It's a tale as old as time: In order to lose weight, you need to move more and eat less. But understanding just how much more to move can be confusing. The amount of calories you need to burn each day to lose weight depends on many factors, including your weight-loss goal, how much you're eating and how you're burning those calories.
While weight loss may be your primary goal, physical activity brings numerous health benefits, like better joint mobility, protection against chronic disease, enhanced mood and improved stamina. So, be excited with any weight loss you achieve through exercise and know you're doing your body a world of good when you move more.
To lose 1 to 2 pounds per week, you'll need to burn 500 to 1,000 calories per day more than you consume — or 3,500 to 7,000 calories per week.
Calculate a Caloric Deficit for Weight Loss
To lose weight, you'll need to do some simple math and create a calorie deficit, which means you burn more calories than you consume.
One pound of fat is about 3,500 calories, according to the Mayo Clinic. So, if you want to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week (a generally healthy and sustainable goal), you need to burn between 500 and 1,000 calories more than you consume each day — or between 3,500 and 7,000 calories per week.
You may be excited to get a jump on your weight-loss journey but losing weight gradually can help you keep it off in the long run, according to the Mayo Clinic. Creating a drastic calorie deficit (more than 500 to 1,000 calories per day) isn't advised by most health professionals. Typically, this rate is unsustainable and can lead to nutrient deficiencies, muscle loss and a stalled metabolism.
To determine your calorie deficit, you first need to figure out how much you're consuming and how many calories per day you burn without exercise, also known as your caloric maintenance.
You can use a food diary or tracking app to track how much you're eating as well as determine your ideal daily caloric intake, given your current age, size, sex, activity level and weight-loss goal.
Then, once you find your caloric maintenance level, you can start to create a calorie deficit each day. But make sure that you incorporate exercise without increasing your calorie intake. If you eat more calories in response to exercise, you probably won't lose weight.
For example, a 155-pound person who burns 2,000 calories per day and eats 2,000 calories will maintain the same weight. But, if this persons burns an extra 500 calories per day but continues to consume 2,000 calories, it will lead to losing about a pound per week.
Calculating Your Burned Calories
How many calories you burn in a workout depends on your size, as well as the duration and intensity of the workout. For example, a 155-pound person who goes for a 4 mph walk or does 30 minutes of moderate-intensity calisthenics — such as jumping jacks and push-ups — will burn 167 calories, but a 185-pound person will burn 200 calories with these same activities, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
During more vigorous activity, you burn more calories in less time. A 155-pound person burns 409 calories in 30 minutes of running at 9 mph, while a 185-pound person burns 488 calories, per Harvard Health Publishing.
But these are all calorie approximations. Even gym machines — such as elliptical trainers and treadmills — estimate how many calories you burn, using a formula that probably isn't totally accurate, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Wearable fitness trackers probably won't give you a very accurate measurement either. While wearables are a pretty good way to measure your heart rate, their ability to track calories is typically inaccurate, according to Stanford University Medicine.
Exercising for time, however, is one way you can offset the inaccuracy of most calorie trackers. If you tend to walk for 20 minutes each day, for instance, increasing to 30 minutes will increase your total calorie burn.
Increasing the amount of time you exercise or the intensity of your workout are surefire ways to up your overall calorie burn.
Is Cardio or Strength Training Better for Weight Loss?
Exercise helps burn calories and also maintains lean muscle mass while you're losing weight. If you reduce calories without exercise, one-quarter of every pound you lose will come from lean muscle mass.
Why does this matter? Your muscle mass affects your metabolic rate (the rate at which your body burns calories). Increasing your muscle mass can boost your metabolism, which means your body will burn more calories even just performing day-to-day activities, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
You may burn just about 100 calories per half-hour session of strength training but reap numerous additional benefits. Ten weeks of resistance training can increase your lean muscle mass by 3 pounds, decrease your body fat by 4 pounds and increase your metabolic rate by 7 percent, per research published in a July 2012 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports.
On the other hand, regular cardio exercise can help improve your heart health and boost your daily calorie expenditure. The solution? A balanced workout program incorporating both cardio and strength training is probably your best bet.
How Many Calories Should You Eat to Lose Weight?
Exercise helps you lose weight, but it's more effective when combined with dietary measures. Researchers who followed the weight-loss progress of more than 400 post-menopausal women for a year found that a combination of exercise and diet worked best for weight loss, according to an August 2012 study published in Obesity.
The study reported that exercise-only participants lost 2.4 percent of their body weight, while diet-only participants lost 8.5 percent. Those who dieted and exercised lost 10.8 percent, making the combination strategy most effective
You don't necessarily have to burn 500 to 1,000 extra calories per day to lose the weight when you also trim calories. A combination of less food and more movement also helps create a deficit. For example, eat 250 calories fewer than the number of calories you need to maintain your weight and work out to burn off 250 calories per day, and you'll lose a pound per week.
- Mayo Clinic: "Why do Doctors Recommend a Slow Rate of Weight Loss? What's Wrong With Fast Weight Loss?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- ACE: "Are the Calorie Counts on Exercise Machines Accurate?"
- Stanford University Medicine: "Fitness Trackers Accurately Measure Heart Rate but not Calories Burned"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Truth About Metabolism"
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: "Resistance Training is Medicine: Effects of Strength Training on Health"
- Obesity: "Effect of Diet and Exercise, Alone or Combined, on Weight and Body Composition in Overweight-to-Obese Post-Menopausal Women"