It's a tale as old as time: In order to lose weight, you need to move more and eat less. But understanding how much more to move can be confusing. That's because the amount of calories you need to burn a 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 serves up many health benefits, like better joint mobility, protection against chronic disease, enhanced mood and improved stamina. So, beyond burning calories, 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 more than you eat each day — or 3,500 to 7,000 calories per week.
How to Calculate Your Daily Calorie Burn
The total number of calories you burn in a day depends on things like your age, height and weight, muscle mass and how much you exercise, according to Kansas State University.
There are several formulas to calculate your exact total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE (more on that in a minute), but there's also a simpler method based only on body weight. While it's not as accurate, it can give you a starting point to work from without having to do a lot of math:
- Daily calories burned: 15-16 per pound of body weight
- Calories needed for weight loss: 12-13 per pound of body weight
- Calories needed for weight gain: 18-19 per pound of body weight
To get a more exact idea of your TDEE, you need to know four things, per Kansas State:
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
Sometimes referred to as basal metabolic rate (BMR), this is the total number of calories your body needs each day just for basic functions (think: breathing, blinking, etc). In general, your RMR is higher if you're younger and have more muscle, but your genetics plays a role, too.
RMR makes up the largest portion of your TDEE (about 60 percent), according to an April 2015 paper in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
- Men: 88.362 + (13.397 × weight in kg) + (4.799 × height in cm) - (5.677 × age in years)
- Women: 447.593 + (9.247 × weight in kg) + (3.098 × height in cm) - (4.330 × age in years)
Note that 1 kg is equal to 2.2 pounds, and 1 inch is 2.54 cm.
Mifflin-St Jeor Equation
- Men: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) + 5
- Women: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) - 161
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
TEF is the calories your body uses to digest, absorb and store the nutrients from the food you eat. Certain foods have been shown to have a higher thermic effect than others, meaning your body burns more calories to process them. These include foods high in protein and fiber, especially.
TEF accounts for up to 10 percent of your TDEE, per the paper in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
NEAT is the number of calories your body uses doing daily activities, like brushing your teeth, washing dishes and walking, according to the April 2015 paper in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. This number varies greatly from person to person, and even from day to day, depending on your activity level.
Calories Burned During Exercise
Just how many calories you burn during a workout depends on how long and how intensely you exercise. Together with NEAT, the calories you burn during exercise makes up somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of your TDEE, per the paper in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Calculate Your TDEE
Multiply your RMR by your activity level to get your estimated TDEE, per Kansas State:
- Sedentary: BMR x 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
- Lightly active: BMR x 1.375 (light exercise 1-3 days per week)
- Moderately active: BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise 6-7 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 per day, or training for a marathon, triathlon, etc.)
How to Calculate Your Calories for Weight Loss
To lose weight, you'll need to do some simple math and create a calorie deficit based on your TDEE, which means you burn more calories than you consume.
1. Find Your TDEE
First, calculate your total daily energy expenditure based on the formula above. This will give you your maintenance calories, or how many calories you need a day to maintain your current weight.
2. Subtract 500 to 1,000 Calories
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 can achieve this calorie deficit by eating fewer calories, burning more calories through NEAT and exercise or a combination of the two.
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3. Keep Track
4. Adjust When Necessary
As you lose weight, you'll need to recalculate both your TDEE and how many calories you need to burn a day in order to keep losing weight.
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.
How to Burn More Calories During a Workout
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 an exact 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 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"
- Kansas State University: "Physical Activity and Controlling Weight"
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: "Resting Metabolic Rate: How to Calculate and Improve Yours"
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: "Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis in Obesity Management"