlined below.
- BMR for men = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kilogram) + (5 x height in centimeters) – (6.8 x age in years)
- BMR for women = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kilogram) + (1.8 x height in centimeters) – (4.7 x age in years)
To calculate your TDEE, multiply your BMR number by one of the activity factors below, choosing the level of activity that applies to you.
- Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
- Lightly active = BMR x 1.375 (light exercise/sports one to three days per week)
- Moderately active = BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise/sports six to seven days per week)
- Very active = BMR x 1.725 (hard exercise every day or exercising twice per day)
- Extra active = BMR x 1.9 (hard exercise two or more times a day or training for marathon or triathlon, etc.)
So, for example, if your BMR is 1,339 calories per day and your activity factor is 1.55, this means your TDEE is 1.55 x 1,339 = 2,075, the total number of calories burned per day.
“This is the total calories you could eat everyday if you wanted to maintain your weight. If you want to lose weight, you would either have to consume fewer calories everyday, increase your activity level or do both,” Kansas State University said.